EXPANDING NOT EXPOUNDING: ANALYZING THE CASE OF STATE OF GUJARAT VS. MANSUKHBHAI KANJIBHAI SHAH

Govt. Policy
October 17, 2021

Tanushri Joshi

Tanushri Joshi is a recent law graduate from ILS Law College, Pune and is currently working as a Legal & Business Development Intern at Skyroot Aerospace. Her areas of interest are Space Law, Intellectual Property Law and Criminal Law.

Can the Courts alter the definition under a Statute? Well, we all know the answer to this is no. The doctrine of separation of powers, which demarcates and distributes powers within the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary, empowers the Judiciary to only interpret and apply the law to decide the cases before it. It is a well-settled principle that the Courts while interpreting, cannot alter, add, subtract or substitute, any term in any provision under a given statute. But recently, in the case of State of Gujarat v. Mansukhbhai Kanjibhai Shah, the Supreme Court interpreted, expanded and brought a “Deemed to be university” under the ambit of the Prevention of Corruption Act [“the PC Act”]. This article analyses the judgment vis-à-vis the rules of interpretation and argues that the approach adopted by the Supreme Court is erroneous and could set misleading precedents in the future.

Facts:

The Respondent, in the present case, was a Trustee of Sumandeep Charitable Trust, a private trust having four institutions of which, the Sumandeep Deemed to be University is one. On 28th February’17, an FIR against four accused, including the present Respondent, was filed.  It was alleged that the Complainant’s daughter was asked to pay a sum of Rs. 20 lakhs to fill- up the form for her final examination, and in light of the same, the cheques were deposited. Thereafter which, the complaint was filed. Further, a sanction was obtained from the In-charge Joint Charity Commissioner. On 25th April’17, a charge sheet was filed against several accused persons including the Respondent, for various offenses under Section 7, 8, 10, 13(1)(b) & 13 (2) of PC Act read with Section 109 of the Indian Penal Code [“the IPC”]. Since no prima facie case was made in the charge sheet filed by the Prosecution, a Discharge Petition was filed by the Respondent (Accused) before the Sessions Court. Although this application was rejected by the Sessions Court, the Hon’ble Gujarat High Court, quashed and set aside the order of the Special Judge, A.C.B Court, Vadodara, and discharged the Respondent. Thus, the Petitioner filed an appeal before the Hon’ble Supreme Court, which held the Respondent guilty by bringing “Deemed to be University” under the ambit of the PC Act.

Courts Judgement: Expanding not Expounding

Whilst strict action should be taken against a person having committed any offence, it is imperative that the definition is not stretched to such an extent that is beyond the scope of the Statute. It is a well-known principle, in criminal law, that the terms shall be construed in their literal sense. As the terms have to be understood in their plain meaning and read in a strict manner, a person not referred to in any Act cannot be held guilty by widening the scope of the Act.

As held in Tolaram Relumal and Anr. v. State of Bombay, it is a well-settled rule of construction of penal statutes that if two possible and reasonable constructions can be put upon a penal provision, the Court must lean towards that construction which exempts the subject from penalty rather than the one which imposes the penalty.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Bijaya Kumar Agarwal v. State of Orissa held that “when a law visits a person with serious consequences, extra care must be taken to ensure that those whom the Legislature did not intend to be covered by the express language of the statute, are not roped in by stretching the language of the law”.

However, in the present case, the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that the PC Act, being a penal and welfare legislation, was not to be read in a restrictive manner. It thus brought “Deemed to be University” within the definition of the term “University” under the PC Act. But does the mere nature of the legislation, welfare in the present case, suffice to extend and amend the definition to include within it the persons not intended by the legislature?

