Legal Blog: "Common Object" under S. 149 of the Indian Penal Code : The Law

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Common Object" under S. 149 of the Indian Penal Code : The Law

Dr. Justice B.S. Chauhan
Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court in Ramachandran Vs. State of Kerala has examined the law relating to offences committed by persons in pursuance of common object being part of an unlawful assembly, as entailed in Section 149 of the Indian Penal Code. The relevant extracts from the judgment are reproduced hereunder;

SECTION 149 IPC: Scope and Object 

10. Section 149 IPC has essentially two ingredients viz. (i) offence committed by any member of an unlawful assembly consisting five or more members and (ii) such offence must be committed in prosecution of the common object (under Section 141 IPC) of the assembly or members of that assembly knew to be likely to be committed in prosecution of the common object. 

11. For "common object", it is not necessary that there should be a prior concert in the sense of a meeting of the members of the unlawful assembly, the common object may form on spur of the moment; it is enough if it is adopted by all the members and is shared by all of them. In order that the case may fall under the first part the offence committed must be connected immediately with the common object of the unlawful assembly of which the accused were members. [Vide: Bhanwar Singh & Ors. v. State of M.P., (2008) 16 SCC 657] 

12. Even if the offence committed is not in direct prosecution of the common object of the assembly, it may yet fall under second part of Section 149 IPC if it can be held that the offence was such as the members knew was likely to be committed. The expression 'know' does not mean a mere possibility, such as might or might not happen. For instance, it is a matter of common knowledge that if a body of persons go armed to take forcible possession of the land, it would be right to say that someone is likely to be killed and all the members of the unlawful assembly must be aware of that likelihood and would be guilty under the second part of Section 149 IPC. 

13. There may be cases which would come within the second part, but not within the first. The distinction between the two parts of Section 149 IPC cannot be ignored or obliterated. [See : Mizaji & Anr. v. State of U.P., AIR 1959 SC 572; and Gangadhar Behera & Ors. v. State of Orissa, AIR 2002 SC 3633]. 

14. However, once it is established that the unlawful assembly had common object, it is not necessary that all persons forming the unlawful assembly must be shown to have committed some overt act. For the purpose of incurring the vicarious liability under the provision, the liability of other members of the unlawful assembly for the offence committed during the continuance of the occurrence, rests upon the fact whether the other members knew before hand that the offence actually committed was likely to be committed in prosecution of the common object. [See : Daya Kishan v. State of Haryana, (2010) 5 SCC 81; Sikandar Singh v. State of Bihar, (2010) 7 SCC 477, and Debashis Daw v. State of W.B., (2010) 9 SCC 111]. 

15. The crucial question for determination in such a case is whether the assembly consisted of five or more persons and whether the said persons entertained one or more of the common objects specified by Section 141. While determining this question, it becomes relevant to consider whether the assembly consisted of some persons which were merely passive witnesses and had joined the assembly as a matter of idle curiosity without intending to entertain the common object of the assembly.(Vide: Masalti v. State of Uttar Pradesh, AIR 1965 SC 202) 

16. In K.M. Ravi & Ors. v. State of Karnataka, (2009) 16 SC 337, this Court observed that mere presence or association with other members alone does not per se be sufficient to hold every one of them criminally liable for the offences committed by the others unless there is sufficient evidence on record to show that each intended to or knew the likelihood of commission of such an offending act. 

17. Similarly in State of U.P. v. Krishanpal & Ors., (2008) 16 SCC 73, this Court held that once a membership of an unlawful assembly is established it is not incumbent on the prosecution to establish whether any specific overt act has been assigned to any accused. Mere membership of the unlawful assembly is sufficient and every member of an unlawful assembly is vicariously liable for the acts done by others either in prosecution of common object or members of assembly knew were likely to be committed. 

18. In Amerika Rai & Ors. v. State of Bihar, (2011) 4 SCC 677, this Court opined that for a member of unlawful assembly having common object what is liable to be seen is as to whether there was any active participation and the presence of all the accused persons was with an active mind in furtherance of their common object. The law of vicarious liability under Section 149 IPC is crystal clear that even the mere presence in the unlawful assembly, but with an active mind, to achieve the common object makes such a person vicariously liable for the acts of the unlawful assembly. 

19. Regarding the application of Section 149, the following observations from Charan Singh v. State of U.P., (2004) 4 SCC 205, are very relevant: 
"13. ... The crucial question to determine is whether the assembly consisted of five or more persons and whether the said persons entertained one or more of the common objects, as specified in Section 141. ... The word `object' means the purpose or design and, in order to make it `common', it must be shared by all. In other words, the object should be common to the persons, who compose the assembly, that is to say, they should all be aware of it and concur in it. A common object may be formed by express agreement after mutual consultation, but that is by no means necessary. It may be formed at any stage by all or a few members of the assembly and the other members may just join and adopt it. Once formed, it need not continue to be the same. It may be modified or altered or abandoned at any stage. The expression `in prosecution of common object' as appearing in Section 149 has to be strictly construed as equivalent to `in order to attain the common object'. It must be immediately connected with the common object by virtue of the nature of the object. There must be community of object and the object may exist only up to a particular stage, and not thereafter...." 
20. In Bhanwar Singh v. State of Madhya Pradesh, (2008) 16 SCC 657, this Court held: 
"Hence, the common object of the unlawful assembly in question depends firstly on whether such object can be classified as one of those described in Section 141 IPC. Secondly, such common object need not be the product of prior concert but, as per established law, may form on the spur of the moment (see also Sukha v. State of Rajasthan AIR 1956 SC 513). Finally, the nature of this common object is a question of fact to be determined by considering nature of arms, nature of the assembly, behaviour of the members, etc. (see also Rachamreddi Chenna Reddy v. State of A.P. (1999) 3 SCC 97 )". 
21. Thus, this court has been very cautious in the catena of judgments that where general allegations are made against a large number of persons the court would categorically scrutinise the evidence and hesitate to convict the large number of persons if the evidence available on record is vague. It is obligatory on the part of the court to examine that if the offence committed is not in direct prosecution of the common object, it yet may fall under second part of Section 149 IPC, if the offence was such as the members knew was likely to be committed. Further inference has to be drawn as what was the number of persons; how many of them were merely passive witnesses; what were their arms and weapons. Number and nature of injuries is also relevant to be considered. "Common object" may also be developed at the time of incident.

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