A procedural lapse by the Karnataka state government in 2015 and a very technical view taken by the Karnataka High Court has led to the chargesheet filed against rape-accused Raghaveshwara Bharathi Swamy to be held “null and void.” The Karnataka High Court has ruled that the chargesheet in a 2014 rape case against the head seer of the Ramachandrapura Math was not filed by the appropriate police station, and therefore it has ‘no consequence in law.’ This judgment means that everything that happened after the chargesheet was filed, including trial and court proceedings, has been held as ‘bad in law,’ on technical grounds.
The case is from 2014, when a woman employed as a Rama Katha singer at the Ramachandrapura Math, alleged that she was sexually assaulted multiple times between 2011 and 2014 by Raghaveshwara Bharathi Swamy. The chargesheet was filed in September 2015, when the Congress was in power in the state.
A Karnataka sessions court in 2016 discharged the seer, saying that there is “absolutely no iota of materials to frame the charges against the accused.” The survivor, as well as the state, had filed two separate criminal revision petitions in the High Court in 2016 against the trial court discharge verdict.
The Karnataka High Court bench of Justice Srishananda on December 29, 2021, dismissed both the criminal revision petitions on two counts — one that the survivor did not have the legal capacity to challenge the trial court verdict, and that the Crime Investigation Department (CID) team which filed the chargesheet in the rape case did not have the jurisdiction to do so, and hence the chargesheet is invalid. The HC said the trial court should not have acquitted the accused, but since the chargesheet was not filed properly, the petition has been dismissed.
Coming to the state’s revision petition, filed by the CID in the Karnataka High Court, the bench of Justice Srishananda held that as per criminal law, the chargesheet has to be filed by an officer at a police station. This is mandated under Section 173 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). The law says: “As soon as it is completed, the officer in charge of the police station shall forward to a Magistrate empowered to take cognizance of the offence on a police report, a report in the form prescribed by the State Government.”
However, since the Crime Investigation Department (CID), which filed the chargesheet, was not officially designated as a police station, the chargesheet does not stand in law.
The Crime Investigation Department has an investigation wing headquartered in Bengaluru, but it is not designated as a police station. A 1979 Karnataka government notification allows CID officers to investigate an offence and this officer will be an officer-in-charge of the police station. But the court has said that the criminal law is clear and though the CID can investigate cases, the chargesheet has to be filed by the police station where the FIR was lodged. In this case, this did not happen, the court said.
The court relied on a recent Karnataka High Court judgment to say that as per law, only an officer in charge of the police station can file a conclusive report or a chargesheet in a case. Though the prosecution cited a government order, the High Court held that the government order only empowers the CID to investigate the case, but the chargesheet should have been filed by the police station — in this case, the Girinagar police station where the FIR was first registered.
“The basic requirement of declaration of an officer of CID to be an officer-in-charge of the police station, that is, the office of CID should be declared to be a police station. Admittedly, there is no notification issued under Section 2(m) (supra) declaring an officer of CID to be a police station. Therefore, the officer-in-charge in the office of the CID cannot be an officer-in-charge of a police station, without at the outset the office of the CID being declared as a police station,” a different bench of the Karnataka High Court had held earlier on December 13.
However, it is surprising that firstly, the chargesheet was not filed as per the law by the officer-in-charge at the Girinagar police station who first filed the rape case in 2014. Secondly, the Karnataka High Court has ruled in a very technical manner, says Bengaluru-based senior advocate S Balan.
Consider the example of the City Crime Branch (CCB) in Karnataka, he explains. The CCB is also an investigating team. The Commissioner of Police directs the CCB to probe a case for a specific investigative purpose. The CCB is also not a police station. However, they file chargesheets in cases like cybercrime, economic offences exceeding Rs 1 crore, murder cases — in all these cases, they can investigate and file chargesheet.
Now, on a similar note, the Karnataka High Court in January 2021 said that the CCB cannot file a chargesheet. This case has been stayed and is pending in the Supreme Court. But, there are cases where chargesheets have been filed by the CCB and this technical issue is not raised.
