Print Friendly

Aapka Consultant Judgment Series- In this series, we are providing case analysis of Landmark Judgments of Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.

Zahira Habibulla H. Sheikh and Anr. Vs.  State of Gujarat and Ors.

AIR2004SC346, (2004)4SCC158

Hon’ble Judges/Coram: Doraiswamy Raju and Dr. Arijit Pasayat, JJ.

Date of decision: 12.04.2004


The appeals are against judgment of the Gujarat High Court in Criminal Appeal No. 956 of 2003 upholding acquittal of respondents-accused by the trial Court. Along with said appeal, two other petitions namely Criminal Miscellaneous Application No. 10315 of 2003 and Criminal Revision No. 583 of 2003 were disposed of. The prayers made by the State for adducing additional evidence under Section 391 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (in short the “Code”), and/or for directing retrial were rejected. Consequentially, prayer for examination of witnesses under Section 311 of the Code was also rejected.

The present appeals have several unusual features and some of them pose very serious questions of far reaching consequences. The case is commonly to be known as “best Bakery Case”. One of the appeals is by Zahira who claims to be an eye-witness to macabre killings allegedly as a result of communal frenzy. She made statements and filed affidavits after completion of trial and judgment by the trial Court, alleging that during trial she was forced to depose falsely and turn hostile on account of threats and coercion. That raises an important issue regarding witness protection besides the quality and credibility of the evidence before Court. The other rather unusual question interestingly raised by the State of Gujarat itself relates to improper conduct of trial by the public prosecutor. Last, but not the least that the role of the investigating agency itself was perfunctory and not impartial. Though its role is perceived differently by the parties, there is unanimity in their stand that it was tainted, biased and not fair. While the accused persons accuse it for alleged false implication, the victims’ relatives like Zahira allege its efforts to be merely to protect the accused. According to the appellant-Zahira there was no fair trial and the entire effort during trial and at all relevant times before also was to see that the accused persons got acquitted.


In light of the contentions raised, primary issue before the court is with regards to conditions of fair trial, witness protection and conditions for the re-trial in case of tainted, biased and unfair role played by public prosecutor and investigating agency.


Right from the inception of the judicial system it has been accepted that discovery, vindication and establishment of truth are the main purposes underlying existence of Courts of justice. The operating principles for a fair trial permeate the common law in both civil and criminal contexts. Application of these principles involve a delicate judicial balancing of competing interests in a criminal trial, the interests of the accused and the public and to a great extent that of the victim have to be weighed not losing sight of the public interest involved in the prosecution of persons who commit offences.

This Court has often emphasised that in a criminal case the fate of the proceedings cannot always be left entirely in the hands of the parties, crimes being public wrongs in breach and violation of public rights and duties, which affect the whole community as a community and harmful to the society in general. The concept of fair trial entails familiar triangulation of interests of the accused, the victim and the society and it is the community that acts through the State and prosecuting agencies. Interests of society are not to be treated completely with disdain and as persona non grata. Courts have always been considered to have an over-riding duty to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice – often referred to as the duty to vindicate and uphold the ‘majesty of the law’. Due administration of justice has always been viewed as a continuous process, not confined to determination of the particular case, protecting its ability to function as a Court of law in the future as in the case before it. If a criminal Court is to be an effective instrument in dispensing justice, the Presiding Judge must cease to be a spectator and a more recording machine by becoming a participant in the trial evincing intelligence, active interest and elicit all relevant materials necessary for reaching the correct conclusion, to find out the truth, and administer justice with fairness and impartiality both to the parties and to the community it serves. Courts administering criminal justice cannot turn a blind eye to vexatious or oppressive conduct that has occurred in relation to proceedings, even if a fair trial is still possible, except at the risk of undermining the fair name and standing of the judges as impartial and independent adjudicators.

