Govindaswamy v. State of Kerala (Soumya Rape Case)

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Facts: 

The facts of the case thus, in a nutshell, are, that the victim was travelling on February 1, 2011, in Ernakulam-Shornur passenger train, when the accused Charley Thomas aka ‘Govindachamy’ on seeing her alone in the female compartment attacked her brutally hitting her head many times against the walls of the coach causing grievous injuries. He then threw her from the train on the railway tracks and raped her. The villagers found her in an unconscious state on the railway tracks near Vallathol station. She succumbed too many serious injuries and died in the hospital after 5 days of the incident and therefore, the Thrissur Fast Track Court imposed the death penalty on the accused under section 376, 302 and 394 read with 397 of IPC which was later after 2 years upheld by the Division Bench of the High Court of Kerala. But when the case went in Appeal to the Supreme Court, The court commuted the death sentence to seven years imprisonment for murder and life imprisonment for rape charges.

Trial and verdict

Govindaswamy (aged 30, from Virudhachalam, Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu has been found guilty in the rape and murder case of Soumya by the Thrissur fast track court judge, KN Raveendra Babu, on 31 October 2011. Pronouncement of judgment has been delayed for 4 November since the Public Prosecutor submitted before the court the documents to prove previous convictions of the accused which showed that he had undergone imprisonment in eight cases in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and trial of another robbery case was in progress. He was later awarded a death sentence by the court. The high court of Kerala upheld the trial court verdict in a 359-page judgement by the judges, T.R. Ramachandran Nair and B. Kemal Pasha.

Supreme Court (bench composed of Mr Ranjan Gogoi, Prafulla C. Pant and Uday Umesh Lalit) set aside murder charges and altered to rigorous imprisonment for seven years under Section 325 IPC, stating that: "The death of the deceased was occasioned by a combination of injury no.1 and 2, and complications arising therefrom including aspiration of blood into the air passages, resulting in anoxic brain damage. The same, in the opinion of the doctor, had occurred due to the fact that the deceased was kept in a supine position for the purpose of sexual assault. 

We are of the opinion that the liability of the accused of Injury No.1 would not require a re-determination in view of the evidence. However, so far as Injury No.2 is concerned, unless the fall from the train can be ascribed to the accused on the basis of the cogent and reliable evidence, meaning thereby, that the accused had pushed the deceased out of the train and the possibility of the deceased herself jumping out of train is ruled out, the liability of the accused of the said injury may not necessarily follow."

It upheld life imprisonment for rape, stating "Having regard to the fact that the said offence was committed on the deceased who had already suffered extreme injuries on her body, we are of the view that not only the offence under Section 376 IPC was committed by the accused, the same was so committed in a most brutal and grotesque manner which would justify the imposition of a life sentence as awarded by the learned Trial Court and confirmed by the High Court". All the sentences imposed shall run concurrently. The judges were Ranjan Gogoi, Prafulla Chandra Pant and Uday U. Lalit.

 

Analysis:

In this case, the Supreme Court had overlooked Section 300 of IPC which defines murder and has 4 parts. Supreme Court only looked at the first part which requires the intention to kill and ignored the rest of the 3 parts which do not require intention. Moreover, the survival of the victim for few days does not mitigate the brutality of the assault, because the post-mortem report says that the death was caused due to assault as she had 6 wounds on the top left part of her head that cannot be caused by falling off the train but can only happen by hitting her head repeatedly on a surface. It was not just any part of the body like hands or legs, but her head was the target which in an ordinary course causes death and thus itself shows the intention of the accused to kill the victim. Moreover, the Court relied on the testimony of the two witnesses who were sitting in the adjacent compartment of the train, where the middle-aged man told that the victim herself jumped off from the train. The court very conveniently ignored that the Hearsay evidence are inadmissible in the court of law under section 60 of the Indian Evidence Act, except in cases of dying declaration and opinion of the expert. The Supreme Court said that it was not clear whether the accused pushed her or she herself jumped out of the train, and therefore liability cannot be attributed to Govindachamy for the injuries sustained due to fall. This conclusion of the Supreme Court implies that if the victim had to jump out of the train to save herself from the brutal injuries sustained by her, then there is a break in the chain of causation. If the victim in order to save herself from rape and grievous hurt jumped out of the train, then it is reasonably foreseeable that she would commit such act and this should not be considered as breaking the chain of causation. 

In Criminal cases, the worst part is that the victim or prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that such a crime has been committed by the accused. The Court has again proved in this case that it has no place for women. This was an opportunity wasted where the court could have ruled on an important issue of causation in criminal law.

