Since November 4, the nation has wanted to know more about the role Republic TV channel owner and star anchor Arnab Goswami is claimed to have played in allegedly abetting the death by suicide of an architect in 2018.

The architect, Anvay Naik, and his mother died by suicide in May 2018 in Alibaug, near Mumbai. He left a suicide note claiming that he had taken the step because he had not been paid dues amounting to Rs 5.40 crores owed to him by Goswami and two other people.

This is not the first time a death by suicide over non-payment of dues has featured so prominently in the news. In 2012, for instance, the wife of a staffer of the embattled Kingfisher Airlines died by suicide, citing the outstanding salary due to her husband as the reason for her decision. This led politicians across the country to call for police action against Kingfisher owner Vijay Mallya for abetment of suicide.

Even if the police make a bulletproof case against an accused person for non-payment of dues, can that be enough to convict him? And can non-payment of dues amount to abetment of suicide?

Breaking it down

Under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code, abetment to suicide could result in a jail term that may extend to ten years and a fine. It needs to be read alongside Section 107 of the Indian Penal Code, which defines abetment. It can occur in three major ways: instigation, conspiring to do or illegally omit to do an act and intentionally aiding the commission of suicide. What evidence would a court require to convict someone on the charge of abetment to suicide?

In Ramesh Kumar v. the State of Chattisgarh, the Supreme Court held that the prosecution has to mainly prove two things: that the deceased was instigated and that the accused knew with reasonable certainty that his instigation would incite such consequences.

In Chitresh Kumar Chopra v. State, the Supreme Court said that instigation could be in the form of goading, provoking or urging someone forward until they teeter on the edge of ruin and see no choice other than forward.

Elucidating the concept of intentionally aiding suicide, the Supreme Court in Sohan Raj Sharma v. the State of Haryana said that abetment is not only a mental process of instigating a person but also involves intentionally aiding that person in committing the act.

Most importantly, for a conviction to be sustained, it is necessary that an active act or direct act of the abettor led the deceased to take such a step, the Supreme Court said in Gangula Mohan Reddy v. Andhra Pradesh.

Proving intention

For charges of abetment to stick under Section 306, the prosecution will have to prove that the existence of mens rea or intention on the part of the accused to commit the offence. In Gurcharan Singh v. the State of Punjab it was laid down that mens rea cannot be assumed: it has to be blatantly evident. To prove mens rea, it has to be shown that the accused had a guilty mind and in furtherance of that state of mind through a direct act abetted the suicide of the deceased.

In a situation where dues have not been paid, making out mens rea would be difficult because it would have to be demonstrated that the accused purposely withheld payment knowing that the deceased would take this step.

However, Justice SS Shinde (who coincidentally heard Goswami’s case in the Bombay High Court last week) had previously laid down an exception. In Vaijnath Kondiba Khandke vs. the State of Maharashtra, he had held that in cases where the accused people have no such intention, but they limit the deceased’s choices by causing “tremendous mental tension” to push the deceased to take their life, it can be said that the accused instigated the commission of suicide.

No straitjacket formula can be applied to cases of abetment of suicide; the unique circumstances of each case will determine which way the pendulum of justice will swing. For example, in the State of Madhya Pradesh v. Devdutt, the facts have an uncanny resemblance to the present case. In similar circumstances, where a suicide note was found in the deceased’s pocket, squarely placing the blame on the accused for not paying his dues and harassing him, the High Court of Madhya Pradesh went on to hold that the accused were not guilty of abetment of suicide.

An important question that went on to buttress the court’s decision was whether the accused created such extreme circumstances that the deceased was left with no choice but to take his life? In a situation where the cause of death is non-payment of dues, recourse would lie in the form of a money recovery suit, among other remedies.

In a situation where alternative remedies are available and a reasonable person in similar circumstances would avail of such remedies, the accused may not be convicted for abetment even if their name is mentioned in the suicide note.

The Supreme Court has further developed this line of argument in State of West Bengal vs. Orilal Jaiswal and Anr., laying down that if the deceased was hypersensitive to discord in personal life and society, this could weaken the charge of abetment of suicide. While suicide patterns differ, would the circumstances created by the accused lead a reasonable man to take a similar action? The court said that each individual has a different set of vulnerabilities that impact their reactions to similar situations.

In a case of non-payment of dues, the court while taking into account a range of sensibilities will ascertain if the accused could have conceived any nexus between the act and the resultant suicide. The Madhya Pradesh High Court in Devdutt’s case has gone so far as to say that the accused could not have dreamt that their actions would result in such a horrific outcome for non-payment of dues for the step taken by the deceased was “ultra-sensitive”. This is one of the reasons why the High Court of Madhya Pradesh held that the accused were not guilty of abetment.

While the suicide note is often regarded as clinching evidence, in certain cases such as non-payment of dues, the court will also analyse extenuating circumstances. The conviction will not ride solely on the basis of the suicide note. Often, the victim’s decision to end their life is unaccompanied by a direct act or instigation by the accused despite the contents of a suicide note.

In the Arnab Goswami case, the prosecution would have to prove that the three accused people purposely and maliciously withheld payment of dues knowing about Naik’s fragile mental and financial state. If these elements are satisfied, then non-payment of dues could be held as grounds for abetment of suicide.

Manvi Rathod and Keiya Barot are final-year law students at Pravin Gandhi College of Law, Mumbai.