Nilabati Behera vs State of Orissa is a significant case and is considered a landmark case, which changed the course of custodial deaths in India. The precious right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India cannot be denied to convicts, under trials, or other prisoners in custody, except according to procedure established by law. There is a great responsibility on the police or prison authorities to ensure that the citizen in its custody is not deprived of his right to life.
- In the instant case, a letter was sent by Smt. Nilabati Behera to the Supreme Court stated that her twenty-two-year-old son, Suman Behera had died in police custody after being inflicted with several injuries.
- The honorable court took suo moto action and converted it into a writ petition under Article 32 of the Indian constitution.
- The petitioner claimed compensation for the violation of her son’s fundamental right to life guaranteed under Article 21.
- The Orissa police had arrested Suman Behara for investigation involving the offence of theft and he was detained at the police outpost.
- The very next day, his dead body was found near the railway track. The lacerations on his body indicated an unnatural death.
- The admitted facts are, that Suman Behera was taken into police custody on 1.12.1987 at 8 a.m. and he was found dead the next day on the railway track near the Police Outpost Jeraikela, without being released from custody, and his death was unnaturally caused by multiple injuries sustained by him.
- The burden is, therefore, clearly on the respondents to explain how Suman Behera sustained those injuries which caused his death.
Whether the Indian constitutional courts, while exercising their jurisdiction under Articles 32 and 226 of the Indian constitution, give monetary compensation for violations of basic rights regarding the idea of sovereign immunity.
- The main contention was that Suman was a victim of police brutality and his death was a typical case of custodial death.
- The respondents argued strongly that the injuries to the deceased’s head and face could not have been caused by the claimed police torture, and that the District Judge’s conclusion to the contrary was incorrect.
- The State argued that the medical evidence established that the deceased’s injuries were caused by lathi blows, but that the nature of the injuries on the face and left temporal region could not have been caused by the lathis, and that the death had therefore occurred in the manner suggested by the police in a train accident and that it was not caused by the lathis.
- This case was adjudicated by Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma, Justice A.S. Anand, Justice, N. Venkatachala
- The court observed through the facts and pieces of evidence of the case with arguments of both the counsels that there was no cogent evidence of any search by the police to find Suman Behara and of his escape from police custody.
- The police also reached out much later to take charge of the body, after it was reported by railwaymen, which raised questions as to its credibility. Further, a doctor before the court deposed that the injury was caused by a blunt object, which may have been lathi blows.
- All the injuries found on his body could not have been caused by a train accident. The court also drew the distinction between the liabilities of the State in public law as opposed to private law.
- It clearly mentioned that a proceeding under Article 32 before the Supreme Court or any High Court is a remedy available in public law and the principle of sovereign immunity does not apply in the case of public law. It is only a defense in private law based on tort.
- It also stressed that it would be highly unjust to expect a person socio-economically disadvantaged person to pursue ordinary civil proceedings under private law. And the Apex Court held the Petitioner awarded compensation of Rs.1,50,000 and a sum of Rs.10,000 to be paid to the Supreme Court Legal Aid Committee.
- The Supreme Court also ordered the State of Orissa to initiate criminal proceedings against those who killed Suman Behara.
- The decision of this case, therefore, made sure that the state could no longer escape liability in Public law and had to be compelled to pay compensation when it committed such gross violations of one’s fundamental rights and very basic human rights.
- The liability of the State of Orissa in the present case to pay the compensation cannot be doubted and was rightly not disputed by the learned Additional Solicitor General.
- It would, however, be appropriate to spell out clearly the principle on which the liability of the State arises in such cases for payment of compensation and the distinction between this liability and the liability in private law for payment of compensation in an action on tort.
- In this case, the honorable court considered whether Article 32 of the Constitution, which is without prejudice to any other action in relation to the same matter that is lawfully available, merely extends to a declaration that there has been a violation and infringement of the guaranteed fundamental rights and rests content with that by relegating the party to seek relief through civil and criminal proceedings, or can it go further and grant redress also by the only praetorian remedy.
- It is an obligation of the State to ensure that no infringement of a citizen’s indefeasible right to life occurs while the citizen is in its custody, unless under the law.
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