New Delhi: Hearing an appeal pending with it for about 13 years, the Supreme Court acquitted a 65-year-old man convicted by a trial court in Punjab in 2005 for taking a bribe of Rs 300, saying that “the demand for an illegal gratification (bribe) was not proven in his case.”
The division bench of Justices Abhay S. Oka and Rajesh Bindal Thursday observed that Sections 7 and 13(1)(d) (i) and (ii) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, make the proof of demand as well as acceptance of illegal gratification by a public servant essential to hold him guilty of the offence.
In 2003, Jagtar Singh who worked as a cleaner in a government office in Punjab’s Faridkot was accused of taking a bribe of Rs. 300 for supplying a copy of a death certificate. He was convicted by a trial court in 2005 and. In 2010, the Punjab and Haryana High Court also upheld his conviction following which he moved the apex court.
Jagtar Singh, 65, served 38 days in jail and has been out on bail since 2008, Singh’s lawyer Gagan Gupta told ThePrint. He retired from service in 2016, he said.
To acquit the man, the SC referred to its last week’s Constitution Bench judgment in the Neeraj Dutta vs NCT of Delhi case, where it said that mere acceptance of an illegal gratification without anything more will not be an offence under Section 7 or Section 13 (1)(d), (i) and (ii) of the Act. The court had said that the offer of the bribe as well as the demand by the public servant must be proved as a fact.
Highlighting that the Jagtar Singh Vs State of Punjab case was not one in which “the demand [of illegal gratification] was reiterated when the money was allegedly paid to him”, the division bench said that the HC passed the judgment merely on the assumption that because the money was recovered from him, there must have been a demand for it.
The top court noted that there was not even circumstantial evidence to prove such a demand.
Also Read: How a 15-yr-old spent 5 yrs on death row for rape-murder before being released by Supreme Court
No evidence to prove demand
According to the judgment, Jagtar Singh allegedly took Rs. 300 for supplying a copy of the death certificate of one Maghar Singh who died in 2003. Maghar Singh’s nephew, Jit Singh came in touch with the Jagtar who allegedly demanded Rs. 500 to provide the certificate, however, they both settled on Rs. 300 for the task.
However, later, Jit consulted an ex-member of panchayat Chamkaur Singh who advised him to approach Faridkot’s vigilance office’s Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), following which an FIR was registered.
A plan was devised to catch the accused for which Chamkaur was made the shadow witness and the DSP gave phenolphthalein-coated three 100 rupee notes to Jit Singh, noting their serial numbers in the memo. It was alleged that the accused was caught off-guard while accepting the money.
A shadow witness accompanies the complainant in plain clothes to the public servant seeking bribe, to witness the bribe-taking.
However, the court noted that Jit and Chamkaur turned hostile during the trial.
The man’s counsel argued that he was working as a cleaner in the office and did not have any authority at the time to prepare or deliver death certificates.
The state counsel, on the other hand, said that from the recovery of phenolphthalein-coated currency notes with the same serial numbers, “inference can be drawn that there was demand and that is why he accepted the illegal gratification.”
However, Jagtar’s counsel contended that while the recovery was in itself “seriously doubtful”, there was no evidence of demand for such illegal gratification, drawing the SC’s attention to the Neeraj Dutta case.
The court noted that Jagtar was working as a cleaner but he was also deputed for discharging other duties “in emergency”. However, it said the death certificate in question was prepared on 17 October 2003 while the cleaner was deputed with that task three days later, on 20 October 2003, which meant that the death certificate had already been prepared before he was assigned that task.
The court also took note of Faridkot district social security officer Gurjinder Singh’s statement that the same phenolphthalein-coated notes were recovered from Jagtar Singh.
However, observing that there was “no circumstantial evidence to prove the demand of illegal gratification” and relying on the Constitution Bench in judgment in Neeraj Dutta case, the SC said that the man’s conviction could not be legally sustained and acquitted him of the charges after 18 years.
(Edited by Anumeha Saxena)
Also Read: Are courts awarding too many death sentences? 539 convicts on death row in 2022, highest in 17 yrs