The reasons for which the author believes this present judgement to be erroneous are mentioned herein below:

Deemed to be University

Firstly, the term “Deemed to be University” has not been mentioned anywhere in the PC Act.  Rather, it is pertinent to note that the PC Act only states and defines the term “University”. Secondly, the University Grants Commission Act [the “UGC Act”] defines both, “University” and “Deemed to be University” under Section 2 (f) and Section 3 respectively and does not include in any manner whatsoever, “Deemed to be University” under Section 2(f). Furthermore, the UGC Act, under Section23, prohibits the use of the term “University” for any institution other than a “University” as provided under Section 2 (f) of the UGC Act. Considering this prohibition, it is to be understood that the term “University” does not embody the term “Deemed to be University”.  Moreover, the terms of a penal statute, as a rule of interpretation, are to be construed in a strict manner. This rule has been rightly reiterated in various case laws. Thus, the institution, being a “Deemed to be University”, cannot be brought under the ambit of “University” under the PC Act.

Not a Public Servant

The definition of a Public Servant is stated under Section 2 (c) of the PC Act. Taking this definition into consideration, the Respondent not being employed or receiving aid from any Government nor being the Vice-Chancellor or member of any governing body can in no manner whatsoever be brought under the ambit of Public Servant.

In the case of Sakshi v. Union of India, the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that “prosecution of an accused for any offence on radical enlarged meaning of any provision as suggested by the petitioner may violate the guarantee enshrined in Articles 20 (1) of the Constitution”. In the present case, the institution is run through the funds of Sumandeep Charitable Trust. The Respondent is a Trustee of this Private Charitable Trust. It is pertinent to note that such institutions are self-aided trusts and in no manner receive any funds from the Government.

Furthermore, the Respondent does not even perform any public duty. “Public Duty” has been defined under Section 2 (b), as “a duty in the discharge of which the State, public or the community at large has an interest”.

It is to be noted that the Applicant does not hold any post whatsoever in the Sumandeep Deemed to be University nor does he hold any office authorizing or requiring him to discharge any public duty. Additionally, the Deemed to be University neither confers any such authority even with regards to conducting or holding exams nor demands the performance of any public duty on the Respondent and therefore invocation of Sections of the PC Act is unwarranted.

In the case of Subramaniam v. The Inspector of Police, CBI Economic Offences Unit II, the Hon’ble Madras High Court while discharging the applicant from charges before it and quashing the order of framing of charges under the PC Act held that the applicant who is the Dy. Registrar of a Deemed to be university is not a public servant and does not come under the purview of Section 2 (c) of the PC Act.

Moreover, even if we assume that the “Deemed to be University” comes under the ambit of the PC Act, it is pertinent to note that the Respondent herein is not associated with the functioning of the “Deemed to be University”. He is merely one of the trustees of the Sumandeep Charitable Trust owning many institutions. Thus, even after making several assumptions, interpretations and stretching the definition of the term “University”, the Respondent, not being associated with the functioning of the “Deemed to be University” cannot be held as a public servant or assumed to have been performing any public duty.

In addition to the aforementioned reasons, the judgement also stands erroneous for reasons of procedural lacunae and lack of prima facie evidence against the present Respondent.

Conclusion:

While the issue of corruption must be dealt with meticulously, care must be taken that individual rights are not sacrificed. It must be ensured that provisions of the law are not enlarged for the sake of bringing an individual under the ambit of a particular act.

Although the Courts have been given the power to interpret the provisions of law, they certainly cannot legislate over it. The conduct of the Court, in the present case, of firstly incorporating “Deemed to be University” under the definition of “University” when the Act does not intend to encompass it, and secondly of bringing a mere trustee of a Charitable Trust, having no connection with the management of such “Deemed to be University”, under the scope of “Public Servant” is a clear act of expanding the law and not expounding it. This act of adding to the definition of the PC Act through judicial interpretation could set some misleading precedents resulting in chaos and ambiguity. Rather, if there were enough evidence against the present Respondent, the Court could have held him guilty under the provisions of the IPC.


Preferred Citation: Tanushri Joshi, “EXPANDING NOT EXPOUNDING: ANALYZING THE CASE OF STATE OF GUJARAT VS. MANSUKHBHAI KANJIBHAI SHAH”, The Law Culture (2020).

Author

Tanushri Joshi

Tanushri Joshi is a recent law graduate from ILS Law College, Pune and is currently working as a Legal & Business Development Intern at Skyroot Aerospace. Her areas of interest are Space Law, Intellectual Property Law and Criminal Law.

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