This article has been written by Neelam Yadav. The article elaborates on the judgement of the State of Punjab vs. Major Singh (2006). This article gives a detailed understanding and an extensive analysis of this case. It deals with the facts, issues, judgement, and case laws relating to this case. It also includes all the laws relating to “outraging the modesty of a woman by use of criminal force” under the Indian Penal Code.

Introduction

The case of State of Punjab vs. Major Singh (1966) is an important judgement in Indian criminal law focusing on the interpretation of Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which deals with the crime of outraging a woman’s modesty. This case became notable as it involved a very young victim who was a seven-and-a-half-month-old infant, which raised complex legal questions about applying laws to such young children. This case was an appeal from the judgement of the Punjab High Court dated May 31, 1963, wherein the judges, by a 2:1 ratio, maintained the conviction of the accused made by the Trial Court for causing hurt under Section 323 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. 

Details of the case

  1. Name: State of Punjab vs. Major Singh
  2. Equivalent citation: 1967 AIR 63
  3. Name of the court: Supreme Court of India
  4. Bench: Justice A.K. Sarkar, Justice J.R. Mudholkar, and Justice R.S. Bachawat
  5. Name of the appellant: State of Punjab
  6. Name of the respondent: Major Singh
  7. Date of judgement: 28.04.1966
  8. Statutes involved: Indian Penal Code, 1860; Sexual Offences Act, 1956
  9. Provisions involved: Sections 354, 509, 350, 323, 7, and 10 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and Section 14 of the Sexual Offences Act, 1956.

Facts of the case 

This case revolves around an incident that happened at about 9:30 p.m., when the respondent, Major Singh, entered the room where the baby was sleeping. He switched off the light, striped himself naked below the waist, kneeled over her, and let out his unnatural lust. The respondent caused injuries to the private parts of a seven-and-a-half-month-old female child by inserting his finger into her vagina, which ruptured her hymen and tore 3/4 long inside her vagina. The respondent fled away as soon as the baby’s mother entered the room.

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Initial legal proceedings

The respondent was convicted by the trial court under Section 323 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter referred to as IPC) for the injury caused to the child and was sentenced to a period of one year of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 1,000/-, with a further period of imprisonment for three months in default of payment of the fine. The Sessions Court had the opinion that a seven and a half-month-old child is not capable of developing a sense of modesty, thus the offence committed is not outraging modesty under Section 354 of the IPC, and found the respondent guilty of an offence of grievous hurt under Section 323 of the IPC  for causing injuries to the vagina of a seven and a half-month-old child by inserting fingers. 

The state of Punjab appealed against the decision of the Sessions Court. However, two of the three High Court judges who heard the appeal believed that since the baby was too young to understand modesty, the act couldn’t be classified under Section 354 of the IPC, however, Justice Gurdev Singh disagreed.

View of Justice Gurdev Singh

Justice Gurdev Singh referred to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “modesty” as “womanly propriety of behaviour, scrupulous chastity of thought, speech, and conduct (in men or women), reserve or sense of shame proceeding from instinctive aversion to impure or coarse suggestions”. He explained that this definition is about societal norms for women’s behaviour and not about any specific woman.

Justice Gurudev Singh further pointed out that Section 509 of the IPC also mentions “modesty,” which aims to protect women from indecent behaviour that is offensive to public morality. According to him, both Sections 354 and 509 are meant to protect women and uphold public morals, not just to punish individuals for their actions against a single person.

Therefore, Judge Gurdev Singh was of the opinion that the law should protect all females, regardless of their ability to understand the nature of the act or feel offended by it. However, the other judges did not have the same opinion as Justice Gurudev Singh. Thus, aggrieved by the decision of the High Court, the state government preferred an appeal before the Supreme Court.

Issues raised 

  • Whether Major Singh, who caused injury to the private parts of a seven-and-a-half-month-old child, is guilty of an offence under Section 354 of the IPC.
  • Whether a female child of seven and a half months can be considered to possess modesty, and can it be outraged.
  • Whether the victim’s reaction was relevant in determining if the offence had been committed.

Arguments of the parties

Appellant

The appellant contended that the act of the respondent amounts to an offence of outraging the modesty of a woman punishable under Section 354 of the IPC.

