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Introduction: The recent judgment in the case of Ajay Kumar Yadav vs. The State of Uttar Pradesh & Ors by the Apex Court emphasizes the need for a stricter approach in granting bail to police officials accused in custodial death cases. This article provides a comprehensive analysis of the judgment and its implications.

While rising up superbly to the expectations of the people as anticipated, we must note that the Apex Court in a most learned, laudable, landmark, logical and latest judgment titled Ajay Kumar Yadav vs The State of Uttar Pradesh & Ors in Criminal Appeal No. of 2024 (Arising out of SLP(Crl.) No.9816/2023) that was pronounced just recently on March 12, 2024 has minced just no words to unequivocally observe that a stricter approach is required to decide on the question of bail when the person seeking bail is a police official who is accused in a custodial death case. There has to be, of course, zero tolerance approach for the custodial death cases and under no circumstances should the men in police uniform be allowed to get away easily even after committing the worst crime of taking away the life of some person in police custody. It must be noted that a Bench of Hon’ble Mr Justice Aniruddha Bose and Hon’ble Mr Justice PV Sanjay Kumar advocated strongly that such a stricter view is required partly because a police officer may wield more influence than an ordinary person. The Allahabad High Court had allowed the release of this police constable on bail in 2023 after the chargesheet in the criminal case was filed.

SC Bats For Stricter Approach In Granting Bail To Police In Custodial Death Cases

It must be noted that the Apex Court was unambiguous in holding that, “In cases of this nature, having regard to the overall influence a member of a police force may wield in connection with a case against them pertaining to custodial death, a stricter view is to be taken on the question of granting bail.” While adding more to it, the Apex Court added that custodial deaths were serious offences, while cancelling the bail that had been earlier granted to a police constable who had been accused of being involved in causing such a death in 2021. It must be noted that nineteen police officials were accused of being involved in causing the death of a man arrested on suspicion that he committed robbery in February 2021.

At the very outset, this brief, brilliant, bold and balanced judgment authored by the Apex Court comprising of a Bench of Hon’ble Mr Justice Aniruddha Bose and Hon’ble Mr Justice PV Sanjay Kumar sets the ball in motion by first and foremost putting forth in the opening para that, “Leave granted.”

To put things in perspective, the Bench then envisages in the next para while elaborating in detail on the facts of the case that, “The appellant before us is the complainant, who reported the death of his brother in police custody on 12th February, 2021. He assails the order granting bail to one of the police constables accused of committing the said offence. The deceased was arrested in connection with a case involving robbery and he was taken into custody on 11th February, 2021. Altogether, 19 police officials have been implicated in the offence and chargesheet has been submitted against them. So far as respondent No.3/appellant is concerned, the chargesheet includes allegations of commission of offences under Section 34 read with Sections 302, 330, 331, 218 and Section 120-B of the Indian Penal Code. The High Court, by its order passed on 15th February, 2023, enlarged respondent No.3 on bail.”

As it turned out, we must note that the Bench then enunciates in the next para of this notable judgment that, “Mr. Dave, learned senior counsel, representing the appellant, questions the legality of the aforementioned order passed by the High Court. The investigation was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation ‘CBI’, and Mrs. Bhati, learned Additional Solicitor General, representing the said agency, also supports the appellant’s case.”

As we see, the Bench then discloses in the next para of this robust judgment that, “The ground on which the present appeal is resisted by Mr. Balasubramanian, learned senior counsel, appearing for the respondent No.3, is that his client, being a police constable, was working as a substitute driver, only as a stopgap arrangement, and had no role to play in the alleged commission of the offence on that date. It is primarily on this ground the High Court had enlarged him on bail. We have been taken through the chargesheet and we find that there is a certain role attributed to respondent No.3 therein in the commission of the alleged offences. As per the materials disclosed by the agency, his role was not confined to just being a driver of a police vehicle so far as commission of the alleged offences is concerned. The status report filed before us by the CBI is on the same lines. Of course, these factors would have to be independently assessed at the stage of trial on leading of evidence but we are considering them only for the purpose of determining the question of bail of respondent No.3.”

