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A Case Review on Phoolan Devi vs. State of M.P and Others

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Introduction

Criminal law’s goal is to preserve the security of an individual and guarantee the survival of the group. A criminal is granted punishment correlative to his crime and criminal law has legislation to determine it. The defense of necessity can be applied when a person firmly believes there is an immediate threat and commits a crime in order to survive. This defense is related to the Phoolan Devi v. State of M.P and Others (1996)[1].

Facts

Phoolan was born into a deprived family in rural Uttar Pradesh, undergo child marriage and had an abusive marriage before taking up a life of crime. Being raped multiple times by her husband, the teenage Phoolan ran away. After sometime she joined a gang of bandits. She was the only woman in that gang, and due to her relationship with one gang member, coupled with caste differences, caused disturbance between gang members and her lover was killed in that gunfight. The victorious rival faction belonging to the Rajputs, took Phoolan hostage to their village of Behmai, and took turns raping her repeatedly over several weeks.

After escaping, Phoolan rejoined the remnants of her dead lover’s faction belonging to Mallaah, and continued with banditry. A few months later, her new gang attacked the village of Behmai to exact revenge for Phoolan’s sufferings. About twenty-two Rajput men of that village were shot dead by Phoolan’s gang.

Phoolan eluded capture for two years after the massacre in the village before she and her few surviving gang-members surrendered to the police in 1983. She was charged with 48 crimes, including multiple murders, pillage, kidnapping and arson. However, she laid down four further conditions:

  1. A promise that any member of her gang who surrenders would not be imposed on of death penalty.
  2. Other members of the gang should not exceed eight years as well.
  3. A plot of land should be given to her.
  4. To witness her surrender ceremony, her entire family should be escorted by the police.

Phoolan filed a writ in January 1993 under Article 32 of the Constitution of India, she prayed for a direction for her release from custody, and an appropriate writ, direction rescinding the massive number of prosecutions instigated against her for commission of heinous offences, e.g dacoity and murder, by the State of Uttar Pradesh. In substance, she claims that her right to speedy trial guaranteed under Article 21 in the Constitution of India 1949 had been infringed and her extended custody was without any legal authority.

Issues

  1. Whether the limited scope of this writ petition is the question of the release of the petitioner from custody on the present facts.
  2. Whether the content and effect of the terms of surrender alleged by the petitioner be raised and decided in the criminal cases pending against the petitioner.
  3. Whether the traumatic experience she had been through might justify the crimes she had committed and reduce the punishment bestowed upon her.

Judgment

Phoolan passed eleven years in jail, as various charges against her were trialed in the Court. Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party who was the head of the State government withdrew all charges against Phoolan and released her in 1994.

  • Sri Ram Jethmalani submitted that the petitioner was required to serve the sentence of three years imprisonment in the only case in the State of Madhya Pradesh which term of imprisonment ended on 25-7-1985 and the further custody for a period of eight years contended the terms of the surrender.
  • The petitioner’s argument that the violation of her right to speedy trial is proved by these facts alone to justify quashing all the prosecutions is indefensible.
  • The petitioner is entitled to release at present, unless by any order made hereafter by any competent court she is required to be taken into custody.
  • The writ petition was disposed of.

Reasoning

The honorable judge J.S Verma decided upon the dismissal of the petition by the petitioner. The reasons for such a verdict could be as per Section 268 in The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. To protect the society from plunging into disorder and inequality to other criminals who might raise similar allegations about their pasts and try to reduce their sentences. Section 268 has stated that any person or group of persons may not be removed from the prison and before making any decision on that statement, the government should take into consideration some conditions.

And those being, nature of offence, likelihood of disturbance or chaos and public interests. Removing Phoolan Devi from prison might cause civilian unrest, being the nature of her criminal life quite severe and heinous. Her surrender’s conditions have already been taken under contemplation. And demanding to be released due to the surplus time taken to prosecute her due to the bureaucratic and systematic nature of the judicial system might cause unrest in the society due to her criminal records.

Analysis

If any conflict created by a person turns violent and then unintentionally kills the other party while defending himself, a claim of self-defense might reduce the punishment, but would not excuse the killing entirely.

So, in this case the traumatic experience Phoolan Devi had been through might not justify the crimes she had committed but it reduced the punishment bestowed upon her in the context of equity and compassion. Although necessity cannot be a defense, her demand for surrender, 8 years of jail time was not considered by the court as the swift judgment for her crimes could not be provided. Consequently, other criminals might raise similar allegations about their past to reduce their sentences using this judgment as precedence. Thus, many factors had to be considered for this petition.

Another important fact transpired from this case was that, actually the root of Phoolan’s crimes was sexual harassment and rape.

Rape and sexual harassment are two sides of the same coin that demonstrate the power of man to dominate that of women. Both undermine the integrity of the victim, physically as well as mentally.

“While a murderer destroys the physical frame of the victim, a rapist degrades and defiles the soul of a helpless female.” – Justice Arjit Passayat

 According to the official statistics of 2019, one woman is molested every 16 minutes in India. These statistics refer to only reported cases. If the unreported cases were to be embraced, it would be a matter of seconds rather than minutes. Most of the time investigation of the cases is not reported by victims because of various reasons such as – family pressures, the manner of the police, the unreasonably lengthy and unjust process and application of law and the resulting consequences. Sometimes the significant victories are achieved after a wait of a decade, while sometimes there are none. The Thakur who raped Phoolan multiple times and caused her lover’s death did not get proper retribution by Court as well.

The fact that these conscienceless criminals who sometimes even beat and torment their victims, who even include small children, are not going to be deterred or ennobled by such a trivial retribution, the Courts have to comprehend that. Hence, in the best interest of society and justice, these criminals should be sentenced to life imprisonment or stiff penalties.

Conclusion    

Every human has the right to live and extrajudicial killing of another should not go without due consequences. Rather such society and the judicial system must endeavor to create such a situation where one should not have to take law into his or her own hands in order to protect one’s honor and undisturbed lifestyle. The prevention of crime should be a concern of the judicial system as much as it is giving appropriate judgment for a crime committed. The complete structure of justice requires an overhaul; otherwise the victim shall no longer be the woman, but humanity.     

Writer: 

Sabrina Sultana Tithi, Student of Law, Jahangirnagar University & Junior Executive Member, NILS Jahangirnagar University Chapter 
Footnote:        

[1]Writ petition (Crl.) No. 509 of 1995, [11 SCC 19].

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