Ghajini: Can Sanjay Singhania be convicted?

All he has is a terrifying moment frozen in time like a fossilized drop of blood as evidence of a heart-rendingly cruel crime committed in distant past. Every other moment that entered his life made a 15-minute stopover before a quick exit. The nightmare is all that he has to live by, and to annihilate the architects of his sordid past is what he lives for. And to assist his ever-failing memory he has what is carved on his soul tattooed on his body lest he should forget that Kalpana, the light of his life, was mercilessly killed by a monster called GHAJINI. This is Sanjay Singhania (the eight-pack-abbed, freshly body-built Aamir).

And he goes out to kill Ghajini and in the process kills many other. Naturally, with his 15-minute memory, he could easily forget why he killed right after killing. Then he would dig deep in his pockets and come up with a picture to match the face of the slain. He has already done a man in, and he doesn’t even know who he has killed or why. To know that he has to consult some photographic documents in his pocket.

Where does the law stand on this? A natural question, isn’t it? The mind of a criminal lawyer would start running different configurations of mens rea (guilty mind) and actus reus like a calculator works numbers. And the question can indeed be a complicated one to answer.

So, much so that if, for instance, Sanjay Singhania killed five people, it is possible that he is found guilty only for 2 or 3 murders despite having lost his memory at different stages during each of these murders. Sounds complex and baffling? No, it is not. It’s actually pretty simple. The law demands a clear presence of guilty mind when a criminal act is committed for the perpetrator of the crime to be convicted. And what is guilty mind? One should be aware of the nature and consequences of the criminal act, and that’s enough. The understanding of the relevant law or any law or even the existence of law, for that matter, is of no relevance.

In one situation Sanjay Singhania is on the very verge of killing the guy. The next move could dispatch the guy to heaven or hell (to be decided after dispatch). The guy lies right there – defenseless, motionless, horror-struck. And the memory slips. Mr. Singhania digs a picture out of his pocket to do a match. Now, the picture matches and Mr. Singhania proceeds with his ‘operation termination’. Verdict? Guilty, of course. And the reason is also very plain for anyone to see. At the time of murder the killer knows what he is doing.

Now, alter the situation a bit. Mr. Singhania is about to kill when his memory does the trick. He softens wondering what he is doing with a butcher’s knife in hand. His victim, in a last ditch effort to rescue himself, picks an iron rod lying nearby, and attacks Mr. Singhania. The only thing Mr. Singhania can now do is defend himself. And he does and in doing so ends up killing the person. In this case, at the time Mr. Singhania kills, he is simply acting in self-defence though he was the aggressor in the first place. In a normal situation, an aggressor cannot plead self-defence because no right to self-defence accrues against a preexisting right to self-defence. But in this case Mr. Singhania can, in all probability, successfully plead self-defence because his situation is much similar to that of a person who suddenly wakes up to an attack on his life and starts defending himself instinctively without thinking.

In another situation, Mr. Singhania throws a man off the building with the intention to kill, but somehow the man manages to hang on to a protruding iron rod, and Mr. Singhania’s memory fails him again. He finds himself standing atop a tall building with a man hanging on a thin iron rod. He instinctively extends a hand to pull the man up. The man gets to hold the hand but fails to take a good, life-saving grip, and descends to his death. It’s not all that complicated. The situation is the same as a person with the intention to kill lethally stabs a man and then regrets. He takes him to the hospital and does everything in his power to save his life, but fails. The man dies. That the assailant tried to save the life of the victim after delivering the death blow does nothing to dilute the intention to kill or the act of killing.

The court may consider the killer’s effort to save the life of his victim and may also take into account his remorse at the sentencing stage. However, the conviction is very certain. So, in this case Mr. Singhania’s ever-failing memory would not come to his rescue.

However, the most complicated legal question in case of Mr. Singhania would arise when the law considers that the man undergoing trial is someone who has no memory of what he has done and by virtue of his lost memory he may be legally unfit to stand trial. Only the same person who has committed the crime must be punished and no other. And a person is not body alone, which is why a person who goes insane after committing an offence is unfit for trial till the time his sanity is restored.

