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In the month of May 2006, in the chaos of Reservation debates with speculation of World Cup rounding the airs, the Supreme Court judgment in the case of Om Prakash v. State of Uttar Pradesh managed to grab its own fair share of media attention. But was it really fair? Were there actually earth- shattering principles laid down to protect the interest of helpless victims of the gruesome crime of rape? The media hype made us believe so. But closer legal scrutiny reveals a different story. Hence, what this article seeks to achieve is to examine whether the judgment in reality laid down any new principles in relation to appreciation of corroborative evidence in regard to rape cases.
First the facts of the case needs to be appreciated. The husband of the victim was arrested and was brought before the court for challan proceedings. The accused was a relative of the parents of the victim and had come to attend the same. The accused in this case was a relative of the husband who along with the victim, came to the court. Here during the pendency of the proceedings the accused directed the brother of the husband of victim to inquire whether challan was released. In the meanwhile the accused pulled the victim, who was six months pregnant on to veranda of the zilla parishad near the court and tried to rape her. She raised alarm and the accused was assaulted and apprehended to a police station were an FIR was lodged. The trial and the High Court convicted the accused particularly based on the statement of the victim and the eye witnesses and a sentence of ten years was awarded under section 376 (2) (e) for raping a pregnant women. Supreme Court dismissed the appeal filed by the accused.
In the instant case the issue before the Supreme Court was whether the conviction under section 376(2) (e) was valid or not. Supreme Court based its final decision on whether the accused had full possibility of knowing that the victim was pregnant. The Court in the absence of any Positive evidence reduced the sentence from ten years to seven years.
However before deciding on the fundamental issue, as obiter the Supreme Court engaged in an academic discussion about placing reliance on the statement of the prosecutrix and convicting the accused.
The paragraph of judgment in focus is Para 11 which reads as follows:
It is settled law that the victim of sexual assault is not treated as accomplice and as such, her evidence does not require corroboration from any other evidence including the evidence of a doctor. In a given case even if the doctor who examined the victim does not find sign of rape, it is no ground to disbelieve the sole testimony of the prosecutrix.
In normal course a victim of sexual assault does not like to disclose such offence even before her family members much less before public or before the police. The Indian women has tendency to conceal such offence because it involves her prestige as well as prestige of her family. Only in few cases, the victim girl or the family members has courage to go before the police station and lodge a case. In the instant case the suggestion given on behalf of the defence that the victim has falsely implicated the accused does not appeal to reasoning. There was no apparent reason for a married woman to falsely implicate the accused after scatting her own prestige and honour.
In the first instance, as the judges themselves point out, the ‘ground-breaking’ principles as laid down in the judgment is nevertheless based on settled law.
Under the Indian Evidence Act, ‘evidence’ means and includes all statements which the Court permits or requires to be made before it by witnesses, in relation to the matters of fact under inquiry. In case of statement made before the court, The Indian Evidence Act per se require nowhere any kind of corroboration. A brief sketch of the law in this regard is as follows.
Corroboration is not defined within the Indian Evidence Act.The common law definition of the term is The word ‘corroboration’ is not a technical term; it means by itself no more than evidence tending to confirm, support or strengthen other evidence.It connotes support or confirmation , and indicates, in relation to the law of evidence, that certain evidence is confirmed in its tenor and effect by other admissible and independent evidence (the corroborative evidence).
It can be deduced from an array of case laws that the corroboration is based on the principles of prudence. Evidentiary value of a deposition which is otherwise admissible is not just wiped out in the absence of corroboration.
A closer analysis of the judgments in relation to rape cases in the course of the past fifty years reveals as to how Indian judiciary has perceived the requirement of corroborative evidence. In the early years the court had followed a narrower interpretation of the principle of prudence.
The principles of that period was succinctly laid down in two decisions of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court made it clear that:
1. The prosecutrix in a case of rape cannot be treated as an accomplice;
2. that the Evidence Act nowhere provides that the evidence of a prosecutrix in a rape case requires corroboration; and that
3. as a matter of prudence, Courts have insisted on the need of corroboration of the evidence of the prosecutrix.
This approach of the court could be attributed to the principle that the statement of an ‘interested party’ should be accepted only if it is corroborated. The test for corroboration however was held to lie in the naturalness of the story deposed by the prosecutrix. If there be any doubt as regards its genuineness, there is the need of caution and, therefore, of corroboration.
However the scenario changed drastically in 1980’s through a series of landmark judgments. The most significant judgment in this relation was Bharwada Bhoginbhai Hirjibhai v. State of Gujarat. The Court in this case, felt that asking for corroboration in sex offences was like adding insult to injury of the victim. There was no reason to insist on corroboration because of the very nature of the offence, i.e. sex crimes, which makes it almost impossible to gather independent witnesses for corroboration. However, it was laid that in certain circumstances corroboration by medical evidence alone was required. These included cases where a woman of the age of majority is found in compromising position, who is likely to make accusations for self preservation and where the ‘probabilities-factor’ is out of tune.
But gradually this insistence on medical evidence noticeably diminished over the years. So the recent judgments while maintaining that no corroboration is required to support the prosecutrix’s statements, draws no explicit distinction between medical and other corroboration.
The principle is based on the fact that the victim of the rape is not an accomplice to the crime and her statement should be relied upon and the need for corroboration arises only in cases where the court cannot place implicit reliance on the statement of the prosecutrix.
So again in State of Maharashtra v. Chandra Prakash Kewalchand Jain, it was held that if totality of the circumstances appearing on the record of the case discloses that the prosecutrix doesn’t have a strong motive to falsely involve the person charged, the court should have no hesitation in accepting her evidence.
Various high courts have upheld that a conviction of an accused can be based solely on the evidence of the prosecutrix if her evidence is worthy of credence. Insistence on corroboration is advisable but it is not compulsory in the eye of law.
Later various tests for determining the need for corroboration was made clear. In Sher Singh alias Shera v. State it was held that uncorroborated testimony of a single witness may and can be acted upon provided that the evidence must be clear and convincing and should be of unimpeachable character. Various other considerations were also laid down in this regard. This include statement of prosecutrix, consistency in statement and increase in the number of improvements. All in all, these factors must necessarily vary from case to case.
The position under the English law is similar. Under the English Law, Corroboration need not consist of direct evidence that the accused committed the offence. Circumstantial evidence is sufficient and there is no need for it to amount to a confirmation of the whole account given by the witness.
If we track down the principles laid down in rape cases, it is clear that the sublimation of the need for corroboration is reiterated here as well. So in R v Sanders it was upheld that jury may convict upon the uncorroborated evidence of the alleged victim. However, the trial judge must warn the jury that it is dangerous to do so.
After analyzing the law as laid down in King v. Baskerville , it can be stated that the English and the Indian law is made of the same fabric. The present law can thus be summarized as:
In my opinion, the true rule is that in every case of this type the rule about the advisability of corroboration should be present to the mind of the Judge.. The tender years of the child, coupled with other circumstances appearing in the case, may render corroboration unnecessary but that is a question of fact in each case.....There is no rule of practice that there must, in every case, be corroboration before a conviction can be allowed to stand.
The whole discussion essentially brings us back to the fundamental question of whether Om Prakash v. State of Uttar Pradesh was landmark in its true spirit. Undeniably the conclusion would be the other way round. Then why was there so huge a media hype generated around the case. A sensible mind can only guess that it was done to generate more revenues on caustic issues like rape. It is submitted that a case should be appreciated on its true merit. No doubt Om Prakash v. State of Uttar Pradesh was a stepping stone to achieve the adobe for the millions of victims of this gross crime. But it is hopefully not the last one.
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