Provision: Section 154, Indian Evidence Act- Hostile witness.
A criminal case is based on evidence that is admissible in law (whether direct evidence or circumstantial evidence). Witness statements are required for that.
As per Bentham, “Witnesses are the eyes and ears of justice.”
The term ‘hostile witness’ is not defined anywhere in Indian Law. [i]When A witness whose testimony is in favour of the opposite party, or a witness who tried to sabotage the case for his party, is called a hostile witness, only the judge has the right to declare a witness hostile.
If a witness may turn hostile and demolish the advocate’s purpose. In such a case the attorney can request the judge to declare the witness as a hostile witness. Then he could cross-examine the witness to get a testimony more favourable to his case.
In certain cases, where the witness turns hostile and is declared as such under section 154, the testimony will not be discarded from consideration altogether, simply because the witness is hostile. The court will investigate the testimony if it could be corroborated with any other facts or reliable evidence, for the truth to prevail in a matter submitted.[ii]
The result of false testimony is that the person is then liable under the penal code. Chapter XI of IPC[iii] explains that when a person under oath they are legally bound to say the truth but if they make any false and incriminating statement it means providing false evidence to the court[iv]
When the term Hostile or unfavourable witness was used in England, it had raised controversy, to steer clear of the conflict in India while drafting the Indian Evidence Act the term’s meaning was avoided.
The use of the term “hostile witness” was first used in Sat Paul vs Delhi Administration.
- 1)Sat Paul vs Delhi Administration[v]
On 16th of January 1970 (Pw1) Ramesh (PW2) Jaina and (PW3) Maya were are the Delhi railway station to receive Ms Mumtaz from Bombay. Finding them loitering, the constable at the railway station took them to the appellant, who was assigned as the Assistant Sub Inspector. He questioned the three whether Mumtaz was a prostitute, over which the petitioners responded that Mumtaz was a dancing girl. The appellant then asked for Rs.100 bribe and warned that non-payment would result in implicating them in some case. Ramesh paid rs.30 but the appellant did not release them. On insisting, he left the women on the promise of further payment. The two returned to their residence and informed Dal Chand about the incident. Maya gave rs.70 to Dal Chand for securing the release of Ramesh, but he went to anti-corruption police-inspector, Paras Nath who on understanding, arranged a raiding party and appointed two Clerk, Surinder Nath and SohanPal Singh and also recorded the statement of Dal Chand, which was later read out to him in the presence of 5 witnesses.
Dal Chand then gave 7 notes of rs.10 to Inspector, who treated them with phenolphthalein powder and said that whoever touches these notes, his fingers would turn violet, when dipped in sodium carbonate. Thus, along with the raid team, Dal Chand reached the railway police station and then he handed over the rs.70 to the appellant claiming himself to be Ramesh’s brother. The appellant initially asked for rs.100 but later convinced for rs.70 and kept it in the pocket. The raid Inspector then followed him and revealed his identity and accused the appellant of bribe-taking and recovered the notes from his pocket and compared the numbers of the notes with that in the memorandum, which tallied. The left-hand fingers of the appellant when dipped in sodium carbonate turned pink as well. Thus, Inspector reported a seizure and raid report and send the same to the police station for registration of the FIR.
During the case trial, prosecution witness Surinder Nath and SohanPal Singh who were supposed to be the independent panch witnesses turned hostile, they turned completely against the prosecution, only revealing partially correct details.
Thus, in this case, the concept of hostile witness was termed for the very first time.
In the light of the above principles, it will be seen that, in law, the part of the evidence of the Panch witnesses who were thoroughly cross-examined and contradicted with their inconsistent police statements by the Public Prosecutor, could be used or availed of by the prosecution to support its case. But as a matter of prudence, on the facts of the case, it would be hazardous to allow the prosecution to do so. These witnesses contradicted substantially their previous statements and because of the cross-examination, their credit was substantial, if not wholly, shaken. It was, therefore, not proper for the courts below to pick out a sentence or two from their evidence and use the same to support the evidence of the trap witnesses.
Thus, In Satpal v. Delhi Administration, it was held,” The discretion conferred on the
the court is wide and is unqualified and untrammelled and is quite apart from any question of hostility. It is to be liberally exercised whenever the court from the witness’s demeanour, temper, attitude, bearing of the tenor and perusal of his previous inconsistent statement or otherwise thinks that the grant of such permission is expedient to extract truth and to do justice. The grant of such permission does not amount to adjudication by the court as to the veracity of the witness.”