The absence of eyewitnesses, in this case, should not be considered as a lacuna and the nature of the crime should have been taken into consideration by the honourable court and declare this as ‘the rarest of the rare case’. The accused Govindachamy is a habitual offender and was previously convicted for robbery and assault. He had almost eight cases against him in his native state, Tamil Nadu. The fast track court awarded the death penalty based on the finding that he was a habitual offender and the brutal rape as a result of it. But this fact was not taken into consideration by the Hon’ble Supreme Court while deciding the final verdict of the case. The accused had no guilt or regret of committing the crime and there is a possibility that if not given the death sentence, he would again dare to commit such heinous crimes. This case appears to have hidden layers and therefore more investigations need to be done regarding the actual identity of Govinchamy as his name is registered as Charley Thomas in police records of Tamil Nadu. Also, the one very intriguing question that should have been raised in this case is about hiring BA Aloor, a prominent lawyer who charges Rs. 5, 00,000 for each case and has already defended him thrice. The convict was reported to be ‘mentally unbalanced beggar’, then how all of a sudden he could hire such an expensive lawyer to defend him. Such a large amount of money cannot be afforded by the accused, and then who is this faceless cash-rich group who wants to save the accused of murder charges4. These hidden facts show that there is more to this case beyond the issue of justice to Soumya which needs to be investigated critically.

 

Reactions

Former Supreme Court judge Justice Markandey Katju has said the Supreme Court must review its judgment in Soumya case, in which the apex court found accused Govindachamy not guilty of murder but only guilty of rape. "This is not a just punishment at all and it is hard for the public in Kerala to digest", Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan said. Law Minister of Kerala, A.K. Balan said people of the state were anxious and sad over the verdict delivered earlier in the day. Senior CPI (M) leader V. S. Achuthanandan said the verdict was 'shocking' and 'unfortunate'. Kaleeswaram Raj, a prominent lawyer in the Supreme Court and Kerala high court, felt that the verdict was shockingly soft and highly dispiriting. "With great respect, I may say that the punishment imposed by the Supreme Court is too meagre and has no deterrent effect. Also, it fails to satisfy the public consciousness. The court has rightly retained the maximum possible punishment of life imprisonment on the accused that is a potential threat to society. But the court could have done more than that. 

There were also other punishable offences which were not properly dealt with. Those included extortion, assault etc., which deserved separate jail terms", he wrote in the media. 

In response, The Supreme Court Bench decided to convert that blog by Justice Markandey Katju into a review petition and asked him to personally appear in court to debate. On 11 November 2016, he appeared in the court and submitted his arguments. The Court then dictated the order rejecting the review petition and issued contempt of court notice to him stating that "Prima facie, the statements made seem to be an attack on the Judges and not on the judgment". 

On 6 January 2017, The Supreme Court has accepted Justice Markandey Katju’s apology and closed the contempt proceedings against him.

 

Conclusion: 

This case was an opportunity where the Judiciary could have set an example in the society by awarding death punishment to the accused having a long list of criminal cases against him. The court already had taken 5 long years to deliver the judgment and as it is rightly said that Justice delayed is Justice Denied, which the court could have proved wrong by giving a just decision and declaring it as ‘the rarest of the rare case’. Many times Court becomes insensitive towards women victims since all the crimes against them must be proved beyond reasonable doubts. This is the condition in India, where victim women become double victimized by the Criminal Justice System and such long delays by the judiciary in delivering judgment allows the perpetrators to move with courage. Victims need to feel that they are an integral part of the Criminal Justice System and are not disregarded. 

Therefore there is an urgent need to take a fresh look at the position in which the women as a victim of crime is placed in our criminal justice system. Women should be able to rely on the justice system which is not biased and is free from myths and stereotypes, and on the Judiciary whose impartiality is not compromised in any situation. Justice is not a means but it is an end in itself which everyone who is right on their part deserves. 

Violent incidents have continued to make headlines in India and statistics tell only a part of the story - campaigners say thousands of rapes and cases of sexual assault are not even reported to the police. There are some women who have never reported being assaulted because they are ashamed, or because of the stigma associated with sexual crimes, or because they are afraid that they will not be believed.

Some say strict punishment, swiftly delivered, will instil a fear of the law in the public mind and deter rape, but experts say the only permanent solution to the problem is to dismantle the hold of patriarchal thinking, the mindset that regards women as being a man's property.