The tragic demise of a young and talented actor, Sushant Sing Rajput, requires us to focus on mental health and suicide. More importantly, it has brought alive the nepotistic nature of a popular institution and the power of those who decide the future of an actor. In this regard, an FIR has been filed against the Bollywood biggies for driving Sushant Singh Rajput to commit suicide. The author here explains the legal aspects of what will make and unmake the case of ‘abetment to suicide’ for the prosecution.
Recently, to our dismay, Bollywood lost a promising star and a powerhouse of raw talent, Sushant Singh Rajput, who committed suicide by hanging himself at his residence in Mumbai’s Bandra on 14th June, 2020. Subsequent to the demise of the “Chhichhore” actor, reports are rife in media that Sushant’s death was not simpliciter a “suicide” but was in fact a case of “abetment to commit suicide” involving Bollywood biggies such as: Karan Johar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Salman Khan and Ekta Kapoor, as the ‘abettors’.
Lately, Advocate Sudhir Kumar Ojha has registered an F.I.R. against them (alleged abettors) in Bihar (Muzaffarpur), under Section 306 (Abetment of suicide), Section 109 (Punishment of Abetment); Section 504 (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace); and Section 506 (Punishment for criminal intimidation). The F.I.R. states that the alleged abettors tried to sabotage Sushant Singh Rajput’s career by making sure that he did not get enough films, and if at all he got films, then he was discreetly removed from them.
Whether or not Sushant’s suicide is a case of “abetment” will come out once the investigation is over. It is expected that the accused the kingpin of Bollywood will move to the High Court to quash the F.I.R.
“More often than not, proving the offence of “abetment to commit suicide” is a difficult task because it should be proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that the abettor intended that the victim ends his life”
What is Abetment under Section 306 of the IPC
The entire gist of the F.I.R. primarily revolves around Section 306 of the IPC. The Section states that ‘instigation’ is referred to where the accused by his acts or conduct creates such circumstances that the deceased was left with no other option except to commit suicide. The offence of abetment to suicide involves a mental process of instigating a person or intentionally aiding a person to commit suicide. It requires an active role of that person (abettor) is required to be established in order to hold a person liable for abetting suicide, by provoking, inciting and/or encouraging a person to do an act.
More often than not, proving the offence of “abetment to commit suicide” is a difficult task because it should be proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that the abettor intended that the victim ends his life. Ordinarily, it is an uphill task to prove intention coupled with positive acts on the part of the accused as a causation of suicide. The High Court of Madras in Manikandan V/s State[i], observed that:
“ It is not the wish and willingness nor the desire of the victim to die, it must be the wish of the accused, it is the intention on the part of the accused that the victim should die that matters much. There must be a positive act on the part of the accused. It need not be by words. It may be by deeds. It may be by letters. But, at the same time, the decision of a weak minded or a woman of frail mentality cannot be misunderstood as abetment. For one’s foolish act another person cannot be made liable.”
As of now, no suicide note has been found in Sushant’s room where he committed suicide. But even if there was a suicide note which named the alleged abettors, the law still requires the prosecution to prove that the alleged abettors committed the offence as per Section 306. A recent judgment of the High Court of Karnataka on this point says
“… Mere allegations in the death note that the petitioner and others are responsible for his death, would not be sufficient to come to the conclusion that the petitioner has committed the said offence, unless the overt acts and conduct of accused are stated, in order to prove the case of the prosecution and that is sufficient to drive the person to commit suicide.”[ii]
Do all forms of harassment come under S 306?
Acts which are intended to “merely harass” the victim, ordinarily fall outside the purview of Section 306 of the IPC. In the matter of: Ude Singh & Ors V/s State of Haryana[iii] the court laid down that mere allegation of harassment of the deceased by another person would not suffice.
“That human mind could be affected and could react in myriad ways; and impact of one’s action on the mind of another carries several imponderables. Similar actions are dealt with differently by different persons; and so far a particular person’s reaction to any other human’s action is concerned, there is no specific theorem or yardstick to estimate or assess the same.”
“Acts which are intended to “merely harass” the victim, ordinarily fall outside the purview of Section 306 of the IPC.”
The determination is based on the facts of each case. There must be such action on the part of the accused which compels the person to commit suicide, and such an offending action ought to be proximate to the time of occurrence. The court further held that
“If the accused plays an active role in tarnishing the self-esteem and self-respect of the victim, which eventually draws the victim to commit suicide, the accused may be held guilty of abetment of suicide.”