“In the rape case, there's an influential Hindu swamy who is the accused. It is a controversial point. And the court has held the chargesheet issue only in this case. Can the court quash all such chargesheets? Can the court nullify the authority of CID?” he asks.
“A woman is raped, and just for a technical ground, the courts say that investigating agencies cannot file a chargesheet… then what about the woman? Should this be set aside or should it be referred to the police station to file a chargesheet?” advocate Balan asks.
Advocate Balan says that there have been cases where the CID, or even the CCB, has filed a chargesheet and the accused have been convicted for life. “They (courts) don't even grant bail,” he says, adding that this is where a 'predictive policing algorithm’ comes into play — that there is a bias, often over the religion of the accused. Take the case of Abdul Nasser Madani, leader of Kerala's People Democratic Party, who is facing trial in the 2008 Bengaluru serial blasts case. “In the Madani case, the chargesheet was filed by the CCB, and the court does not grant bail. The trial has been going on for the last 13 years,” advocate Balan says.
“See, I openly say, if a Muslim is an offender in a case, whatever the police do, the High Courts do not intervene,” the advocate says. “If the accused is a Muslim, no technicality. If the accused is a Hindu Swamiji, all technicalities the High Court considers. It's very discriminating. That's how the state works, the judiciary works,” he adds.
In the revision petition filed by the survivor, the accused seer’s counsel had submitted to the court that she cannot contest every order of the court in the course of the trial, which the High Court has agreed with. The High Court said that in India, under the law, a victim has limited rights to contest or appeal against an order.
According to criminal laws in India, a victim or survivor of a crime can appeal against a final order only under three conditions. One, the victim can appeal against an order of acquittal; two, if the punishment or sentence is lesser or inadequate; and three, in case compensation is not enough or is inadequate.
Victimology, or the study of victims of a crime, is a developing concept of India, the court held, and victims have a very specific right. This specific right to appeal cannot be applied to each and every order that is passed by the trial court. The court said that the state or public prosecutor is empowered by the criminal laws to contest the trial court order, but a victim or survivor of that crime is not necessarily empowered to do so.
The court cannot pass orders to allow the victim’s appeal because it is the Legislature’s job to strengthen victims’ rights in India, and the judiciary cannot ‘usurp’ the area of the Legislature through a judicial order.
“In future, on the further development of victimology, the legislature may carve out necessary rights for the victim as well, even to challenge the orders that would be passed during the trial depending upon the need that may arise in a given case,” the High Court held.
Therefore, the survivor’s revision petition was held ‘not maintainable’ and was dismissed by the Karnataka High Court.
This is a fit case for the Supreme Court to examine, legal experts whom TNM spoke to said. The survivor’s lawyer, speaking to TNM, had said that they are planning to appeal against the High Court order in the Supreme Court.
The case pertains to the alleged sexual assault of a woman disciple who had joined the Rama Katha programme at the Ramachandrapura Math in 2010 and was the main singer in a troupe of five. The seer allegedly started making advances towards her in September 2011, and in October 2011, he allegedly raped her. He allegedly also called her into his private chambers on the pretext of 'praying to Lord Rama', and according to the survivor, she could not resist the sexual assault as she was "suffused with the fear of divine wrath and felt bound by the vow forced on her.”
A case was filed, but the seer moved court against the chargesheet, the Karnataka trial court discharged him of rape charges. The woman and the police probing the case had both filed separate petitions in the Karnataka High Court challenging the trial court's verdict.
Raghaveshwara Bharathi, originally Harish Sharma before, is the current head seer of Ramachandrapura Math in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district. He belongs to the small but extremely powerful Havyaka Brahmin caste in Karnataka.
Apart from this rape case, and another one involving a minor, Raghaveshwara Bharathi has also been facing other cases — there are charges of alleged land grabbing and misuse of power against him. TNM had earlier reported on the series of recusals by Karnataka High Court judges from various cases that Raghaveshwara is facing.