Read Judgement: Parubai vs. State of Maharashtra

Pankaj Bajpai

New Delhi, August 11, 2021: The Supreme Court has ruled that the moral wrong of not coming to the aid of a fellow human being in distress cannot be a circumstance to hold a person guilty of a crime which is as serious as murder, unless the other circumstances in the chain point to the accused so as to lead to an irresistible conclusion of being guilty. 

The Apex Court made the observations while acquitting, on benefit of doubt, the appellant who was accused of setting fire to the house where she lived as second wife, leading to the death of her husband’s first wife and their two children.

A Division Bench of Justice A.S Bopanna and Justice Hemant Gupta observed that second marriage, the desire for domestic dominance and the execution of document for maintenance a day before registration of the marriage, cannot be held as a strong motive for an alleged crime where the appellant would destroy her own house. 

The Bench noted that the High Court held the appellant guilty of pouring kerosene around the deceased and her children and setting them on fire since the appellant had not received any injuries in the fire, and had failed to explain the reason for the eruption of fire in view of such obligation to explain under section 106 of the Evidence Act. The Bench held the High Court’s reasoning as not sustainable in the present circumstance. 

Details of the Case

The house where the appellant being the second wife and her family were residing was engulfed in flames. Although the appellant came out of the house unscathed, the first wife (Mandabai) and her children died due to burn injuries. Noticing that no injuries were sustained by the appellant, her father-in-law lodged a complaint and also implicated her.

When the matter went before the Sessions Court, it was observed that the appellant was sleeping in the same room as the deceased was sleeping and that the appellant did not suffer any injuries. These were held as the circumstances to rule out the possibility of accidental fire.

The Sessions Court opined that adverse inference can be drawn that the appellant set fire to the house. The fact that she was the second wife and the husband of the appellant had executed an agreement transferring his land in favour of deceased Mandabai (first wife) was held as the motive to commit the offence, more particularly since she wanted to “establish her dominance in the house”.

The matter then went before the High Court which discarded the extra-judicial confession by the father-in-law, opining that the father-in-law who was the informant could not have happily accepted the appellant as the second wife of his son when he had already got married to the first wife, now deceased. 

However, the High Court concluded that the appellant was guilty of committing the offence since she had not sustained the slightest injury due to the fire which means that she left the house well in advance to the spreading of fire. 

What the Supreme Court said

After considering the arguments and the observations made by High Court and Sessions Court, the Apex Court found that the conclusion reached by the High Court was on the assumption made only due to the fact that the appellant had not suffered injuries in the fire accident. 

“It is no doubt true that the incident which occurred in this case, if caused by any person with an intention to cause death, is certainly gruesome as it resulted in the death of three persons of which two were small children and is unpardonable. However, in a case where the appellant was proceeded against mainly based on the extrajudicial confession said to have been made to her father-in-law and the said evidence has been disbelieved by the High Court as not being trustworthy, the issue would be as to whether the chain of circumstances to convict the appellant is complete,” opined Justice Bopanna. 

“It takes a person lot of courage or be overdriven with compassion to get back into the house to save somebody else and not doing so may be considered as morally wrong for not coming to the aid of fellow human being in distress, but it cannot be a circumstance to hold a person guilty of a crime which is as serious as murder unless the other circumstances in the chain point to the accused so as to lead to an irresistible conclusion of being guilty,” the Bench observed.

The Apex Court also said that though the High Court had employed the phrase ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in its concluding paragraph, however the reasoning preceding the same are only “conjectures and surmises”.

“The case itself is that the fire had erupted at midnight when the appellant and others were sleeping and she came out shouting. The explanation for the cause of fire by the appellant would have arisen only if there was any other evidence to the effect that the appellant was already awake and was outside even before the fire erupted,” observed the Bench. 

The Top Court also noted that it has come in evidence that in the subject house, cooking is also done and material pertaining to the tractor including diesel can was also kept therein. Therefore, the circumstance that the appellant was not injured in the incident cannot be the basis to rely on the presence of kerosene stains as a circumstance that she had set fire by sprinkling kerosene.

Therefore, reiterating that the links in the chain of circumstances is necessary to be established for conviction on the basis of circumstantial evidence, the Top Court set aside the judgment passed by the High Court affirming the conviction and sentence ordered by the Sessions Court.

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