This case is slightly different than that of an insane person in that Mr. Singhania would readily understand the nature of killing someone and its legal consequences, but this is not the same Sanjay Singhania who killed. He is a new one, a clean slate. If he is told what he did, he may or may not feel remorse, but he is still in the position of a third person who considers the murders, the killer and the situation and then judges for himself if what the killer did was justified in his situation or not.

A person who has lost his memory cannot be convicted for the crimes he committed before the loss of memory because he is not the same person. Therefore, Sanjay Singhania, despite his sanity at the time of trial, would, in all probability, be found unfit to stand trial. And that position may remain unchanged for the rest of his life. However, he might still be considered too dangerous to be let out. Would it be just to incarcerate a man who is innocent in law? I would leave that question open.

Originally written for and published in LAWYERS UPDATE (April 2009 issue; Vol. XV, Part 4)

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8 thoughts on “Ghajini: Can Sanjay Singhania be convicted?

  1. well sir … u sure r very experienced but the answer to me is straight and simple
    an insane person is to be sent to a mental hospital and nowhere else… or maybe to any asylum or care facility for such people and the only problem is that we dnt ve many here in India

    1. Hello Rimple,
      Yes, an insane person is not fit to stand trial and must be sent to a mental hospital because he does not belong in jail. There is no question about it. However, the question is, who is insane enough in law to deserve that treatment. The question of insanity has to be decided on case to case basis and it certainly is not an easy question.

  2. sir,
    any person who is not able to understand his acts and then his punishment is insane. this person here is arleast not able to understand the punishment meted to him

    1. Hello Rimple,
      The man who kills here understands the nature of his act and also the consequences. And the one presented before the court later also knows that killing is wrong. The most important question is that whether or not these two people the same person despite the body being the same.

  3. Sir,
    dis is Garima Chaudhary frm nlu jodhpur. Mahima Rathi (ur student) is my batchmate. n frm her only i got to knw abt dis blog. n i found all ur blogs very interesting spcly dis one related to Ghazni because i was also searching for the answer.
    Sir when i read dis blog a question came to my mind. Sir if a person commits an offence and afterwards he lost his memory. Cant he be held liable? And can a patient of Short-term memory consindered to be an insane person? Sir waiting for ur rply.
    Thank you sir

    1. Hello Garima,
      If a person loses his memory after committing a crime, he is not fit to stand trial because on account of having lost his memory he is not the same person. So, though he may not be ‘insane’ in medical terms but he is still unfit to stand trial. He does not have the benefit of insanity because if and when he regains his memory he can be prosecuted and punished. A person who is rendered insane for any reason at the time he commits the crime stands on a different footing because he is excused of all consequences for all times.

      So far as Short Term Memory Loss patients are concerned, there has so far been no such case to the best of my knowledge. Therefore, the question is yet to be settled. But in my opinion, as also mentioned in the Review above, such person cannot be tried because the one who is brought for trial and the one who committed the crime are two different people even when the body remains the same. And one cannot be punished for the crime of another. Therefore, such person is unfit to stand trial. Of course, that’s my opinion. The courts may take a different or contrary view.

  4. Sir,
    Thanks a lot for ur rply. Sir even i thought the same but my I.P.C. sir told that a person who has lost his memory would be held liable for the offence he had committed before loosing his memory. And his argument was that at the time of committing the offence, he had knowledge of his act. Both mens rea and actus rea both are present. And the necessary condition to held a person liable is that during the committing of offence guilty mind should be present with the act. So it doesnt matter what his condition is after the committing of the offence. He would be held liable.
    These were his point of view. But i couldnt convinced. And i wasnt able to find any such precedent case which support ur or u can say mine argument. Because even i present the same argument.
    So sir i jst want to knw is thr ny precedent case which discusses the liability of a person after loosing his memory?
    Waiting for ur rply.
    Regards.

    1. Hello Garima,
      These are two different and distinct issues of culpability and fitness to stand trial. The offender is liable. There is no question about that. But can he stand trial? As I mentioned in my response above that the moment he regains his memory, he is can be tried and punished, which indicates that the question of culpability is not at issue here. But so long as he has no memory of what he has done, he is not the same person. So, he remains culpable but not ‘triable’, and these two are certainly not the same thing. I hope the distinction is now clear. Let me know if there is till some confusion about it.

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