The principles of rule of law and due process are closely linked with human rights protection. Such rights can be protected effectively when a citizen has recourse to the Courts of law. It has to be unmistakably understood that a trial which is primarily aimed at ascertaining truth has to be fair to all concerned. There can be no analytical, all comprehensive or exhaustive definition of the concept of a fair trial, and it may have to be determined in seemingly infinite variety of actual situations with the ultimate object in mind viz. whether something that was done or said either before or at the trial deprived the quality of fairness to a degree where a miscarriage of justice has resulted. It will not be correct to say that it is only the accused who must be fairly dealt with. That would be turning Nelson’s eyes to the needs of the society at large and the victims or their family members and relatives. Each one has an inbuilt right to be dealt with fairly in a criminal trial. Denial of a fair trial is as much injustice to the accused as is to the victim and the society. Fair trial obviously would mean a trial before an impartial Judge, a fair prosecutor and atmosphere of judicial calm. Fair trial means a trial in which bias or prejudice for or against the accused, the witnesses, or the cause which is being tried is eliminated. If the witnesses get threatened or are forced to give false evidence that also would not result in a fair trial. The failure to hear material witnesses is certainly denial of fair trial.

Further, failure to accord fair hearing either to the accused or the prosecution violates even minimum standards of due process of law. It is inherent in the concept of due process of law that condemnation should be rendered only after the trial in which the hearing is a real one, not sham or a mere farce and pretence. Since the fair hearing requires an opportunity to preserve the process, it may be vitiated and violated by an overhasty stage-managed, tailored and partisan trial. The Courts have to take a participatory role in a trial. They are not expected to be tape recorders to record whatever is being stated by the witnesses. Section 311 of the Code and Section 165 of the Evidence Act confer vast and wide powers on Presiding Officers of Court to elicit all necessary materials by playing an active role in the evidence collecting process. They have to monitor the proceedings in aid of justice in a manner that something, which is not relevant, is not unnecessarily brought into record. Even if the prosecutor is remiss in some ways, it can control the proceedings effectively so that ultimate objective i.e. truth is arrived at. This becomes more necessary the Court has reasons to believe that the prosecuting agency or the prosecutor is not acting in the requisite manner. The Court cannot afford to be wishfully or pretend to be blissfully ignorant or oblivious to such serious pitfalls or dereliction of duty on the part of the prosecuting agency. The prosecutor who does not act fairly and acts more like a counsel for the defence is a liability to the fair judicial system, and Courts could not also play into the hands of such prosecuting agency showing indifference or adopting an attitude of total aloofness.

The power of the Court under Section 165 of the Evidence Act is in a way complementary to its power under Section 311 of the Code. The section consists of two parts i.e. (i) giving a discretion to the Court to examine the witness at any stage and (ii) the mandatory portion which compels the Courts to examine a witness if his evidence appears to be essential to the just decision of the Court. Though the discretion given to the Court is very wide, the very width requires a corresponding caution. In Mohan Lal v. Union of India AIR 1991 SC 1346 this Court has observed, while considering the scope and ambit of Section 311, that the very usage of the word such as, “any Court” “at any stage”, or “any enquiry or trial or other proceedings” “any person” and “any such person” clearly spells out that the Section has expressed in the widest possible terms and do not limit the discretion of the Court in any way. However, as noted above, the very width requires a corresponding caution that the discretionary powers should be invoked as the exigencies of justice require and exercised judicially with circumspection and consistently with the provisions of the Code. The second part of the section does not allow any discretion but obligates and binds the Court to take necessary steps if the fresh evidence to be obtained is essential to the just decision of the case – ‘essential’, to an active and alert mind and not to one which is bent to abandon or abdicate. Object of the Section is to enable the court to arrive at the truth irrespective of the fact that the prosecution or the defence has failed to produce some evidence which is necessary for a just and proper disposal of the case. The power is exercised and the evidence is examined neither to help the prosecution nor the defence, if the Court feels that there is necessity to act in terms of Section 311 but only to subserve the cause of justice and public interest. It is done with an object of getting the evidence in aid of a just decision and to upheld the truth.

Ultimately, as noted above, ad nauseam the duty of the Court is to arrive at the truth and subserve the ends of justice. Section 311 of the Code does not confer any party any right to examine, cross-examine and re-examine any witness. This is a power given to the Court not to be merely exercised at the bidding of any one party/person but the powers conferred and discretion vested are to prevent any irretrievable or immeasurable damage to the cause of society, public interest and miscarriage of justice. Recourse may be had by Courts to power under this section only for the purpose of discovering relevant facts or obtaining proper proof of such facts as are necessary to arrive at a justice decision in the case.

