Smt Nilabati Behera alias Lalita Behera v State of Orissa and Others (1993)

CaseSmt Nilabati Behera alias Lalita Behera v State of Orissa and Others, AIR 1993 SC 1960
CourtBefore Supreme Court of India
BenchJustice Jagdish Sharan Verma, Justice A.S. Anand, Justice, N. Venkatachala
Author of the judgementJustice J.S. Verma
Decided on24th March 1993
Counsel for PetitionerM.S. Ganesh
Counsel for Respondentltaf Ahmed, Addl. Solicitor General, A.K. Panda and Naresh Kumar Sharma.
AbstractThe present case deals with the concept of custodial death in India. According to the factual matrix, the person was inflicted with several injuries while in custody which resulted in his death. Then the police officials in order to cover the death put him on the railway track and tried to protect themselves by presenting false evidence. Thus the present case also deals with the practices observed by the police officials who are supposed to be the protectors of life and liberty of the people.
Author of the BriefAditya Gor, Student at Gujarat National Law University.
KeywordsCustodial Death, Article 32, Indian Constitution, Compensation, Public Law, Private Law, Article 21, Right to Life.

Brief Facts and Procedural History:

Smt. Nilabati Behera alias Lalita Behera addressed a letter to the Supreme Court of the country which was treated as a petition under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution for determining the claim of compensation made therein consequent upon, the death of petitioner’s son, Suman Behera, in police custody.  Suman Behera was taken to the police custody in connection with an investigation of an offence of theft and detained at the police outpost. On the next day, the petitioner came to know that the dead body of his son was found at the railyway station. There were multiple injuries on the body of Suman Behera and it was obvious that this death has been caused because of such injuries and it was an unnatural death. The allegation made is that it is a case of custodial death since Suman Behera died as a result of the multiple injuries inflicted to him while he was in police custody, and thereafter his dead body was thrown on the railway track. The prayer made in the petition is for the award of compensation to the petitioner, the mother of Suman Behera, for contravention of the fundamental right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.

In view of the controversy relating to the cause of death of Suman Behera, a direction was given by the Supreme Court on 4.3.1991 to the District Judge, Sundergarh in Orissa, to hold an inquiry into the matter and submit a report. It was submitted in the report by the District Judge that Suman Behera had died on account of multiple injuries inflicted to him while he was in police custody at the Police Outpost Jeraikela.

Arguments of Additional Solicitor General on behalf of state:

Additional Solicitor General made an argument that The factual foundation for a liability of the State is absent in the present case. The defence of the respondents is 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, where he was detained and guarded by Police Constable; he could not be apprehended thereafter in spite of a search; and the dead body of Suman Behera was found on the railway track the next day with multiple injuries which indicated that he was run over by a passing train after he had escaped from police custody. In short, on this basis, the allegation of custodial death was denied and consequently the respondents’ responsibility for the unnatural death of Suman Behera.

Arguments of amicus curiae for the petitioner:

It was contended that the evidence adduced during the inquiry does not support the defence of respondents and there is no reason to reject the finding of the learned District Judge that Suman Behera died in police custody as a result of injuries inflicted upon him.

Ratio (Authored by J S Verma):

It is significant that there is no cogent independent evidence of any search made by the police to apprehend Suman Behera if the defence of his escape from police custody is true. On the contrary, after the discovery of the dead body on the railway track in the morning by some railwaymen, it was much later in the day that the police reached the spot to take charge of the dead body. This conduct of the concerned police officers is also a significant circumstance to assess the credibility of the defence version. It was stated by the doctor that while all the injuries could not be caused in a train accident, it was possible to cause all the injuries by lathi blows.

There is a difference between the liability of the state in public law and the liability of the state in private law for payment of compensation in action on tort. It may be mentioned straightaway that award of compensation in a proceeding under Article 32 by this court or by the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution is a remedy available in public law, based on strict liability for contravention of fundamental rights to which the principle of sovereign immunity does not apply, even though it may be available as a defence in private law in an action based on tort.

The court is not helpless and the wide powers given to this Court by Article 32, which itself is a fundamental right, imposes a constitutional obligation on this Court to forge such new tools, which may be necessary for doing complete justice and enforcing the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution, which enable the award of monetary compensation in appropriate cases, where that is the only mode of redress available. The power available to this Court under Article 142 is also an enabling provision in this behalf.

Concurring opinion of Justice Dr Anand:

It is an obligation of the State, to ensure that there is no infringement of the indefeasible rights of a citizen to life, except in accordance with law while the citizen is in its custody. The precious right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India cannot be denied to convicts, under trials or other prisoners in custody, except according to procedure established by law. There is a great responsibility on the police or prison authorities to ensure that the citizen in its custody is not deprived of his right to life. His liberty is in the very nature of things circumscribed by the very fact of his confinement and therefore his interest in the limited liberty left to him is rather precious. The duty of care on the part of the State is strict and admits of no exceptions. The wrongdoer is accountable and the State is responsible if the person in custody of the police is deprived of his life except according to the procedure established by law.

Held: The Supreme Court directed the respondent-State of Orissa to pay the sum of Rs.1,50,000 to the petitioner and a further sum of Rs.10,000 as to be paid to the Supreme Court Legal Aid Committee.


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