Read Judgment: Bharat Bhooshan Aggarwal vs. State of Kerala

Pankaj Bajpai

New Delhi, October 8, 2021: The Supreme Court has observed that the reasoning given by the High Court that seizure of sandalwood oil ipso facto meant that appellant (Bharat Aggarwal) had conscious knowledge about their illicit nature or origin, is not justified given that the appellants had furnished a series of documents explaining how they had sourced the oil in question.

Going by the background of the case, the Sessions Court accepted the appellant’s plea and held that in view of the certificate issued by the Central Excise authorities, his possession of sandalwood oil in the factory could not be termed as illegal and that a conviction u/s 27 of the Kerala Forest Act could be recorded only if it was found that sandalwood oil was removed illegally, or without authorization from any reserve forest, or area proposed to be constituted as reserve forest.

The High Court however, on appeal reversed the judgment of the Sessions Court on two counts. It held that though the appellants held a licence to manufacture sandalwood oil, nevertheless they failed to account for possession of such a large quantity of sandalwood oil.

Noting the state’s submission that to manufacture 5430 kilos of sandalwood oil at least 5600 kilograms of crude sandalwood oil was required, which in turn needed to be extracted from at least 200 metric tons of sandalwood, the High Court concluded that the reliance on the manufacturing licence alone to explain the possession of sandalwood oil did not in any manner absolve the appellant of criminal responsibility. 

Hence, present appeal before the Supreme Court.

After considering the arguments, the Division Bench of Justice Indira Banerjee & Justice S. Ravindra Bhat found that the State had to show, that the forest produce was illicitly removed, or was illicitly in the possession of the accused, and in either case, that the same was within his knowledge. 

The state no doubt has led evidence to show that the goods seized bore the labels of the appellant’s firm and further that no transport licence was available. However, this per se does not establish illicit possession of forest produce within his knowledge, added the Bench. 

The Division Bench clarified that for a court to so conclude, the prosecution had to, in addition, prove beyond reasonable doubt, the foundational fact that the accused had knowingly removed the forest produce illicitly. 

In the opinion of the court, the impugned judgment, by reversing the decision of the Sessions Court, was in error.

The Top Court observed that the appellant had produced documents (in the form of 45 invoices and receipts) to show the origin of the goods, and where they were purchased from, to say that they were procured in 104 transactions. 

Further, the Court also noted that apart from stating that the invoices and other documents could not be verified, the State made no effort to establish, independently, in its evidence that any such effort was made. 

In these circumstances, it could not be said that the State had discharged its burden of proving beyond any doubt, that the appellant had knowledge of the fact that the goods were illicit in origin, added the Court. 

The Apex Court therefore opined that the High Court fell into error in holding that the presumption that the seizure of forest produce belonging to the State, automatically can result in a presumption of culpable mental state of the accused. 

Hence, taking note of the fact that the appellants had furnished a series of documents explaining how they had sourced the oil in question, the Apex Court concluded that the interference by the High Court, with the acquittal recorded by the Sessions Court, is not warranted.

0 CommentsClose Comments

Leave a comment