The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the life imprisonment awarded to three persons involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, ruling that witnesses’ evidence could not be brushed aside just because there were minor contradictions.

Dismissing their appeals, a Bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and M.Y. Eqbal said the witnesses consistently deposed on the offence committed by the appellants and their evidence remained unshaken during cross-examination. “Mere marginal variation and contradiction” in statements could not be a ground for discarding the testimony of the eyewitness, one of whom is the wife of a victim in a November 3, 1984 incident. “Further, relationship cannot be a factor to affect the credibility of a witness.”

It was not a solitary episode as alleged but many such incidents occurred in almost all parts of the country, especially in Delhi where many innocent persons of a community were murdered and their property was looted following the assassination of the Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi) on October 31, 1984, said Justice Eqbal, writing the judgment. Thousands of people formed into mobs in different areas and committed atrocities, murdering and setting Sikhs afire. “Therefore, the evidence has to be appreciated carefully without going into minor discrepancies and contradictions…” It was a well-settled proposition that in an appeal against an acquittal, the appellate court had the full power to review the evidence on which the acquittal was founded. The High Court was entitled to re-appreciate the entire evidence in order to find out whether the trial court findings were perverse or unreasonable.

Complainant Harjit Kaur’s husband Rajeender Singh and father-in-law Sardool Singh, who had taken shelter in the house of Dr. Harbir Sharma, were set ablaze and the half-burnt bodies put in gunny bags. Her house was also torched.

The appellants — Lal Bahadur, Surender and Virender — argued that since the charred bodies were not found, the Delhi High Court reversing the trial court findings was erroneous.

Rejecting this contention, the Bench said that in a case of murder, “it is well settled that discovery of the body of a victim has never been considered the only mode of proving corpus delicti [a crime must have been proven to have occurred before a person can be convicted of it].” In fact, there were very many cases such as the present one wherein discovery of the body was impossible, especially when members of a particular community were murdered in a violent mob attack in different places and the offenders tried to remove the bodies and also looted articles.