Respondent 

As the respondent, Major Singh, was unattended, Mr. A. S. R. Chari assisted as an amicus curiae. Mr. A. S. R. Chari pointed out that the British Parliament’s Sexual Offences Act of 1956 used broader language in Section 14 regarding indecent assault on women compared to Section 354 of the IPC. He also noted that, in some ways, Section 354 of the IPC was broader because it was not limited to sexual offences.

Laws discussed in State of Punjab vs. Major Singh (1966)

Section 354 IPC

This section provides that if someone assaults or uses criminal force on a woman with the intention or knowledge that it will outrage her modesty, they are punishable under this section with imprisonment of either description, not less than 1 year but may extend to 5 years and also be liable for a fine.

Essential ingredients 

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Easwaran vs. State by the Inspector of Police (2010) incorporated the following essential ingredient of Section 354:

  • The victim of the assault must be a woman.
  • The accused must have used criminal force by way of physical contact, gesture, or any act that is unwelcome against the victim.
  • The actions of the accused must have been intended or known to be likely to outrage the victim’s modesty.  

Section 350 IPC

This section provides that if anyone uses force on someone intentionally to commit a crime or to cause injury, fear, or annoyance without their consent, it is criminal force. Section 352 provides for the punishment of use of the criminal force with imprisonment of up to 3 months or fine or both.

Section 509 IPC

This section provides that if a person says something, makes a sound or gesture, shows an object, or invades a woman’s privacy intending to insult her modesty, then he shall be punishable with simple imprisonment extending to 3 years and also with a fine.

Section 323 IPC

This section deals with the punishment for voluntarily causing hurt to another person with imprisonment of any description for a term up to one year or a fine up to Rs. 1000/- or with both. Any physical violence, such as hitting, pushing, or kicking, that causes hurt to another person can be considered an offence under this section.

Section 10 IPC

This section defines the word ‘Man’ as a “male human being of any age” and the word ‘Woman’’ as a “female human being of any age”. 

Section 7 IPC

Section 7 of the IPC, which addresses the sense of expression once explained, states that any term explained within this Code applies uniformly throughout all its sections in accordance with the explanation provided.

Section 14 of Sexual Offences Act, 1956

Section 14 of the Sexual Offences Act of 1956 deals with the crime of “indecent assault on a woman” and aims to protect women and girls, especially those who are underage or mentally unstable. Indecent assault means any assault on a woman that has a sexual nature or intention and involves inappropriate and unwanted sexual behaviour. It further provides that consent given by a girl under 16 years of age to such an indecent act is not valid consent, and consent from a mentally disabled woman is not valid if the person knew or should have known about her condition; the act is considered an assault.

Sub-section 3 of this section provides an exception to the general rule. A husband is not guilty of indecent assault if:

  • The marriage is invalid under the Marriage Act, 1949, or the Age of Marriage Act, 1929.
  • The wife is under 16 years old.
  • The husband genuinely believes she is his wife and has a good reason for this belief.

Judgement in State of Punjab vs. Major Singh (1966)

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal and held Major Singh guilty of outraging the modesty of a woman under Section 354 of the IPC. The Court awarded Major Singh with rigorous imprisonment for a term of two years and a fine of Rs. 1,000/-, with the condition that Rs. 500/- of the fine realised would be paid as compensation to the child.

While interpreting Section 354 of the IPC, the court held that the use of criminal force defined under Section 350 was not in dispute and that the child was a woman within the code as per Section 10 in conformity with Section 7. The difficulty was faced in the interpretation of Section 354, for the words “outraging modesty”.

The majority of judges of the High Court held that these words show a subjective element, i.e., the offence depended on the woman’s reaction and that the woman had to feel that her modesty was outraged. Reversing the judgement of the High Court, the Hon’ble Supreme Court took an objective view and held that the offence did not depend on the personal reaction or the sense of modesty of the woman, and it was the intention or knowledge of the accused that mattered most.

The court interpreted Section 354 of the IPC to mean that the act of the accused must be done with the intention of outraging the modesty of the woman, or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty. The court held that Major Singh’s act of interfering with the vagina of the child was done with the intention of outraging her modesty, and therefore, he was guilty of the offence.

