The 58-year-old Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu had always referred to himself as a “survivor”, who always gets bailed out of situations by the “grace of god”. But today, Sidhu may find it difficult to escape the long arm of the law, as he faces a one year jail sentence in the old 1998 road rage case, in which a 65-year-old Patiala resident, Gurnam Singh died.
Sidhu had often brushed off this incident as ‘nothing more than an accident’. “A life was lost and everybody will regret it. But the court says it was an accident,” Sidhu had said about the episode. But it has been his nemesis and caught up with him 34 years later, as Sidhu will be taken into custody by Punjab police as per the Supreme Court order on May 19.
The road rage incident
On December 27, 1988, Sidhu and his friend — Rupinder Singh Sandhu — were in a Gypsy parked in the middle of the road near a gate crossing in Patiala, when the victim Gurnam Singh and two others were on the way to the bank to withdraw money. When Gurnam Singh driving a Maruti car saw the Gypsy on the middle of the road, he asked them to remove it. Sidhu and Sandhu reportedly got into a heated argument with him and allegedly dragged Gurnam out of his car and punched him. It is also alleged that he hit him on the head with a bat.
It is alleged that Sidhu “removed the key from the ignition of the car and fled the site after causing fatal injury to a vital part of the deceased’s body (i.e. head). Thus, ensuring that the deceased would not be able to get any medical aid”. Gurnam Singh had to be taken to the hospital in a man-pulled rickshaw and was declared brought dead on arrival.
Sidhu and his friend were booked. On September 22, 1999, the Patiala sessions court acquitted Sidhu and his friend for want of evidence, giving them the benefit of doubt. Gurnam’s family filed an appeal against the decision in the Punjab and Haryana high court.
A timeline of a political career and a road rage court case
Meanwhile, in 2004, ‘sixer Sidhu’, who had a glorious stint in international cricket, entered politics and fought the general elections for the first time on a BJP ticket from Amritsar and won.
On December 1, 2006, however, Punjab and Haryana High Court found Sidhu and Sandhu guilty of culpable homicide (not amounting to murder) and awarded a three-year jail term. They are convicted under section 304(2) of IPC – culpable homicide not amounting to murder that carries a maximum jail term of 10 years.
BJP and Congress lock horns over the order and Sidhu is forced to resign from Lok Sabha. In January 2007, Arun Jaitley appears as Sidhu’s lawyer in the Supreme Court, which stays the conviction; Sidhu and friend are released on bail. Thereafter, Sidhu won bypoll to become Amritsar MP for the second time on BJP ticket. The complainant then approaches SC against Sidhu.
Having won on a BJP ticket thrice from the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat between 2004 and 2009 (including a bypoll), he is left out in 2014 in favour of Arun Jaitley and sent to the Rajya Sabha. A sulking Sidhu quits BJP.
Between December 2017 and March 2018, Sidhu quits BJP and joins Congress and wins the assembly elections. He becomes Punjab’s Tourism and Local Bodies Minister in Amarinder Singh Congress-led government.
On April 12, 2018, during hearing of the appeal in the SC on the road rage case, Punjab government seeks Sidhu’s conviction in SC. On May 15, 2018, the SC sets aside the lower court order. The top court holds him guilty of the lesser offence of causing voluntary hurt to Singh, saying such roadside brawls were a “very common sight in this country”. However, it convicts Sidhu under Section 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt) and imposed a fine of ₹1,000 without any jail.
On September 13, 2018, the Supreme Court admitted a review petition filed by the aggrieved family on the quantum of sentence.
In 2019, Sidhu and Amarinder Singh start fighting as Sidhu accuses him of singling him out for the Congress’s poor performance in the Lok Sabha election. Though the Congress won eight out of 13 parliamentary seats in Punjab, it won only 52 seats overall. The war of words between Sidhu and Amarinder continues to escalate and the latter publicly declares the younger party colleague wants to replace him as CM.
In July 2021, the Congress appoints Sidhu as Punjab Congress Chief and in September 2021, Amarinder Singh is forced to resign as CM and is replaced by Charanjit Singh Channi. Speculations arise over Sidhu’s missed opportunity of becoming CM, something that he was seen to be angling for since 2017 when he joined Congress.
A far more grievous crime than causing hurt to victim
In February 2022, the Congress is routed in Punjab elections and Sidhu submits his resignation as Punjab Congress president. The Supreme Court also asked Sidhu the same month to respond to a plea that the facts of a 34-year-old fatal road rage case show he is responsible for a far more grievous crime, like culpable homicide or even murder, than causing hurt to the victim.
The victim’s family, represented by senior advocate Siddharth Luthra, filed an application asking the court to enlarge the scope of its examination. Luthra argued that “if hurt has caused death of the victim, the offence is culpable homicide”. Referring to past apex court judgments, Luthra argued before a Special Bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar and SK Kaul that “when there is death of a human being, it may either be culpable homicide (amounting or not amounting to murder)… Offences affecting life are distinct from the offence of hurt. If hurt results in death, intended or unintended, the offence would fall within the category of an offence affecting life”.
Luthra contended that the May 2018 judgment of the apex court, letting Sidhu off with a fine of ₹1000, demonstrated “error apparent on the face of the record”. He urged the court to not restrict its scope of examination to just the quantum of sentence but to the matter as a whole.
“It has come in evidence that the accused removed the key from the ignition of the car and fled the site after causing fatal injury to a vital part of the deceased’s body (i.e. head). Thus, ensuring that the deceased would not be able to get any medical aid. It has also come in evidence that Gurnam Singh had to be taken to the hospital in a man-pulled rickshaw and was declared to be brought dead on arrival,” the family said in its application.
Sidhu however urged the SC to weigh in his “impeccable” record in politics and cricket while reviewing the May 2018 judgment.
On May 2022, Sidhu is sentenced to one year imprisonment and he accepts the “majesty of the law”.