The Bombay High Court recently directed the state of Maharashtra to pay Rs. 6 lakh towards compensation for wrongly prosecuting a man named Jawaharlal Ramtirth Sharma over a period of 10 years for murder.
A bench of Justice Ranjit More and Justice Sarang Kotwal was hearing a petition filed by Sharma himself.
An FIR was lodged at Jogeshwari Police Station against unknown persons by an officer of Sub-Inspector rank who claimed that he found the body of a man in his early 20s near a college and it looked like his head had been crushed by a heavy stone.
During the course of the investigation, many statements of witnesses were recorded. One of them was Mohammad Ashfaq who said that a 21-year-old boy named Guddu had come to him looking for work. The boy worked for him for a couple of months, but then left for his native place Ludhiana and came back with a 30-year-old woman, claiming that she was his wife.
Suddenly, three men came by in March 1996 looking for Guddu. One of these men said his name was Jawaharlal Sharma. Ashfaq stated that he looked for Guddu, but could not find him.
When the police approached Ashfaq in connection with the dead body and showed him the photograph, he identified the same as Guddu and expressed his suspicion towards those three persons.
Three more people identified the dead body to be Guddu’s. On this basis, the police picked up Jawaharlal Sharma from Ludhiana in May 1996. He was released on bail in July 1996.
Thereafter, the police received communication through one Rashida Khan, who said she had received a telegram informing her about her son Guddu’s death. However, Rashida had met her son the very same day she received the telegram.
She approached the nearby police station and informed them that her son “was very much alive”.
Two other people corroborated Rashida’s version, stating that they had also seen Guddu.
Thus, the police was aware of the possibility of Guddu being alive from July 1996. Still, the police chose to file a charge sheet in January 2017, naming Sharma as the accused.
Meanwhile, Sharma, who is a businessman from Ludhiana, continued his efforts to prove his innocence. He filed an application for discharge, which was rejected by the trial court. Sharma kept attending the trial proceedings in Mumbai over time and by an order dated June 30, 2005, the sessions judge directed him not to leave the city till the trial was over.
Aggrieved by this, Sharma filed a petition in the high court challenging the order. The order was set aside, but no other relief was granted.
Sharma kept searching for Guddu and he filed an application seeking Guddu to be summoned by the court.
Summonses were issued, but Guddu did not show up. Then a non-bailable warrant was issued at Sharma’s insistence and he went to Uttar Pradesh, where Guddu’s mother lived, to execute the warrant.
Finally, Guddu was produced before the trial court in 2011, 15 years after the FIR of his murder was filed.
After establishing the identity of Guddu, the sessions judge directed Sharma’s discharge and ordered the Jogeshwari Police to re-investigate the case.
Discharged from the case, Jawaharlal Sharma filed another petition in the high court claiming damages towards harassment caused to him due to wrongful prosecution. He also sought action against erring police officers.
Observations and Final Order
Sharma’s advocate AR Pitale argued that his client deserves to be compensated on account of the mental agony and physical inconvenience he had to endure in order to prove his innocence.
Accepting this submission, the court observed:“We can accept the action of police officers while initially arresting the present petitioner in pursuance of the information, which they had at that point of time. However, the inaction, lethargy and callousness shown by the police officers after 05/07/1996 cannot be countenanced.
We find that because of apathy, inefficiency and negligence bordering on criminal negligence, the petitioner had to endure the agony of facing criminal prosecution for no less an offence than the capital offence.
This, in our opinion, is sheer mental as well as physical torture and agony. The right to life and personal liberty is certainly very much available to a person who is facing a criminal prosecution and in this case we find that this fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of Constitution of India was seriously infringed because of callous attitude and inaction on the part of investigating agency.”
Thus, state of Maharashtra was directed to pay the compensation amount within eight weeks. The court left it open for the state to recover this amount from erring police officers, two of whom are dead, while one is retired.