The right to self-defence extends not only to one’s own body but to protecting the person and property of another, the Supreme Court has interpreted the provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
In its verdict delivered on March 7, 2019, a Bench of Justices A.M. Sapre and R. Subhash Reddy deals with the right to private defence, enumerated in Sections 96 to 106 of the IPC, while acquitting a Tamil Nadu forest ranger who shot dead a sandalwood “smuggler” in the Dharmapuri forest area in 1988.
The trial court sentenced ranger Sukumaran to life in prison for murder. The Madras High Court reduced the term to five years. In appeal, the apex court concluded that Sukumaran had shot the “smuggler” Basha under threat to his own life and that of his driver, Chinnakolandai.
The prosecution version was that Sukumaran shot Basha in the back. The ranger and his driver were in a jeep in the early hours, doing the rounds of the forest, when they saw a truck. They gave chase. The truck stopped and four men, including Basha, got out. Sukumaran took out his gun and fired at Basha, killing him. Sukumaran then planted a gun in the truck and loaded it with 276 kg of sandalwood to frame Basha as a smuggler, the prosecution said.
But the apex court completely disbelieved the prosecution version and rather went with what Sukumaran said. The latter said Basha and his companions first pelted stones at their jeep, following which they pulled out a gun on the ranger. Sukumaran was quick to draw and shoot Basha in self-defence. A complaint was promptly filed and two companions of Basha were brought to the police station.
The Supreme Court concluded that there was no reason for Basha and his companions to “roam” the forest area in the wee hours. Sandalwood was an expensive commodity. Sukumaran was only trying to protect his life and that of his driver. He was doing his duty. Besides, four of the prosecution witnesses turned hostile and the testimonies of the rest has no connection to the manner in which the incident occurred in 1988.
“The prosecution was not able to prove the manner in which the incident occurred as alleged by them in their charge sheet. In this view of the matter, the appellant [Sukumaran] is entitled to be acquitted from the charges for want of any evidence against him,” Justice Sapre wrote.
The court observed that the right of private defence extends not only to “the defence of one’s own body against any offence affecting the human body but also to defend the body of any other person. The right also embraces the protection of property, whether one’s own or another person’s, against certain specified offences, namely, theft, robbery, mischief and criminal trespass”.
The court explained that the right does not arise if there is time to have recourse to the protection of the public authorities. Nor does it extend to the infliction of more harm than is necessary.
When death is caused, the person exercising the right of self-defence must be under “reasonable apprehension of death, or grievous hurt, to himself or to those whom he is protecting”, the court explained.