Nilabati Behara v State of Orissa and Ors
THE CASE WHICH TURNED THE COURSE OF CUSTODIAL DEATHS IN INDIA-
SMT NILABATI BEHARA ALIAS LALITA BEHARA V. STATE OF ORISSA AND OTHERS[i]
By Jyoti Singh
1. Citation: AIR 1993 SC 1960
2. Court: Before Supreme Court of India
3. Bench: Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma, Justice A.S. Anand, Justice, N. Venkatachala
4. Decided on: 24th March 1993
5. Counsel for Petitioner: M.S. Ganesh
6. Counsel for Respondent: Itaf Ahmed, Addl. Solicitor General, A.K. Panda and Naresh Kumar Sharma.
7. Facts of the case- In the instant case, a letter was sent by Smt. Nilabati Behera to the Supreme Court stating that her twenty two year old son, Suman Behera had died in police custody after being inflicted with several injuries. The honourable court took suo moto action and converted it into a writ petition under article 32 of the Indian constitution. The petitioner claimed compensation for the violation of her son’s fundamental right to life guaranteed under Article 21. The Orissa police had arrested Suman Behara for investigation involving the offence of theft and he was detained at the police outpost. The very next day, his dead body was found near the railway track. The lacerations on his body indicated towards an unnatural death.
8. Arguments of the counsel for Petitioner- The counsel for petitioner argued that the evidence adduced during the inquiry by the learned District Judge were not in consonance with the arguments of the Additional Solicitor General arguing on behalf of the Sate (Respondents). Further, the was no reason to reject the findings of the report submitted by District Judge, Sundergarh, Orissa which clearly specified that Suman Behara had died due to the multiple injuries inflicted on him during the police custody at Police Outpost, Jeraikela.
9. Arguments of the counsel for Respondent- The counsel for respondent argued that the very factual foundation for the liability of the State was absent. The respondents argued that Suman Behera managed to escape from police custody at about 3 a.m. on the night between the 1st and 2nd December 1987 from the Police Outpost Jeraikela. They, further, argued that despite the search he could not be apprehended and thereafter his dead body was found on the railway track. According to the respondents , the injuries which resulted into his death may have occurred due to train passing over him. The respondents, thus, denied the allegation of custodial death and consequently the respondents’ responsibility for the unnatural death of Suman Behera.
10. Judgment- The court noted that there was no cogent evidence of any search by the police to find Suman Behara and of his escape from police custody. The police also reached much later to the take charge of the body, after it was reported by railway men, which raised questions as to its credibility. Further, a doctor before the court deposed that the injury was caused by a blunt object, which may have been lathi blows. All the injuries found on his body could not have been caused by train accident. The court also drew the distinction between the liabilities of the State in public law as opposed to private law. It clearly mentioned that that a proceeding under Article 32 before the Supreme Court or any High Court is a remedy available in public law and the principle of sovereign immunity does not apply in case of public law. It is only a defence in private law based on tort. It also stressed that it would be highly unjust to expect a person socio-economically disadvantaged person to pursue ordinary civil proceeding under the private law.
11. Held- It awarded a compensation of Rs.1,50,000 to the petitioner and a sum of Rs.10,000 to be paid to the Supreme Court Legal Aid Committee. The Supreme Court also ordered the State of Orissa to initiate criminal proceedings against those who killed Suman Behara.
12. Analysis of the judgment- Prior to the judgment there was no structured formulation to grant compensation in case of custodial deaths. There were numerous cases where no or very little compensation was granted in such cases. In Bhim Singh v. State of Jammu and Kashmir[ii], where a member of the legislative assembly was taken into custody to prevent him from attending an assembly session, the court granted a compensation of 50,000 rupees but did not explain how the amount was calculated. Similarly, in Saheli v. Commissioner of Police[iii], the Delhi Police colluded with the landlord to evict two female tenants unlawfully. They were beaten and a nine year old son of one of the two females died. The Supreme Court awarded a compensation of mere 10,000 rupees. The decision in Nilabati Behara v. State of Orissa , therefore made sure that the state could no longer escape liability in Public law and had to be compelled to pay compensation when it committed such gross violation of one’s fundamental rights as well as the very basic human rights .
[ii] AIR 1986 SC 494, 1986 CriLJ 192, 1985 (2) SCALE 1117, (1985) 4 SCC 677, 1986 (1) UJ 458 SC
[iii] 1990 AIR 513, 1989 SCR 488