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What Is Homicide? When Is It Justifiable, Excusable Or Criminal?

If you are struck in the head by a falling tree or thunderstorm or meteor or eaten by a pack of wolves in the woods or suffer a heart attack while having an ice cream, and die, such a death is not a homicide.

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The paramountcy of life is fundamental to human society. What could drive us to kill another human being? We as humans are driven by the vehemence and cynical emotions of jealousy, anger, fear and revenge. Our decisions arise out of a melting pot of reasons and emotions where, sometimes, we end up favouring one over the other. In situations which are emotionally challenging, we may allow ourselves to ignore rationality and may act impetuously. Killing, be it spontaneous or premeditated, may happen when we are emotionally charged with excess negativity. It can also be a consequence of our association with unsavoury people.

In the era of complex virtual crimes, criminal homicide, being a matter of life and death (pun intended), still remain to be the biggest threat to individuals’ safety and security. If an altercation with a colleague, boss, neighbour or lover (as in the recent Delhi’s Shahbad Dairy murder case) is bothering you and you so wish that they would die, then it is essential for you to know the intricacies of killing as per law, that the cinema fails to capture.

The act of killing a human by another is termed as Homicide. If you are struck in the head by a falling tree or thunderstorm or meteor or eaten by a pack of wolves in the woods or suffer a heart attack while having an ice cream, and die, such a death is not a homicide. If the cause of death is not the act of another human, it’s not homicide and unfortunately, your family cannot sue any human for the loss as per the Indian criminal law. Once the death is labelled as a ‘homicide’, then only, depending upon the circumstances of the killing and the state of mind of the killer, it can be classified as justifiable, excusable, or criminal, which, however, does not make any great difference to the person killed— the bifurcation is predominantly for the advantage of lawyers.

If you are a soldier, the killing of an enemy soldier in combat is a homicide. However, it is a justifiable homicide because under the circumstances of war, as a soldier you are authorized by law to kill the enemy for the protection of your country. Therefore, killings which are commanded or authorized by law are justifiable homicides. If you are a hangman/ executioner acting under the court’s order, you are authorized by law to kill the criminal because of the peculiar

circumstances of such killing. Such an act of killing by a hangman under the orders of a judge is also a justifiable homicide.

If amidst a licensed boxing match, you as a professional boxer hit another boxer, where the latter collapses in the ring and dies; this killing is certainly a homicide. However, you did not intend to kill your opponent, but merely to strike him within the rules of the boxing contest. This killing is, however, not a justifiable homicide because the killing of one boxer by another in the ring is not commanded or authorized by law. Similarly suppose you are cautiously driving your car down a street and obeying all traffic rules. Suddenly, a young girl playfully runs from between parked cars and despite your best efforts, your car strikes and kills the girl. It is also an excusable homicide because such a killing lacks the criminal intent to kill and criminal negligence.

Generally, excusable homicides result from inadvertence or accident done by people who are incapable of committing crimes. These incapable persons are mostly infants i.e. a child under the age of seven years of age or people who are legally insane as per the Indian Penal Code.

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Suppose you wake up in the middle of the night in your bed to discover a stranger armed with a deadly weapon, present in your room and is apparently about to kill you. You manage to find your pistol and shoot the intruder dead. This is a homicide, but it is a justifiable one. Killing someone in defence to protect oneself or another person or to protect property, or prevent any other criminal activity when there is no reasonable alternative but to use deadly force is authorized by law. Similarly, the privilege of private defence will totally erase your onus in any event if you cause even the death of someone when you apprehend an assault which might lead to your death or grievous hurt or rape or kidnapping or wrongful confinement or acid attack.

The rationale for such a right is a duty to self-help i.e. a person's duty to help herself, and subsequently a social duty to help others. Indian criminal law does not expect a person facing imminent danger to run away from the danger. There is no duty to retreat as one cannot be expected not to retaliate when someone is being aggressive against her. It is also referred to as the 'Stand your ground' law in some countries which permits an individual to protect themselves even if you have a perfectly safe avenue of retreat. It echoes the common law "castle doctrine" principle, which does not carry an obligation to step back and avoid confrontation when you feel that you must defend your home or body.

However, if someone is chasing you with a gun to kill you, while you are running to save yourself and in the process, you come across a PCR van, now you can no longer exercise your right to private defence by killing the aggressor. You become bound to take recourse to the police. This right to kill someone in private defence can only be exercised in case of imminent danger and when state support or assistance is not available. Furthermore, the right arises only against imminent, present and actual danger from a threat of a criminal act being committed against you. Essentially, the right cannot extend to causing more harm than what is necessary for your defence; else you may end up opening a whole new can of worms.

However, any killing of one human being by another human being which is not justifiable and not excusable is a criminal homicide. Criminal homicides may be intentional killings or killings by accident or from criminal negligence depending upon the circumstances of the killing and the state of mind of the killer. Criminal homicides can further be classified as murder and culpable homicide not amounting to murder/manslaughter depending upon the malice aforethought and the gravity of the offence.

With rising crime rates, it is critical to safeguard one’s body, one’s belongings, and one’s loved ones from possible harm. Despite stringent legislation, news feeds on our mobile phones remain packed with novel stories of brutal killings. It seems that rigorous punishments alone are not enough to instil fear in the minds and deter the assassin from resorting to violent ventures. At this juncture, educating people about their rights and duties as members of the human race becomes essential. Law-abiding citizens are mostly unaware of the extent of retaliation they can exercise to avoid being victims of crimes. Killers are mostly deterred from inflicting violence if they anticipate their targets to be equipped enough to handle the cloud on the horizon.

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Even though it is the primary duty of the state to protect the life and property of a citizen; practically the state cannot watch each and every activity of citizens. The lack of adequate manpower, technology, technical know-how and somewhat political will in the police force limits the state in helping us immediately when our lives or property are in danger. Therefore, the legal system has acknowledged and enacted a variety of provisions to allow us to protect ourselves and our possessions. Such a right, not only, is a controlling impact on terrible characters in society but also empowers the right soul in a free inhabitant. There is nothing more demeaning to the human soul than to wander in the streets of danger and to live a life of fear. People who are guided by the principles of right and wrong never engage in crimes. Therefore, only creating awareness and promoting moral behaviour in society can pull the plug on violence.

(Mahima Garg is a Delhi-based lawyer)

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