A Two Judge Bench of the Supreme Court presided by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice B.V. Nagarathna passed a Judgment dated 01.03.2023 in Ravi Dhingra Versus The State of Haryana in Criminal Appeal No.987 OF 2009 and observed that Section 364A (Kidnapping for ransom, etc) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) has three stages or components, namely, i) abduction and detention of a person; ii) threat to cause death or hurt with a demand for ransom; and iii) in the event that the demand is not met, then cause hurt or death.
An FIR dated 15.02.2000 was lodged at the instance of Complainant, Dr. H.K. Sobti where the Appellants were accused of kidnapping Harsh Sobti (Principal Witness -21), aged 14 years, son of Dr H.K. Sobti and Smt Indra Sobti when he was going to school, at about 8:15 a.m. on the aforesaid date. As per the statement of the Complainant, Harsh Sobti was intimidated by co-accused Ravi Dhingra to ride on his scooter and upon his refusal, he was forcibly put inside a car. Upon screaming for help, he was threatened to be killed if he cried. The Appellants also told him that his affluent father would have to pay a ransom of Rs.50 lakhs. While the Complainant was waiting for the Appellants to receive the ransom and release his child, Harsh Sobti was released on 16.2.2000 and dropped near the house of Suraj Bhan Rathee (PW-11). He made a phone call to his mother, who took him to his house at around 5:30 a.m.
Additional Sessions Judge, Kurukshetra, (‘Trial Court’,) tried the Appellants for the commission of offences under Sections 364 (Kidnapping or abducting in order to murder), 364A (Kidnapping for ransom, etc.), 342 (Punishment for wrongful confinement), 506 (Punishment for criminal intimidation. The Trial Court vide Order dated 29.05.2003 sentenced the Appellants to undergo rigorous imprisonment for three years under Section 148 of the IPC, rigorous imprisonment for life and to pay a fine of Rs.2000/- each under Section 364A read with Section 149 (Every member of unlawful assembly guilty of offence committed in prosecution of common object) of the IPC.
Appellants appealed against the Order of conviction and Sentence dated 29.05.2003 before the Punjab and Haryana High Court and the same was upheld the by High Court on the grounds that all ingredients of Section 364A of the IPC were satisfied. Aggrieved by the above Judgement and Sentence of the Punjab and Haryana High Court dated 13.02.2008, the Appellants approached the Supreme Court by way of Special Leave Petition.
Supreme Court Observations:
At the outset, the Supreme Court takes note that Section 363 of the IPC punishes the act of kidnapping and Section 364 thereof punishes the offence of kidnapping or abduction of a person in order to murder him. Section 364A further adds to the gravity of the offence by involving an instance of coercive violence or substantial threat thereof, to make a demand for ransom. Accordingly, the maximum punishment for the three crimes is seven years imprisonment; ten years’ imprisonment and imprisonment for life or death, respectively. Therefore, it further opined that the nuanced, graded approach of the Parliament while criminalizing the condemnable act of kidnapping must be carefully interpreted.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court further observed that it is necessary to prove not only that such kidnapping or abetment has taken place but that thereafter, the accused threatened to cause death or hurt to such person or by his conduct gave rise to a reasonable apprehension that such person may be put to death or hurt or cause hurt or death to such person in order to compel the Government or any foreign State or international, inter-governmental organization or any other person to do or abstain from doing any act or to pay a ransom.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court relied on the case of Sk Ahmed vs. State of Telangana, (2021) 9 SCC 59, where it was observed that “Section 364A of the IPC has three stages or components, namely, i) kidnapping or abduction of a person and keeping them in detention; ii) threat to cause death or hurt, and the use of kidnapping, abduction, or detention with a demand to pay the ransom; and iii) when the demand is not met, then causing death”. That in Sk Ahmed’s case, the above three conditions were not met and hence the Court had set aside the conviction under Section 364A of the IPC and modified the same to conviction under Section 363, for the reason that the additional conditions were not met.
The Apex Court while applying the above ratio to the case in hand, dealt with Appellants’ argument about contradictions in the statements of the Harsh Sobti before the Trial Court and at the time of filing the FIR. It observed that three crucial changes may be noticed: first, a change in the exact timing of the threat; second, the specificity of the delivery of the threat to kill; and third, omission of the intent behind the threat i.e. to prevent Harsh Sobti from crying out. These details are crucial to proving the second ingredient of the charge under Section 364A and essential to bring home the guilt under this section namely, threat resulting in giving rise to a reasonable apprehension that such person may be put to death or hurt. The Supreme Court further observed that it is clear that this ingredient has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt. The Courts below did not thoroughly address this doubt before convicting the Appellants. For proving the ingredient of threat, the intimidation of the child victim, for the purpose of making him silent, cannot be enough. If the sentence carrying a maximum sentence of death and a minimum sentence of life sentence has such a low evidentiary threshold, the difference between punishments for kidnapping under 363, 364 and 364A shall become meaningless.
Thus, based on the aforesaid reasoning, the Supreme Court allowed the Appeal in parts and conviction Order dated 29.05.2003 under Section 364A of the IPC was set aside. Subsequently, the Appellants were convicted for the offence under Section 363 of the IPC; i.e., kidnapping and sentenced to imprisonment for seven years and a fine of Rs.2000/-.
The Indian Lawyer