The death of Sushant Singh Rajput: Allegations of nepotism and locus standi to file criminal complaints

The courts should decide the issue of maintainability on locus standi and jurisdiction at the first instance and impose heavy costs as a deterrent, if the cases are filed mischievously.
The death of Sushant Singh Rajput: Allegations of nepotism and locus standi to file criminal complaints
Senior Advocate Vikas Pahwa

The untimely death of 34-year-old Sushant Singh Rajput, a young Bollywood star who committed suicide recently, has shocked the nation. Millions of people have reacted on social media, sparking several debates about favoritism and nepotism in the film industry.

Sushant’s death has brought to fore many hitherto whispered, underlying issues. Congress Leader Sanjay Nirupam has come out and said that Sushant had lost seven films that he had signed for. Kangana Ranaut, Prakash Raj and several others have also opened up and spoken about the practice of nepotism in the film industry. Is it true then? Do we have groups and camps in tinsel town that are destroying the careers of actors coming from outside the industry? The only way to put all these conspiracy theories to rest is for a detailed inquiry into Sushant’s suicide.

As per law, the State is the master of prosecution. The criminal justice system in India has two broad stages: first is investigation handled by the police agencies leading to prosecution of the accused, and the second is prosecution in the court of law that tries the accused for committing the penal offence. Investigation is initiated on the complaint filed by a victim, and once the FIR is registered, it becomes the case of the State.

In some exceptional cases, the law permits the victim to participate in the criminal proceedings, only by way of assisting the prosecution. Only an aggrieved party (an accused or a victim) has the right to seek redressal by questioning the legality and validity of the proceedings. If the victim is a minor, of unsound mind, or a person suffering from any disability, another person can move the court on their behalf. The cases which are filed by these authorized persons, are considered to be initiated by the aggrieved party and not by a stranger who has no direct personal stake in the outcome of the case.

Now let us look at Sushant’s case. Even before his family could ask for an investigation, a lawyer from Muzaffarpur, Bihar went ahead and filed a criminal case against Salman Khan, Karan Johar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ekta Kapoor, Aditya Chopra, Bhushan Kumar and others alleging the offences of criminal conspiracy, criminal intimidation and abetment to suicide. He has alleged that Sushant was removed from seven films and the release of some of his films was deliberately stalled. It was alleged that the circumstances were manipulated and such a situation was created where he felt cornered and helpless and was forced to take the extreme step of suicide.

Another criminal complaint has been filed before a Magistrate in Muzaffarpur, Bihar against actress Rhea Chakraborty for abetting the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput through “financial and mental exploitation.

An important question that arises here and that needs to be addressed is whether parties who have no connectivity with Sushant’s death whatsoever can file complaints against Bollywood bigwigs for committing an offence of abetment to suicide? The offence, if proven, is punishable under Section 306 IPC with imprisonment which may extend to 10 years.

The filing of cases by unrelated people has become quite rampant in India. People who are strangers to the proceedings file cases alleging commission of a crime. It is a settled principle of law that in criminal prosecutions, only the parties who are affected can invoke penal jurisdiction. It is also fairly settled in law that the third party/stranger does not have any right to participate in the criminal prosecution, which is primarily the function of the State.

The question of locus standi is normally a question of both fact and law. In 1991, the Supreme Court, while hearing the case of Janata Dal v. HS Chowdhary, made significant observations in this regard. The Court held that even if there are a million questions of law to be deeply gone into and examined in a criminal case registered against specified accused persons, it is for them and them alone to raise all such questions and challenge the proceedings initiated against them at the appropriate time before the proper forum and not for a third parties under the garb of public interest litigation.

In the year 1981, in the case of SP Gupta v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held that courts must be careful to see that members of the public who approach the courts in criminal cases are acting with bona fide intentions, and not for personal gain, personal profit, political motivation or any other oblique consideration. It was held that the court must not allow its process to be abused by politicians and others.

The Supreme Court in 1976, in the case of Jasbhai Motibhai Desai v. Roshan Kumar, divided the people who approach the courts into categories like (i) Persons Aggrieved, (ii) Strangers, (iii) Busybodies or Meddlesome Interlopers. The last category can be easily distinguishable from the others. Such persons interfere in things which do not concern them. They masquerade as crusaders for justice and pretend to act in the name of pro bono publico, though they have no interest of the public in mind. They indulge in the pastime of meddling with the judicial process either by force of habit or for improper motives. Very often, they are actuated by a desire to win notoriety or cheap popularity. The Supreme Court has advised that the courts would do well to reject the applications of such busybodies at the very threshold.

There are many instances where a stranger to the proceedings has initiated legal process against individuals, alleging commission of cognizable offences. Time and again, the courts have dismissed their complaints and petitions on the ground of lack of locus standi. However, by the time the courts intervene and pass orders rejecting the claims on the ground of locus standi, a lot of damage is already done. The persons against whom the complaints are filed are forced to appear and submit to the jurisdiction of the Court and only then can they raise a plea of absence of locus standi.

There are dozens of cases filed against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal alleging defamation, that have been dismissed at the initial stages of trial. However, before challenging the locus standi, he had to appear in court and take bail. The so-called strangers enjoyed the limited attention they got by filing the cases.

In the case of Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor’s death, the order granting bail to Dr. Shashi Tharoor was challenged by a lawyer. The locus standi of the lawyer was challenged at the very threshold. The Court dismissed his plea, but did not impose any costs on filing such frivolous petition and wasting the judicial time of the court. In the Nirbhaya case, Dr Subramaniam Swamy filed an application to prosecute the accused persons. He filed a similar plea in the case of death of Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor. In both the cases, the courts declined him relief, on the ground that he is a stranger to the proceedings and has no right to interfere in the trial which is conducted by the State prosecution department.

This malpractice of filing frivolous complaints in unconnected matters for one’s own popularity should be dissuaded by the courts. The courts should decide the issue of maintainability on locus standi and jurisdiction at the first instance and impose heavy costs as a deterrent, if the cases are filed mischievously.

A stranger, however, can set criminal law into motion if the offence has taken place in his presence or if he learns about the offence from an aggrieved party. The stranger who witnesses a crime has every right to report the matter and set the ball rolling.

In the case of Sushant Singh Rajput, it is only the family or close friends who can file a complaint disclosing a cognizable offence. The sub-divisional Magistrate who is conducting an inquiry on the cause of death of Sushant can also direct registration of the FIR in case he finds anything suspicious during the course of his inquiry. The family of Sushant is purportedly making requests for a CBI inquiry, which can happen only if the State of Maharashtra gives consent under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act. If the FIR is registered, it would become a State (not personal) case.

The allegations of groupism, nepotism and intimidation in Bollywood can only be settled by an independent and fair inquiry, as the allegations levelled are serious and can have wide ramifications. Even the bigwigs whose names are in circulation should facilitate the inquiry to get their names cleared, if they are innocent.

This situation is very dangerous and can change the very complexion of the film industry. This may lead to the yawning chasm between industry ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ expanding to proportions where it may be impossible to cross. It is thus very important that a detailed inquiry be initiated and facilitated.

The author is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India.

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