A “mental state” or “abetment” writ large?
If news reports are to be believed, Sushant was suffering from clinical depression and was being treated for the same. The case of Cyriac & Ors V/s The S.I. of Police & Ors[iv] that the test for ascertaining whether offence of “abetment to commit suicide” has been occasioned, can be summarized as follows: “… it is not what the deceased ‘felt’, but what the accused ‘intended’ by his act”.
“In Sushant’s case, the death of the actor is a suicide death, but the element of “abetment” is yet to be tried and proved on the anvil of cogent evidence by the court.”
In the matter of: Gurcharan Singh V/s State of Punjab[v], it was held that the basic ingredients of Section 306 of the IPC are that there is a suicide death and abetment of this death. The court relied on State of West Bengal V/s Orilal Jaiswal & Anr[vi], whereby it was observed that in deciding ‘abetment of suicide’ the court should be extremely careful in assessing the facts, circumstances and evidence of each case. Thus, the alleged abettors, in this case, can be convicted if it is proved beyond reasonable doubt that the alleged abettors wanted not only to oust Sushant from Bollywood but wanted him to end his life. In Sushant’s case, the death of the actor is a suicide death, but the element of “abetment” is yet to be tried and proved on the anvil of cogent evidence by the court.
The case of prosecution and threshold of guilt
To establish a case under Section 306 of the IPC, the prosecution will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sushant Singh Rajput committed suicide and was not murdered and while doing so was not under influence of any drug or psychotropic substance. It will also have to prove that he was not a person of frail or weak mind and hence was “hypersensitive”.
To hold the alleged abettors guilty, the prosecution will have to prove that they didn’t merely harass Sushant Singh Rajput but drove him to commit suicide. The harassment was cruel and proximate to the time of the incident, that is on June 14. Through it, the abettors have actively tarnished self-esteem of the victim, which eventually drew him to commit suicide.
Most importantly, the prosecution must prove that Abettors intended for his suicide and thus, created such circumstances that the victim (Sushant) was left with no option but to end his life by committing suicide. Lastly, the victim took his life because he was instigated and/ or provoked to do so by the alleged abettors.
“Thus, the alleged abettors, in this case, can be convicted if it is proved beyond reasonable doubt that the alleged abettors wanted not only to oust Sushant from Bollywood but wanted him to end his life.”
The be all and end all
Sushant’s death is a wake-up call for all of us, as members of civil society, to realize that “mental health” is as significant as “physical heath” and “emotional well-being” is as vital as “material well-being”. We need to build a value system where estimation of success is not measured solitarily in terms of IQ (Intelligence Quotient) but in terms of a blend of both IQ and EQ (Emotional Quotient). The mental health jurisprudence in India is not much developed as the Mental Health Care Act, 2017 (MHCA) neither defines nor provides for “depression”, “clinical depression” or “stress”, and it only concentrates on the distinction between “mental illness” and “mental retardation”. However, of all the odds the only positive legislative move seems to be the decriminalization of attempt to suicide (Section 309 of the IPC) by virtue of Sub-section (1) of Section 115 of the MHCA.[vii]
So far as fate of Sushant’s case (abetment to commit suicide) is concerned, it is too early to comment since the matter is still pending investigation. However, it seems that alleged abettors may be acquitted, because while they wanted to oust Sushant from Bollywood they may not have “intended” to drive him to the point of no return. in times to come, investigation and trial by court will remove the “might and might not” and the truth will come out in a blaze. Rest, for all that matters, in the end, is, “justice be done though heavens fall”.
(The author is an Advocate practising on the original and appellate side of the High Court of Delhi.)
Note: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Crl. A. (MD) No. 142/ 2016 (Date of Decision: 16.06.2016)
[ii] Noushad Ahmed V/s State, Criminal Petition No. 7001/ 2019 (Date of Decision: 23.10.2019)
[iii] Criminal Appeal No. 233/ 2010, Supreme Court of India (Date of Decision: 25.07.2019)
[iv] ILR 2005 (3) Kerala 646
[v] (2017) 1 SCC 433
[vi] (1994) 1 SCC 73
[vii] Sub-section (1) of Section 115 of the MHCA: “Notwithstanding anything contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code.”