When Pratyusha Banerjee was found hanging from the ceiling fan in her suburban Mumbai apartment on 1 April, it was her live-in partner, TV producer and actor Rahul Raj Singh who rushed the Balika Vadhu actress to hospital.
Two days later, Rahul had cases under sections 306 (abetment of suicide), 504 and 506 (criminal intimidation) and 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) of the Indian Penal Code filed against him by the Mumbai police. The primary trigger seems to have been a statement given by Pratyusha’s parents — Soma and Shankar Banerjee.
On 7 April, a Mumbai sessions court rejected Rahul’s petition for anticipatory bail. He then filed an appeal in the High Court.
On 12 April, the High Court granted him interim relief, stating that the police could not arrest him for at least a week.
In his anticipatory bail application, Rahul had claimed that Pratyusha's parents filed the FIR against him two days after the actress’ suicide — he alleged that they had been influenced by certain people to make this statement. Rahul’s plea further contended that Pratyusha had not left behind any suicide note, naming him as the reason she took the extreme step. That there were no marks on her body, other than the ligature wound, was another point Rahul’s petition asked the court to consider.
The ‘relief’ granted by the HC to Rahul however, ends today, as his bail plea comes up for a hearing.
How will the charges against Rahul pan out? If we look at similar instances in the past, where celebrities have committed suicide, we’ll find that most of these cases are still sub-judice. One reason why that is, is because proving a charge of “abetment” is tricky and challenging. Understanding of what construes “abetment” is also limited.
The Viveka Babajee case
On the night of 25 June, 2010, Mauritian model-actress Viveka Babajee was found dead in her Bandra apartment. Like Pratyusha, Viveka too was discovered hanging from a ceiling fan.
A stalled career, failed relationships and financial losses — these were just some of the theories that were put forward to explain Viveka’s suicide. Unlike Pratyusha, however, Viveka reportedly did leave behind a hand-written note. It said: “U killed me Gautam Vora (sic)”.
Gautam was Viveka’s then-boyfriend, and news reports at the time said that the couple had argued the night before the model-actress was found dead, and had decided to end their relationship.
Although the “note” named Gautam, it was not evidence enough to book/arrest him for abetment of suicide. The police and the lawyers had then argued: “It is required that the abettor has to commit a positive act of instigation or provide implements that would facilitate the suicide. Mere harassment does not amount to abetment of suicide.”
The Mumbai police gave Gautam (who denied that he had been in a relationship with Viveka) a clean chit and closed the case in 2010. However, Viveka’s family insisted that there was foul play involved, sought legal advice, and reopened the matter in 2012. The case is still in court.
Nafisa Joseph’s suicide
Viveka’s case had several similarities with the suicide-by-hanging of model-VJ Nafisa Joseph.
Nafisa — according to her parents — had been on the verge of marrying entrepreneur Gautam Khanduja. When the marriage was called off (allegedly because the couple were fighting about the status of Khanduja’s divorce), Nafisa’s parents said, she was driven to kill herself on 29 June, 2004.
But Khanduja said that there was no evidence to prove that breaking off the engagement had led to Nafisa's suicide. He pointed out that Nafisa’s previous engagements (to Sameer Malhotra and Samir Soni) had also ended. He further told police he had broken off his engagement with Nafisa because of temperamental differences. The case is still sub-judice.
What construes abetment
Advocate Madhu Sharma says that proving abetment charges is extremely difficult. “Any emotional and intense upheaval can trigger… someone with suicidal tendencies and compel or impel the person to take a drastic step. It’s not that everybody ends their lives when pushed to their limits. Each person reacts differently to emotional distress. It’s debatable. But yes, it’s extremely challenging for lawyers to justify and prove abetment as there is nothing tangible on record to frame the accused. There is nothing on record to show violence.”
In 1990, after teenage tennis player Ruchika Girhotra committed suicide, there was a intense debate over the necessity to arrest Haryana’s former director general of police SPS Rathore, for allegedly driving her to take the step.
In 2010, the Supreme Court came out with a ruling that stressed the motive of an accused: “In order to convict a person under Section 306, there has to be a clear mens rea (intent) to commit the offence.” “Abetment involves a mental process of instigating a person or intentionally aiding a person in doing a thing,” a bench comprising Justices Dalveer Bhandari and AK Patnaik had said.
Prashant Patil, the legal counsel to actor Sooraj Pancholi, who has been accused of abetting the suicide of his actress-girlfriend Jiah Khan in June 2013, explains how Section 306 works. “To understand Section 306, the criminal intention and the criminal conduct of the accused is the most important ingredient. What benefit does the accused derive from making the life of the deceased so miserable that he or she was left with no option but to commit suicide? This is an important yardstick.”
Among the reasons why it’s so tough to prove abetment is the fact that “the person who could have told the truth is dead”.
“A third person telling you something is called ‘hearsay’ and such evidence is not admissible in a court of law. It has zero admissibility value,” says Prashant Patil. “In Section 306… a situation can be created where anybody can be arrested.”
Senior counsel Aabad Ponda, who is representing Rahul Raj Singh in the Bombay High Court today, offers this yardstick: “Unless you instigate or goad a person (to commit suicide) there can’t be abetment.” On the subject of the Rahul-Pratyusha case, however, the lawyer declined to comment until the hearing was over.