New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday sentenced former Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu to one-year rigorous imprisonment in connection with a 1988 case of road rage that resulted in the death of 65-year-old Patiala resident Gurnam Singh.
“Will submit to the majesty of law …,” Sidhu wrote on Twitter, reacting to the verdict.
A two-judge bench was hearing a review petition filed by Gurnam Singh’s family, challenging the Supreme Court’s May 2018 order that exonerated Sidhu, letting him off with a fine under Section 323 of the IPC — anybody who “voluntarily causes hurt” shall be punished with a maximum of one year jail term, or a fine of Rs 1,000.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court said Thursday that a few “material aspects” which seemed to have been missed at the stage of sentencing include Sidhu’s “physical fitness” as he was an international cricketer, who was “tall and well built and aware of the force of a blow that even his hand would carry”.
“The blow was not inflicted on a person identically physically placed but a 65-year-old person, more than double his (Sidhu’s) age,” the court observed, adding that “the hand can also be a weapon by itself where say a boxer, a wrestler or a cricketer or an extremely physically fit person inflicts the same”.
“When a 25-year-old man, who was an international cricketer, assaults a man more than twice his age and inflicts, even with his bare hands, a severe blow on his (victim’s) head, the unintended consequence of harm would still be properly attributable to him as it was reasonably foreseeable,” the court said.
However, Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and S.K. Kaul rejected the plea for enhancing the scope of the review petition, to check whether Sidhu can be charged with more grievous provisions like Section 304 of the IPC, which provides for 10 years in jail up to life imprisonment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
The cricketer-turned-politician was sent to jail on 11 January 2007 in connection with the case, but granted bail the very next day. His last recourse now is a curative petition in the Supreme Court, challenging Thursday’s judgment.
1988 road rage case
According to the Supreme Court judgment, a fight broke out in Patiala on 27 December 1988 between Sidhu and his friend Rupinder Singh Sandhu on one side, and three others, including Gurnam Singh, on the other, over “the right of way”.
In the scuffle that ensued, the duo allegedly beat up Gurnam Singh and fled the spot. Singh was then rushed to a hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival.
A case was filed against Sidhu and Sandhu under Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the IPC. The two were also subsequently tried for murder.
While the duo was acquitted by a trial court on 22 September 1999, the Punjab and Haryana High Court reversed the acquittal on 1 December 2006 and found both guilty under Section 304, sentencing Sidhu to three-year imprisonment.
On 15 May 2018, the Supreme Court set aside the HC verdict, noting that while it was established that Sidhu punched Gurnam Singh, “no weapon was used, nor was there any past enmity between the accused and the deceased”.
“It all started with a dispute regarding the right of way resulting in a brawl between them, a very common sight in this country,” the apex court had noted, ruling that Sidhu “cannot be held to be responsible for causing the death of Gurnam Singh”.
However, the bench did find Sidhu guilty of voluntarily causing hurt to Gurnam Singh, which is punishable under Section 323 of IPC.
The court had also taken note of the uncertainty regarding Gurnam Singh’s cause of death, because neither had the pathologist concerned given a definite opinion on the cause of death, nor the six-member medical board formed to examine the case.
It was in September 2018 that the Supreme Court agreed to examine a review petition filed by Gurnam Singh’s family against the apex court’s May 2018 verdict.
The two-judge bench hearing the review petition had reserved its judgment on 25 March.
The court observed in its judgement Thursday that “undue sympathy to impose an inadequate sentence would do more harm to the justice system and undermine the public confidence in the efficacy of law”.
Among the factors to be taken note of are the “defenceless and unprotected state of victim” appropriate in the facts of the present case, it added.
The bench, therefore, enhanced Sidhu’s sentence, asserting that “indulgence was not required to be shown at the stage of sentence by only imposing a sentence of fine and letting the respondent go without any imposition of sentence”.
(This story has been updated to accommodate additional details)
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)