Half baked evidence in sexual harassment may jeopardise reputation of teacher: SC

Read Time: 12 minutes


After taking a close look at the overall picture, the bench said the inference which could reasonably be drawn is that the prosecution's case has been marked by lacklustre efforts, revealing a poorly executed endeavour that gives rise to substantial doubts regarding the integrity of the case

The Supreme Court has on March 11, 2024 said sexual harassment of a girl student by a teacher is a grave offence for its far reaching consequences, but care has to be taken in such cases as half baked evidence can jeopardise the reputation of the teacher and his right to lead a life of dignity.

A bench of Justices Dipankar Datta, K V Vishwanathan and Sandeep Mehta set aside conviction and sentence of three years and two years rigorous imprisonment imposed on Nirmal Premkumar and another teacher in higher secondary school under the provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and Section 506 of the IPC respectively.

The Madras High Court has confirmed the conviction and sentence of three years and two years on Premkumar and another teacher respectively.

According to the prosecution, the main accused teacher tried to hand over roses, Jasmine flowers and chocolate to complainant in the classroom on Valentine's day on February 14, 2018. Two other similar incidents allegedly took place involving the accused on the same day and the next day.

After going through the evidence the bench said it was inclined to deem this case as unsuitable for securing a conviction under section 11 read with section 12 of the POCSO Act, as there are enough missing links to extend the benefit of doubt to the accused.

"We quite agree with the submissions of senior counsel for the State that an act of sexual harassment of a girl student (who is also a minor) by any teacher would figure quite high in the list of offences of grave nature since it has far-reaching consequences, which impact more than just the parties to the proceeding," the bench said.

"At the same time, it is axiomatic that reputation is earned by a teacher upon rendering service over the years and an accusation like the present would remain as an indelible mark marring his entire future life. Care has, therefore, to be taken so that his right to live a life of dignity and personal liberty are not put to jeopardy on the basis of half-baked evidence," the bench added.

The court, after taking a close look at the overall picture, said the inference which could reasonably be drawn is that the prosecution's case has been marked by lacklustre efforts, revealing a poorly executed endeavour that gives rise to substantial doubts regarding the integrity of the case. 

"The material contradictions apparent in the depositions of prosecution witnesses, including the victim, significantly undermine the credibility of the prosecution version. These inconsistencies in the prosecution's narrative, render it considerably doubtful. On the face of such evident discrepancies, recording conviction becomes untenable, as the foundation of the case crumbles under the weight of doubt," the bench said. 

The bench said it might have chosen to overlook other contradictions and solely relied on the victim's account, considering her as a ‘sterling witness’, but "her version appears muddled and prevaricated, much less coherent. It is precisely these inconsistencies and contradictions, which are material, that compel us to reject the case set up by the prosecution before the Special Court with which the High Court concurred adopting a flawed approach". 

The bench said conviction undoubtedly can be recorded on the sole evidence of a victim of crime; however, it must undergo a strict scrutiny through the well settled legal principles as established by this court in a catena of decisions.

"While the actions attributed to A-1, as sought to be demonstrated by the prosecution, may fall within the purview of 'sexual harassment' under section 11 of the POCSO Act, the evidence in this case has been marred by inadequacies from the outset, evident in contradictions within statements and testimonies. The evidence led leaves reasonable suspicion as to Accused no 1 was actually involved in a criminal act," the bench said.

In the case, the bench said the High Court from the very beginning laboured under a misconception that the accused teacher had perpetrated a physical attack on the victim by pinching her. 

"Nowhere in the deposition has the victim said that she was pinched by A-1. It, therefore, defies reason as to how the High Court could perceive, more than once, and conclude that A-1 pinched the victim. The High Court proceeded to decide the appeal with a coloured vision of the victim having been sexually assaulted, which unfortunately led to deflection of justice," the bench said.

The court pointed out there were other students present in the classroom who were eyewitnesses to the incident, as described in the complaint and as deposed by the victim. In what could have been a determinative factor, none of the students present in the classroom was examined except one, i.e. who turned hostile to the case set up by the prosecution right from the word ‘go’. 

The bench also noted there are manifest discrepancies between the statement of the victim recorded under section 164, CrPC and her deposition recorded in court. In the former, it was mentioned that A-1 “twisted her arm” when she declined to accept the rose, jasmine flowers, and chocolate. Conversely, in the latter, the victim simply stated that A-1 attempted to give her a flower, and upon her refusal, he forcibly placed it in her hand. 

The accused teachers sought to make out that there was an alleged pre-existing animosity between the parties. In 2012, a relative teacher of the victim's parents was involved in a sexual harrasment case against a female teacher and the two accused teachers had initiated action against him. It had also come in evidence another relative teacher of the victim could be beneficiary of promotion if the two accused teachers are removed from the post.

The court thus acquitted the two teachers and ordered their release from jail.