Use of Criminal conspiracy Law in India – Explained, Pointwise

Recently the Delhi High Court granted bail to a climate activist in the Greta Thunberg toolkit case. The court dismissed the criminal conspiracy charges filed by Delhi police due to a lack of evidence. The law on criminal conspiracy was enacted to control the nationalist movement in India before independence. However, even after more than 7 decades of independence, this law is in use frequently.

What is the recent case on the law of criminal conspiracy?

Greta Thunberg toolkit was related to the violence committed during the farmer’s protest on January 26. The Delhi Police arrested a Climate Activist in India related to the tool kit case. The police claimed that the climate activist was the editor of “toolkit Google doc” and a “key conspirator” in the toolkit formulation and distribution.

Delhi Police accused the activist under section 120B (Criminal Conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Sections 124A of IPC(sedition). The police claimed the Activist and others were the local collaborators in the conspiracy for inciting disaffection and accelerating the violence.

But the Delhi high court rejected the Delhi Police accusations and granted her bail. The court mentioned that the police lacked evidence to prove her conspiracy charges. The Court further held that interaction with people of doubtful credentials is not an offenceApart from that the court also held that the authorities can not consider inferences (prior assumptions) as evidence.

What is criminal conspiracy law in India?

In India, criminal conspiracy falls under Section 120 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

  1. Section 120A of IPC defines criminal conspiracy.
  2. Section 120B of IPC prescribes punishments for criminal conspiracy.

Definition:

It is defined as an “agreement” between two or more persons to commit a criminal offence.

For an offence to be classified as a criminal offence, certain conditions have to be satisfied. They are,

  • There must be two or more persons indulged in a criminal offence
  • Even if the actual offence has not been committed, an agreement alone is necessary and sufficient to punish the person
  • The agreement has to be either related to committing an illegal act or a legal act committed through illegal means.
  • If such an agreement is reached then such agreement will be considered a criminal conspiracy.
  • But, merely discussing or having knowledge or having any ill intentions of committing a crime would not constitute criminal conspiracy.
  • It is not necessary for all the conspirators to know each other for committing an offence.
  • If the conspiracy charge got proved in court, then all the accused will be held liable for conspiracy. Apart from that, the accused persons shall also be punished separately for the individual offences committed by them.

For example, if a group of friends (A, B, C, D) are speaking about robbing a bank to get rich, then it is not a criminal conspiracy as they are merely discussing it. But if they agree to rob a bank, and discuss their responsibilities in robbing a bank. Such as Person A and B will rob the money, Person C will threaten the people in Bank and Person D will watch the gate then this will be a criminal conspiracy under the law.

Punishment:

Section 120B of IPC prescribes punishments for criminal conspiracy. Section 120B divides criminal conspiracies into two categories.

  1. Criminal conspiracy to commit serious offences: For serious offences the conspirator will get a punishment similar to abetting (encourage or assist (someone) to do the serious offence) the offence.
    Serious offences here include any offences (if committed by the conspirator) that will attract death penalty, life imprisonment or rigorous imprisonment (two years or more).
  2. Criminal conspiracy to commit other offences: In this case, the punishment under criminal conspiracy shall not exceed six months of imprisonment or fine or both.

How criminal conspiracy law evolved in India?

Initially, during Colonial rule, criminal conspiracy was considered as a civil offence. But the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1913  changed the conspiracy as a criminal offence. This was used by the British to handle the Revolutionary leaders of India. The famous few cases were,

  • Kakori Conspiracy Case (1925): The case was framed against Hindustan Republican Association for train robbery. The revolutionaries were arrested and tried in court.
  • Lahore Conspiracy Case (1931): This case was framed for the murder of  JP Saunders, a British police officer. The case was filed against Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and Chandrashekhar Azad. Except Azad all were caught and punished with death sentence. Azad got killed in an encounter later on.

What are the observations made by the court on the criminal conspiracy law?

  1. Bimbdhar Pradhan vs. state of Orissa case 1956: The court held that based on sufficient evidence the court can even convict one person alone for criminal conspiracy.
  2. State of H.P vs Krishan lal case: The Court held that the criminal conspiracy consists of a meeting of minds for agreeing to do on offence. The court defined Meeting of Minds as the persons involved in the conspiracy were well aware of the objective and intention behind the conspiracy
  3. Param Hans Yadav Vs State Of Bihar case 1987: The court observed the difficulties in producing evidence for the charges of conspiracy. Establishing the link between the different chain of events was the only way to prove the conspiracy.
  4. State of Tamil Nadu vs Nalini case: If a person has knowledge about the conspiracy, then it would not make him a conspirator. The court also held that providing shelter to the main accused is not considered as evidence of the conspiracy. A meeting of minds will be required to prove the conspiracy.
    For example, If 3 member planned a robbery in a bank and planning to escape by a car belonging to a person X. If X doesn’t know anything about the robbery, then the X cannot be considered to be a conspirator.

Why do we need to reform the Criminal Conspiracy law?

  1. Law commission report: The law commission in one of its report mentions the needs to reform the criminal conspiracy laws. They were,
    • Section 120A of IPC provides wide-sweeping powers to the government.
    • There is no need for criminal conspiracy legislation especially to punish for conspiracies related to petty offences.
  2. The general rule of crime is not fulfilled by criminal conspiracy law. As a general rule, to constitute a crime, both mens rea (guilty mind or intention)) and actus rea (the guilty act) must be involved. But Section 120 A of IPC punishes merely the guilty mind as a criminal offence.
  3. Section 120-A does not define what are illegal ways to achieve lawful actions. So this provision is getting misused by the government to silence the critics.

Suggestions:

  1. Law enforcement authorities need education on these laws to prevent the problem of misuse. The enforcement authorities might be trained regarding the application and non-application cases of criminal conspiracy cases.
  2. The government has to define illegal ways to do legal actions. This will ensure clarity in the definition and check the misuse to a great extent.
  3. Further, the government should implement the suggestion of the Law Commission by removing petty crimes from Section 120A of IPC.
  4.  The government can consider rolling back the conspiracy to a civil offence. As it was the practice prior to the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1913. 

The recent case of climate activist is one of the many instances where the law on criminal conspiracy is getting misused. It is the high time for the government to encourage constructive criticisms and amend Section 120A. This will ensure the midline of encouraging healthy debates and punishing the wrong ones in one go.

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