Majority opinion in the case of State of Punjab vs. Major Singh (1966)

Judgement delivered by Justice J. R. Mudholkar

Justice J.R. Mudholkar compared Section 354 of the IPC with Section 14 of the Sexual Offences Act, 1956, which focuses on the offender’s act only and not how it affects a woman. According to him, for Section 354, it seemed necessary for the woman to feel the outrage herself. However, this interpretation would have excluded cases like assaults on young girls, women who were unconscious, or women with certain mental disabilities. It might also have left out cases involving women with questionable moral character.

The judge argued that the legislature did not intend to limit the scope of Section 354 to only those situations where the woman personally felt outraged. Using the woman’s personal feelings as the only test would create a standard that changes from person to person based on their sensitivity and background. The sense of modesty varies from woman to woman, which might not be known to others. And if the test becomes the reaction of women, then it would have to be proved that the offender had knowledge of the standard of modesty for the victim, which would be impossible to prove in the majority of the cases. 

He stated that it is difficult to frame a comprehensive test with regard to women’s modesty and proposed a more objective standard: if an act done to or in the presence of a woman is suggestive of sex, according to common notions of mankind, that act must fall within Section 354. The respondent was thus punishable for the offence because his act outraged and intended to outrage whatever modesty the little victim possessed.

Judgement delivered by Justice R.S. Bachawat

Justice R.S. Bachawat pointed out that the essence of a woman’s modesty is her sex. He mentioned Section 10 of the IPC, which states that even a female of tender age possesses the modesty that is the attribute of her sex. A woman, whether she is young or old, intelligent or imbecile, awake or sleeping, possesses a modesty capable of being outraged. Any person who uses criminal force with intent to outrage her modesty commits an offence punishable under Section 354 of the IPC. 

Referring to the present case, he also said that the situation is different for a very young girl child whose bodies are not yet developed and who does not have an understanding of sexual matters. Even a baby, such as a seven-and-a-half-month-old girl, has a form of modesty inherent to her sex from birth. She may not yet feel shame or understand sex, but her modesty still deserves protection under the law.

Dissenting opinion in the case of State of Punjab vs. Major Singh (1966)

Justice A.K. Sarkar delivered a dissenting opinion in this case. He stated that under Section 354 of the IPC, the accused would be guilty of an offence if he assaulted or used criminal force intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he would thereby outrage the modesty of a woman. The offence, according to the judge, does not depend on how the woman reacts to the assault or use of criminal force. The key words in the section are “intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty.” The important factor is the intention or knowledge of the offender, not the woman’s feelings. Therefore, if the intention or knowledge is not proven, it does not matter if the woman felt her modesty was outraged. Similarly, if the intention or knowledge is proven, it is irrelevant whether the woman felt outraged, as the necessary ingredient of the offence would be established.

The sense of modesty varies among women, and it is often unknown to others. If the offence depended on the woman’s reaction, it would need to be proven that the offender knew the woman’s standard of modesty, which is usually impossible. Thus, the woman’s reaction is irrelevant.

Intention and knowledge are states of mind that can be inferred from the circumstances of each case, not proved directly. A reasonable person must determine if the act was done with the intention of outraging the woman’s modesty or with the knowledge that it was likely to do so. The test should be whether a reasonable person would think that the act was intended or known to likely outrage the woman’s modesty, considering her circumstances, such as her way of life and societal norms.

He stated that Section 354 is in a chapter dealing with offences affecting the human body, not decency and morals. None of the other offences in the same chapter depend on individual reactions, so there is no reason to think this offence does. The offence against the human body does not depend on the reaction of the person but on other factors.

He disagreed with the opinion of Justice Gurdev Singh that modesty should be understood as an attribute of all women, regardless of their sense of modesty. He stated that for a reasonable person to think an act was intended or likely to outrage modesty, they must consider the woman’s sense of modesty. This consideration is necessary to decide if the alleged offender intended to outrage the woman’s modesty or knew it was likely.

The judge did not agree that every female, regardless of age, has modesty capable of being outraged, as this would be too rigid and unrealistic. There is no universal standard of modesty. Therefore, the question is whether a reasonable person would think that the female child in question had such modesty that the respondent intended to outrage or knew his act was likely to outrage. A reasonable person would not think a seven-and-a-half-month-old female child has womanly modesty, so there could be no intent or knowledge of outraging her modesty.

