V. VENKATESAN IN FRONTLINE
The Supreme Court judgment dismissing the curative petitions against its verdict in the Bhopal gas criminal case leaves observers nonplussed.
ON May 11, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court unanimously delivered a judgment that, perhaps, should never be considered a precedent. The Bench, comprising Chief Justice of India S.H. Kapadia and Justices Altamas Kabir, R.V. Raveendran, B. Sudershan Reddy and Aftab Alam, held that a judgment delivered by the Supreme Court could not bind a lower court and that no decision by any court, including the Supreme Court, could be read in a manner as to nullify the express provisions of an Act or the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).
The judgment, according to several experts, is deeply flawed. The Bench delivered the judgment while dismissing curative petitions filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and others for recalling and setting aside the Supreme Court’s judgment in Keshub Mahindra vs State of Madhya Pradesh, delivered on September 13, 1996. In Keshub Mahindra, a two-judge Bench, comprising Justice A. Ahmadi and Justice S. Majmudar, had quashed the charge of culpable homicide under Section 304 (Part II) of the Indian Penal Code, framed by the sessions court, against nine Indian accused in the Bhopal gas disaster criminal case and had directed the trial court to frame charges against them under Section 304-A, IPC.
The three foreign accused – the then chief of the Union Carbide Corporation, Warren Anderson; UCC; and Union Carbide Eastern Inc. – were absconding and did not, like the Indian accused, appeal against the charge of culpable homicide framed by the trial court. The Madhya Pradesh High Court had upheld the charge of culpable homicide against the accused before they went in appeal in the Supreme Court.
Under Section 304 (Part II) of the IPC, whoever commits culpable homicide not amounting to murder shall be punished with imprisonment, which may extend to 10 years, or with fine or with both if the act is done with the knowledge that it is likely to cause death. Section 304-A, on the other hand, seeks to punish those causing the death of any person by doing any rash or negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide with imprisonment for a term that may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
More important, in Keshub Mahindra, the Supreme Court invoked its powers under Article 142 of the Constitution. This Article empowers the Supreme Court to pass such a decree or make such an order as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it, and such decrees or orders shall be enforceable throughout the country. In Keshub Mahindra, the court invoked this Article in order to avoid multiplicity of proceedings and to hold that the material led by the prosecution could only support charges under Section 304-A against the accused. It is fairly well settled that once a superior court holds that only Section 304-A of the IPC is applicable against the accused, Section 304 (Part II) will be inapplicable against the same accused in that case because the charge of negligence automatically excludes the charge of culpable homicide.
Surprisingly, the Supreme Court, in its May 11 judgment, did not deal with the question of how a decree or order made under Article 142 of the Constitution cannot be binding on a trial court. The curative petitions argued that because of the judgment in Keshub Mahindra, the trial court (Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal) was barred from exercising its judicial power under Section 323 of the CrPC. This provision enables a magistrate to alter the charge of negligence by instituting the charge of culpable homicide against the accused and commit the case to the sessions court on the basis of evidence that comes on record during the trial.
But the trial court had observed that in view of the Supreme Court’s judgment in Keshub Mahindra, no court had the power to try the accused for an offence higher than the one under Section 304-A of the IPC. Accordingly, the Chief Judicial Magistrate, in his judgment delivered on June 7 last year, found eight of the Indian accused (one had expired during the trial period) guilty under Section 304-A and sentenced them to two years’ imprisonment.
Appeals have been filed in the sessions court with a prayer for the enhancement of the sentences against the accused on the grounds that the CJM erred in committing the trial of the case to the Sessions Court under Section 323 of the CrPC. These appeals, filed by the CBI and the State of Madhya Pradesh, are pending before the sessions court in Madhya Pradesh. Meanwhile, the CBI and others had filed the curative petitions in the Supreme Court in the hope of securing substantive justice for the victims and survivors of the disaster.
Ironically, the Supreme Court’s holding in Keshub Mahindra was patently flawed as the CBI even in that case had argued that evidence on hand supported the charge of culpable homicide against the accused. But the May 11 judgment defends the Keshub Mahindra judgment to the hilt.
The Kapadia Bench observed: “In the 1996 judgment, this Court was at pains to make it absolutely clear that its findings were based on materials gathered in investigation and brought before the Court till that stage. At every place in the judgment where the Court records the finding or makes an observation in regard to the appropriate charge against the accused, it qualifies the finding or the observation by saying ‘on the materials produced by the prosecution for framing charge’. ‘At this stage’ is a kind of a constant refrain in that judgment.”
But those familiar with the Keshub Mahindra case in 1996 would aver that the Ahmadi-Majmudar Bench at that time simply and inexplicably ignored the materials cited by the CBI in support of the charge of culpable homicide. Therefore, its assertions that its “findings were based on materials gathered in investigation and brought before the Court till that stage” were not at all convincing, as they were contrary to facts.
In the curative petitions case, the Supreme Court was expected to examine the claims of the Ahmadi-Majmudar Bench for their veracity and set them aside, as they were contrary to facts. But the Kapadia Bench wrongly concluded that the 1996 judgment was not a fetter against the proper exercise of powers by a court under the CrPC and that the remedy for the curative petitioners lay in approaching the appellate/revisional courts to correct the magistrate who misread it.
The Supreme Court even felt vindicated by the arguments of the CBI and the State of Madhya Pradesh in the pending appeals before the Sessions Court in Madhya Pradesh. Observers are nonplussed that the apex court chose to rely on the arguments of a party in a pending case in a lower court, rather than independently examine the plea of the petitioners on merit.
The Bhopal Group for Information and Action and other survivor organisations have expressed dismay over the judgment and called May 11 another black day for justice. They recalled that the Supreme Court, without conducting even one hearing, had dismissed the review petition filed by three survivor organisations against the Keshub Mahindra judgment in 1997. By its May 11 judgment, the Supreme Court heaped more injustice on the victims of the disaster, they said.
Legal researcher and commentator Usha Ramanathan, who has been closely following the Bhopal disaster litigation, put it succinctly: “The May 11 judgment shows that the Supreme Court lacked institutional memory with regard to what the Bhopal victims got out of the litigation. The option of curative petitions confers on the Supreme Court an extraordinary jurisdiction to correct its own past judgments. Yet, the court reaches an extraordinary conclusion and tells the lower court that it could violate its own order. It makes no sense. The court simply borrowed the formula suggested by the counsel for the accused. It should have either set aside the Keshub Mahindra judgment, or done nothing.”
The May 11 judgment also supports the view that the Supreme Court today sends discordant signals about the correct legal position. Recently, a two-judge Bench of the court led by Justice Markandey Katju passed strictures against a trial court judge for ignoring the Supreme Court’s ruling. The Kapadia Bench, however, thinks that there is nothing wrong if a lower court proceeds as if it is not bound by the Supreme Court’s ruling delivered earlier.
- CBI curative plea in Bhopal case ‘fallacious,’ rules Supreme Court (hindu.com)
- CBI will move Bhopal sessions court for early hearing (hindu.com)
- Hearing today on curative petitions in Bhopal gas case (hindu.com)
- Bhopal gas case: Centre to ask CBI to push for early hearing (hindu.com)
- Supreme Court to examine plea for higher compensation to gas victims (hindu.com)
- India Court Won’t Reopen Bhopal Case (online.wsj.com)
- Indian court rejects call for harsh Bhopal penalty (seattletimes.nwsource.com)