- Sidhartha Vashisht @ Manu Sharma vs State (Nct Of Delhi) on 19 April 2010.[vi]
The victim Jessica Lal was a model in this case and was working in a bar. The accused and his friends came in and requested that he be served liquor which the victim denied. He fired the first shot, aimed a warning at the ceiling and the victim was still refusing. Then he fired the next shot on her head which instantly killed her. He then absconded with his friends and fled for a while before turning to the police. He was arrested on the same day and given bail as well.
Seven years after the case was opened, on 21 February 2006, nine of the twelve accused were acquitted, including Sharma. After that, it was announced in February 2011 that all the 32 hostile witnesses would face perjury charges.
The lower court judge was aware that the prosecution was not helped by the hostility of its witnesses, But the court found it to be the lack of police investigation as the basis of the case. Later in a sting operation, it appeared to show that witnesses had been bribed and coerced into retracting their initial testimony. Venod Sharma was named in the exposé as one who had paid money to some of the witnesses.
But with the high court’s interpretation, the key witness Munshi came in for serious criticism. It stated that of his earlier repudiation of the FIR that he in the court claimed that the said statement was recorded in Hindi while he had narrated the whole story in English as he did not know Hindi at all. This explanation of Munshi was not sought to be convincing. Also, regarding Munshi’s testimony that two guns were involved, in the court, he took a somersault in his testimony and stated that two gentlemen were present at the bar counter which was proved to be a complete lie beyond a reasonable doubt.
On 19 April 2010, the Supreme Court of India approved the sentences and said that “The evidence regarding the actual incident, the testimonies of witnesses, the evidence connecting the vehicles and cartridges to the accused — Manu Sharma, as well as his conduct after the incident prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The High Court has analyzed all the evidence and arrived at the correct conclusion.
In May 2013, Delhi High Court ordered the prosecution of Bollywood actor Shayan Munshi and a ballistic expert, P. S. Manocha, for turning hostile. The court cleared a further 17 people whose allegedly hostile position was under review. Ten other people had been discharged from claims of perjury in earlier hearings and three had died since the original trial.
Manu Sharma was released from prison on June 2, 2020.
- Zahira Habibulla H Sheikh and Anr vs State of Gujarat And Ors on 12 April 2004.[vii]
It is the most controversial and highly profiled case in India. The Tulsi Best Bakery in Gujarat India was owned by the Sheikh family, but the best bakery was burnt down during a riot killing fourteen people. Of the 14, 11 were members of a family while 3 were Hindu workers. The daughter and other staff who witnessed the whole incident submitted the First Information Report. Thereafter 21 persons were arrested and brought before the court.
Interpretation & Judgment:
The court discharged the 21 accused persons and held that the evidence was insubstantial to warrant a conviction. The reason for such a decision was that the witnesses submitted and testified contradictory evidence. Some of the statement of the witnesses as evidence were either hearsay or indirect. But after a retrial was ordered on the case and subsequent appeal, five out of the 21 accused persons were convicted and while the remaining were discharged and acquitted.
Whether it is the best case in the bakery or the case of Jessica Lall, “hostile witness” is almost too dignified a term for witnesses pulling the ridiculous U-turns in the open court. It is nothing less than judicial ridicule.
India has seen these last few years Sudden rises in the incidence of witnesses becoming hostile that has sparked questions about witness credibility as well as safety in criminal proceedings. It is worth mentioning that India does not have adequate laws to protect witnesses of crimes, as a result, many witnesses became hostile during the trial, hampering the way to the end of the trial and giving justice. Thus in these infamous cases, many witnesses refused to appear before the court in favour of the victims and also turned hostile Due to various reasons and mentality like Unreasonable Delay in Judicial Proceeding, Use of Stock Witnesses by Police, Use of Money and Power by the High Profile Accused, Threat/Intimidation by accused which resulted in the acquittal of persons accused of heinous crimes.
[i] Vernita Jain “Critical Analysis Of Laws Relating To Hostile Witnesses In India” (I pleaders, 19th January 2016) <https://blog.ipleaders.in/critical-analysis-laws-relating-hostile-witnesses-india/#>.
[ii] Krishan Chander v. the State of Delhi, AIR 2016 SC 298.
[iii] Chapter XI, Indian Penal Code 1872.
[iv] Indian Penal Code 1860, s 191.
[v] (1976 Cri L.J 295: AIR 1976 SC 294)
[vi] Sidharth Vasishta @ Manu Sharma vs State of Delhi 2003 VIIIAD Delhi 176
[vii] Zahira Habibulla H Sheikh and Anr vs State of Gujarat And Ors, 2004 SOL Case No. 295