Interpretation of law

Modesty

The IPC did not specifically define the term “modesty,” but the Supreme Court in this case defining modesty stated that “modesty is generally understood as an inherent quality of a woman related to her sex”. It is evident in the very nature of a woman’s body, irrespective of her age, intelligence, or state of consciousness.

A person who uses force against a woman with the intent to violate her modesty commits a crime under Section 354 of the IPC. The key factor is the offender’s intention, though the woman’s reaction is also important. However, the absence of any reaction by the woman does not excuse the act of the offender in cases where a woman is asleep, unconscious, or unable to understand what is happening.

Intention or knowledge

The Supreme Court, by stating the words of Section 354, i.e., “intending to or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty”, held that intention and knowledge are the ingredients of the section and not the woman’s feelings.

Intention and knowledge are the states of mind that cannot be proved by direct evidence. They have to be inferred from the circumstances of the case. To determine the intention or knowledge, the court gave the “Reasonable Man Test”. The question in each case must be, “Whether a reasonable man would think that the act was done with the intention to outrage or with the knowledge that it was likely to outrage the modesty of the women?”

The Apex Court stated that the words “outrage her modesty” must be read with the words “intending to or knowing it to be likely that he will” and though the modesty to be considered is that of a woman, the word “her” was not used to indicate her reaction.

Legal precedents

The Supreme Court examined the following legal precedents to understand the scope of Section 354 of the IPC, which deals with outraging the modesty of a woman:

Soko vs. Emperor (1932)

The court referred to the judgement of Jack J. in this case, which held that for an act to be considered under Section 354, it must be shown that the assault was intended to outrage, or was with the knowledge of it to be likely to outrage, the modesty of the girl. The court emphasised that factors such as the age, physical condition, and personal feelings of the woman are important when interpreting this section. In this case, the court discussed different interpretations of the term “modesty” under Section 354 of the IPC. The view expressed by Justice Jack was that the interpretation of “modesty” should consider the age, physical condition, and subjective attitude of the individual woman involved and not just rely on “accepted notions of womanly behaviour and conduct”. Another perspective was that “modesty” refers to an “attribute of a human female irrespective of the fact whether the female concerned has developed enough understanding as to appreciate the nature of the act or to realise that it is offensive to decent female behaviour or sense of propriety concerning the relations of a female with others”.

Mt. Champa Pasin & Ors. vs. Emperor (1966)

This case reinforced the view that, when interpreting Section 354, factors like the age, physical condition, and personal feelings of the woman involved must be considered. The judge analysed the incidents and the conduct of the victim, named Lakhpatia, and concluded that she either had no modesty to be outraged or that her modesty was not outraged by the alleged acts. Furthermore, the judge found that the evidence provided by the prosecution witnesses was inconsistent and insufficient to establish that any offence under Section 354 IPC was committed. Ultimately, the judge held that no offence under Section 354 was committed and that the case against the accused was improperly brought to trial and ordered the acquittal of the accused.

Girdhar Gopal vs. State (1952)

The court cited this case along with the other two judgements to support the view that it is irrelevant to consider the age, physical condition, or subjective attitude of the woman against whom the assault has been committed or the criminal force used. In this case, the petitioner, Girdhar Gopal, was convicted under Section 342 of the IPC for wrongful confinement and Section 354 of the IPC for assaulting or using criminal force against a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty. The main argument of the petitioner’s counsel was that Section 354 violates Article 14 and Article 15 of the Constitution of India. He contended that Section 354 is discriminatory as it only provides for an offence against women, that the act of assaulting or using criminal force against a man with intent to “outrage his modesty” is not an offence under IPC, and that since a woman cannot be convicted under Section 354, no conviction could be recorded in the instant case. The court rejected this argument and stated that Section 354 can be committed by a man or a woman against a woman with the intention or knowledge of outraging her modesty. The provision operates equally on all persons and does not exempt women from punishment. The court further explained that Article 14 does not mean that all persons, property or occupations must be treated the same by the state. The legislature can make reasonable classifications for the purposes of legislation. Treating men and women differently with respect to the offence of outraging modesty is a permissible classification. The court held that Section 354 of the IPC is not unconstitutional and does not violate Articles 14 or 15 of the Constitution.