All that apart, Section 391 of the Code is another salutary provision which clothes the Courts with the power of effectively decide an appeal. Though Section 386 envisages the normal and ordinary manner and method of disposal of an appeal, yet it does not and cannot be said to exhaustively enumerate the modes by which alone the Court can deal with an appeal. Section 391 is one such exception to the ordinary rule and if the appellate Court considers additional evidence to be necessary, the provisions in Section 386 and Section 391 have to be harmoniously considered to enable the appeal to be considered and disposed of also in the light of the additional evidence as well. For this purpose it is open to the appellate Court to call for further evidence before the appeal is disposed of. The appellate Court can direct the taking up of further evidence in support of the prosecution; a fortiori it is open to the court to direct that the accused persons may also be given a chance of adducing further evidence. Section 391 is in the nature of an exception to the general rule and the powers under it must also be exercised with great care, specially on behalf of the prosecution lest the admission of additional evidence for the prosecution operates in a manner prejudicial to the defence of the accused. The primary object of Section 391 is the prevention of guilty man’s escape through some careless or ignorant proceedings before a Court or vindication of an innocent person wrongfully accused. Where the court through some carelessness or ignorance has omitted to record the circumstances essential to elucidation of truth, the exercise of powers under Section 391 is desirable.

There is no restriction in the wording of Section 391 either as to the nature of the evidence or that it is to be taken for the prosecution only or that the provisions of the Section are only to be invoked when formal proof for the prosecution is necessary. If the appellate Court thinks that it is necessary in the interest of justice to take additional evidence it shall do so. There is nothing in the provision limiting it to cases where there has been merely some formal defect. The matter is one of the discretion of the appellate Court. As re-iterated supra the ends of justice are not satisfied only when the accused in a criminal case is acquitted. The community acting through the State and the public prosecutor is also entitled to justice. The cause of the community deserves equal treatment at the hands of the Court in the discharge of its judicial functions.

Whether a retrial under Section 386 or taking up of additional evidence under Section 391 is the proper procedure will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case for which no straight-jacket formula of universal and invariable application can be formulated. In the ultimate analysis whether it is a case covered by Section 386 or Section 391 of the Code the underlying object which the Court must keep in view is the very reasons for which the court exist i.e. to find out the truth and dispense justice impartially and ensure also that the very process of Courts are not employed or utilized in a manner which give room to unfairness or lend themselves to be used as instruments of oppression and injustice. In the case of a defective investigation the Court has to be circumspect in evaluating the evidence and may have to adopt an active and analytical role to ensure that truth is found by having recourse to Section 311 or at a later stage also resorting to Section 391 instead of throwing hands in the air in despair. It would not be right in acquitting an accused person solely on account of the defect; to do so would tantamount to playing into the hands of the investigating officer if the investigation is designedly defective.

Now, as far as the present case is concerned, in the background of principles underlying Section 311 and Section 391 of the Code and Section 165 of the Evidence Act it has to be seen as to whether the High Court’s approach is correct and whether it had acted justly, reasonably and fairly in placing premiums on the serious lapses of grave magnitude by the prosecuting agencies and the Trial Court, as well. There are several infirmities which are tell tale even to the naked eye of even an ordinary common man. The High Court has come to a definite conclusion that the investigation carried out by the police was dishonest and faulty. That was and should have been per se sufficient justification to direct a re-trial of the case. There was no reason for the High Court to come to the further conclusion of its own about false implication without concrete basis and that too merely on conjectures. On the other hand, the possibility of the investigating agency trying to shield the accused persons keeping in view the methodology adopted and outturn of events can equally be not ruled out. When the investigation is dishonest and faulty, it cannot be only with the purpose of false implication. It may also be noted at this stage that the High Court has even gone to the extent of holding that the FIR was manipulated. There was no basis for such a presumptive remark or arbitrary conclusion.


Keeping in view the peculiar circumstances of the case, and the ample evidence on record, glaringly demonstrating subversion of justice delivery system with no congeal and conducive atmosphere still prevailing, direction was passed that the re-trial shall be done by a Court under the jurisdiction of Bombay High Court.

To Get Legal Opinion from Advocates/ Legal Experts, Please click here  

To Get Legal Opinion from Retired Hon’ble Judges, Please click here