Nilabati Behera Alias Lalita v. S/O Orissa & Ors. [AIR 1993, SC 1960]

Nilabati Behera Alias Lalita v. S/O Orissa & Ors. [AIR 1993, SC 1960]

By Shivi Khare

Petitioner: Nilabati Behera or Lalitha Behera

Respondent: State of Orissa


Petitioner’s son suman Behera aged 22 years was taken into the police custody at around 8 a.m. on 1.12.1987 by Assistant Sub-Inspector of Police of the Police Outpost for the investigation of an offence of theft. He was confined at the Police outpost on 2.12.1987. At about 2 p.m. on the same day it came to the knowledge of the petitioner that the corpse of her son was found on the railway track, there have been multiple injuries on the body and his death was unnatural, the reason behind the death was the injuries on his body. The petitioner alleged that it had been a case of custodial death since her son died as a result of the multiple injuries inflicted to him while he was in police custody and thereafter his body was thrown away on the railway track in her letter written on 14.9.1988, which was treated as a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution. It had been prayed within the petition that award of compensation be made to her, for contravention of the elemental right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The defending argument of the respondents was that the petitioner’s son managed to flee from police custody at about 3 a.m. on 2.12.1987 from the Police Outpost where he was detained and thereafter, he couldn’t be apprehended in spite of a research. After a brief search his body was found on the railway track on 2.12.1987 with multiple injuries, which indicated that he was run over by a train. The respondents denied the allegations of the custodial death and their responsibility for the unnatural death of the petitioner’s son. On 4.3.1991, this Court directed the District Judge to carry an inquiry into the matter and to submit a report. After hearing to both the parties and going through their sets of evidences the District Judge submitted the Inquiry Report on 4.9.1991. The District Judge found that the petitioner’s son died because of the multiple injuries suffered by him while he was in the police custody. The correctness of the finding of the District Judge in his report was assailed during this Court. The respondents stated that the petitioner’s son managed to escape from police custody at about 3 a.m. on 2.12.1987 and he was run over by a passing train and hence he sustained the fatal injuries. They also stated that that the responsibility of the respondents for his safety came to an end the instant he escaped from the police custody. This was the factual foundation for State’s liability for payment of compensation for violation of the elemental right to life under Article 21 was absent.


The issues raised by the petitioner in this case was whether there is a right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, and whether the Supreme Court of India and the High Courts can issue monetary compensation in case of (or if it is given in compensation for) violation of fundamental right under Article 32 and 226 of the Indian Constitution respectively, if the case is with regard to “Sovereign Immunity”. 

[The principle of “Sovereign Immunity” states that a State cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune to from prosecution. In simple terms, it to the fact that the government cannot be sued without its consent.


By the Petitioner:

The petitioner’s counsel stated that the District Court judge’s findings on the matter of the case cannot be rejected, and that there was enough evidence to prove that a petitioner’s son was in custody of the police when he was inflicted with the injuries that has caused his death. It was also argued that the petitioner’s son’s right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has been deprived by the police, and then compensation was claimed.

By the respondent:

The respondents’ counsel, i.e., the Additional Solicitor General, claimed that the petitioner’s son had escaped the police custody at around 3a.m., on the morning of 2nd of December, 1987, and was not to be found in spite of the police having searched for him. He also claimed that the petitioner’s son reached near the railway station soon after his escape from the police, and was hit by a train that was crossing, and stated that it was those injuries that has caused the death of the petitioner’s son. He argued that this was not a case of custodial death, as the petitioner’s son has escaped the police custody, and also denied the District Court’s evidence.


The Supreme Court held that the respondent i.e. State of Orissa has to pay a sum of Rs.1,50,000 Mrs. Nilabati Behera and also a sum of Rs.10,000 has to be paid to the Supreme Court Legal Aid Committee. It was contended that the evidence adduced during the inquiry doesn’t support the defence of respondents and there’s no reason to reject the finding of the learned District Judge that Suman Behera died in police custody as a result of the injuries inflicted upon him.

Ratio decidendi:

It is clear that there’s no evidence of any search made by the police to apprehend Suman Behera if the defence of his getaway police custody is true. Contradictory to which the invention of the body on the railway track within the morning by some railway men, it had been much later within the day that the police reached the spot to require charge of the body. This conduct of the concerned law enforcement officials, is additionally a major circumstance to assess the credibility of the defence version. it had been stated by the doctor that while all the injuries couldn’t be caused in a very train accident, it had been possible to cause all the injuries by lathi blows. There is a difference between the liability of the state publicly law and therefore the liability of the state in camera law for payment of compensation in action on tort. It is mentioned that award of compensation in a every proceeding under Article 32 by this court or by the state supreme court under Article 226 of the Constitution may be a remedy available publicly law, supported strict liability for contravention of fundamental rights to which the principle of exemption doesn’t apply, while it’s going to be available as a defence in camera law in an action supported tort. The court isn’t helpless and therefore, the wide powers given to the current Court by Article 32, which itself may be a fundamental right, imposes a constitutional obligation on this Court to forge such new tools, which can be necessary for doing complete justice and enforcing the elemental rights guaranteed within the Constitution, which enable the award of monetary compensation in appropriate cases, where that’s the sole mode of redress available. the ability available to the current Court under Article 142 is additionally an enabling provision during this behalf.

There was concurring opinion given by justice Dr. Anand which said that it is the duty of the state to make sure that the rights of the people are not infringed in accordance with law when any person is its custody. the valuable right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India cannot be denied to convicts, under trials or other prisoners in custody, except per procedure established by law. there’s a good responsibility on the police or prison authorities to make sure that the citizen in its custody isn’t bereft of his right to life. His liberty is within the very nature of things circumscribed by the actual fact of his confinement and thus his interest within the limited liberty left to him is very precious. On the part of the State the duty of care is strict and has no exceptions.

The wrongdoer is accountable and therefore the State is responsible if the person in custody of the police are bereft of his life except per the procedure established by law.


Article 21 of the Indian Constitution states that “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”. It is pretty evident with this particular law that no one can snatch away the right to life of a person. Not unless the Law states, which happens in the rarest of the rarest cases; It was not just culpable homicides and murders, but custodial deaths were also pretty frequent and in fact, increased in the 1980s.  And most of the times, they couldn’t be proved. In a Country where its Constitution even talks about the rights of the persons detained, it is pretty apparent that the rights that they are vested to already, cannot be taken away. And the judgment of this case of Nilabati Behera v. State of Orissa , is undoubtedly one of the landmark judgments of the country, for the court stated in its judgment that compensation can be claimed in case of a custodial death, and it definitely does stand as a testimony to the fact that in spite of all the drawbacks of the setup of the Government of this country, there is still a hope for justice.

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