Significance of State of Punjab vs. Major Singh (1966)

The case of State of Punjab vs. Major Singh (1966) has significant implications for the interpretation of Section 354 of the IPC. It establishes that the intention of outraging a woman’s modesty is an important element in determining whether the offence has been committed. This case has made sure that every woman of any age should be protected under the law, irrespective of their capability to react in those circumstances.

Critical analysis of the case

This case is about the interpretation of Section 354 of the IPC, which deals with the offence of outraging a woman’s modesty and revolves around whether the “feelings of the victim” or the “intention and knowledge of the offender” should be the primary focus in determining guilt.

The majority opinion has taken a more objective approach to interpreting Section 354 of the IPC. This section deals with the offence of assaulting or using criminal force against a woman with the intention of outraging her modesty. Justice J. R. Mudholkar suggested that the test for this offence should focus on whether the act is suggestive of sex according to common notions of mankind. This approach ensures that the protection of women’s modesty is not limited to only those who are aware of their modesty or react to the assault. Justice R. S. Bachawat, agreeing with Justice J. R. Mudholkar said that all females, regardless of age or mental state, have inherent modesty. Even very young girls deserve protection under the law. 

On the other hand, Justice A.K. Sarkar expressed the dissenting opinion. He argued that the offender’s intent or knowledge of likely outraging the woman’s modesty is what matters, not the woman’s feelings. Since it is hard to know a woman’s personal sense of modesty, the law should consider whether a reasonable person would see the act as offensive. He believes that very young children might not have modesty in the same way adults do, and thus their cases should be viewed differently. 

Overall, the majority opinion provides a more comprehensive and objective approach to interpreting Section 354 of the IPC, ensuring that the protection of women’s modesty is not limited to only those who are aware of their modesty or react to the assault.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court, reversing the judgement of the High Court, held that Major Singh was guilty under Section 354 of the IPC. The victim of this case was a girl child of seven and a half months old whose vagina was injured by the respondent. Considering the age of the victim, the majority opinion emphasised that the protection of modesty under the law extends to all females, irrespective of their age or understanding. They emphasised that the modesty of a woman is an attribute of her sex, and even a female child possesses modesty, irrespective of her age or physical or mental condition. The intention to outrage the modesty of the victim is a crucial element in determining whether the offence has been committed, not the feeling or reaction of the victim to such an act. The Supreme Court ensures that the law protects all women, including those who may not have developed a sense of modesty or may not be able to react in a particular situation. Thus, the Supreme Court sentenced Major Singh to two years of rigorous imprisonment and imposed a fine of Rs. 1,000, with Rs. 500 of this amount to be paid as compensation to the child victim.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the significance of the State of Punjab vs. Major Singh case?

This case is significant as it clarifies the interpretation of Section 354 of the IPC concerning the modesty of a female child. It establishes that the modesty of a female of any age is protected under the law.

What was the primary legal issue in the Major Singh case?

The primary legal issue was whether the act of Major Singh causing injury to the private parts of a seven-and-a-half-month-old female child constituted an offence under Section 354 of the IPC.

How did the court interpret the term “modesty” in this case?

The court interpreted modesty as an attribute of the female sex that exists from birth, regardless of age. The majority opinion held that the intention to outrage modesty could be inferred from the nature of the act itself and not necessarily from the victim’s reaction.

What was Chief Justice Sarkar’s dissenting opinion?

Chief Justice Sarkar dissented, arguing that a reasonable person would not consider a seven-and-a-half-month-old child to have the modesty that Section 354 aims to protect. Therefore, he believed the respondent did not intend to outrage the modesty of the child.

How does this case impact future interpretations of Section 354 of the IPC?

This case sets a precedent that the protection of modesty under Section 354 IPC applies to females of all ages and that the intention to outrage modesty can be established based on the nature of the act, irrespective of the victim’s age or understanding.

What are the provisions against outraging the modesty of women in Bhartiya Nyaya Sanhita (BNS)?

Section 73 of Chapter V of Bhartiya Nyaya Sanhita provides for the offence of assault or criminal force against a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty. It states that anyone who assaults or uses criminal force with the intention to outrage or is likely to have the knowledge that his act will outrage the modesty of a woman shall be punished with imprisonment of either description, not less than 1 year but may extend to 5 years, and also be liable for a fine.

References

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