Most brilliantly, most remarkably, most significantly and so also most forthrightly, the Bench mandates in the next para of this noteworthy judgment that, “It is a fact that, in ordinary circumstances, we ought not to invoke our jurisdiction under Article 136 of the Constitution of India to invalidate an order granting bail to an accused. But this criteria, while dealing with the question of granting bail, would not apply in a case of custodial death, where police officials are arraigned as accused. Such alleged offences are of grave and serious nature. The role of the Court in dealing with the plea for bail in offences involving police officials has been explained by this Court in the case of State of Jharkhand vs Sandeep Kumar [2024 INSC 179], which was authored by one of us (Sanjay Kumar J.). This was a case in which anticipatory bail was granted to a police official accused of, inter-alia, interpolations in an FIR. It has been held in this decision:-

“9. In the light of these serious allegations made against no less than a senior police officer, an essential cog in the machinery of law enforcement, the High Court ought not to have taken a liberal view in the matter for the mere asking. Considering the position held by the respondent, even if he was suspended from service and the chargesheet had already been filed against him, the possibility of his tampering with the witnesses and the evidence was sufficiently high. That apart, grant of such relief to a police officer facing allegations of manipulating the investigation so as to favour an accused would send out a wrong signal in society. It would be against public interest.

10. No doubt, none of the provisions under which the respondent is alleged to have committed offences entail imprisonment in excess of seven years and most of them were bailable offences. Ordinarily, an accused facing the prospect of incarceration, if proved guilty of such offences, would be entitled to the relief of pre-arrest bail. However, the same standard would not be applicable when the accused is the Investigating Officer, a police officer charged with the fiduciary duty of carrying forward the investigation to its rightful conclusion so as to punish the guilty. The 6 respondent is alleged to have failed in this fundamental duty as a police officer. This consideration must necessarily weigh in with the nature of the offences and the possible punishment therefor. Presumptions and other considerations applicable to a layperson facing criminal charges may not carry the same weight while dealing with a police officer who is alleged to have abused his office.”

Do note, the Bench notes in the next para of this commendable judgment that, “The present proceeding relates to an order granting bail in connection with an offence much more serious in nature and, in our opinion, the same principle ought to apply.”

It is worth noting that the Bench then postulates in the next para of this forthright judgment that, “So far as the present appeal is concerned, we ought to make an exception from the general approach on the question of granting bail and adopt a stricter approach, primarily on two grounds which are in tandem with the principles applied in the case of Sandeep Kumar (supra):-

(i) The first one is that respondent No.3 is part of the police force and the allegation is that of custodial death, in which he has been implicated. In cases of this nature, having regard to the overall influence a member of a police force may wield in connection with a case against them pertaining to custodial death, a stricter view is to be taken on the question of granting bail.

(ii) Secondly, the charge is under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and the appellant has been enlarged on bail within 1 and ½ years of his detention. The alleged offence is of grave and serious nature and that factor has not been properly considered by the High Court.”

Be it noted, the Bench notes in the next para of this worthwhile judgment that, “Having regard to the contents of the chargesheet, we do not think this was a fit case where he ought to have been enlarged on bail within one and a half years of his initial detention. We, accordingly, set aside the order impugned and direct respondent No.3 to surrender before the CBI Court within a period of four weeks and once respondent No.3 surrenders, he shall be taken into custody by the concerned Court.”

It is worth noting that for the sake of clarity, the Bench clarifies noting in the next para of this refreshing judgment that, “We make it clear that our observations, made in the earlier part of the order, purely relate to the question of grant of bail and these observations shall not in any way influence the trial.”

Finally, the Bench then concludes by holding in the concluding part that, “The appeal stands allowed in the above terms. Pending application(s), if any, shall stand disposed of.”

In a nutshell, it is definitely the bounden duty of all the Courts to take the most strictest view of the custodial deaths which has seen a significant rise in the last few years and not grant bail at the drop of a hat. It is high time and surely now lawmakers must amend the law and punish custodial deaths with at least 25 years in jail without any bail or parole or anything that alleviates the seriousness of the most heinous crime! Even the Courts which includes the High Courts and so also the Supreme Court must definitely desist from treating so many cases of custodial deaths as an ordinary crime and refrain from granting bail most easily! This will definitely enhance to a large extent the credibility of India as a truly democratic nation in the eyes of the world for which we should leave no stone unturned! No denying or disputing it!

Conclusion: In conclusion, the Apex Court’s stance on stricter bail conditions for police accused in custodial deaths underscores the need for judicial prudence and accountability. The judgment serves as a wake-up call for legal institutions to prioritize justice over leniency in cases of grave human rights violations. Upholding the integrity of the legal system and ensuring accountability for custodial deaths are essential steps towards fostering trust in India’s democracy and legal framework. Legislative reforms and judicial vigilance are imperative to prevent custodial deaths and uphold the principles of justice and human rights in society.

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April 2024