The mysterious case of Ram Bahadur Thapa
“The thing I find really scary about ghosts and demons is that you don’t really know what they are or where they are. They’re not very well understood. You don’t know what they want from you. So it’s the kind of thing you don’t even know how to defend yourself against. Anything that’s unknown and mysterious is very scary.” —Oren Peli
The legal maxim “Ignoratia facti excusat, ignoratia juris non excusat” lays down a common principle of law. “Ignorance of fact is excused, ignorance of law is not excused”, meaning if you do something due to a mistake regarding a certain fact, depending upon the circumstances, you may not be held liable.
However, to what extent can a mistake of fact be excused? For this, let us understand the case of Ram Bahadur Thapa, circa 1959.
Facts of the Case
- Ram Bahadur Thapa was the Nepali servant of Jagat Chandra Chatterjee. Mr Chaterjee was the owner of the firm Chatarjee Brothers.
- In April 1958, Thapa had accompanied Chaterjee to the district of Balasore in present day Odisha, to the village of Rasgovindpur to be exact. The village was surrounded by other villages belonging to various tribal communities.
- The purpose behind the visit was to go to an aerodrome to collect some spare airplane parts.
- After arriving, Chaterjee and Thapa stayed in the house of Krishna Chandra Patro, a village tea stall owner.
- There was a prevailing fear of ghosts being present in the aerodrome and the surrounding villages at night.
- Chandra Mahji, a local villager, took shelter at Patro’s tea stall for the night on 20th May 1958 because of the fear of the said ghosts.
- However, Chaterjee and Thapa persuaded Patro to wake up Mahji and all three went to escort him back to his village so that they may be able to see ghosts while going or coming back.
- While coming back to Rasgovindpur, they saw a flickering light.. There was a breeze and the light was moving around giving them the impression that it was a ghostly light.
- All 3 ran to get a better look at light and Thapa took out his weapon and started attacking the ghosts.
- Patro arrived at the scene later and Thapa, not noticing him,attacked him also.
- It was only when Patro raised the cry and other people around raised the cry that Thapa stopped attacking and looked around.
- It was then that the party realized that the cry was coming from a group of tribal women who had gathered around the mohua tree at that time to collect flowers.
- Among the female tribal women , Gehli Majhiani was killed and Ganga Majhiani and Saunri Majhiani were injured.
- Subsequently a case was filed against Thapa under IPC S 302 (Murder) and IPC S326 and S324 (Grevious hurt)
The case in the Sessions Court
- The Prosecution in its assertions had not spoken of intent as to what caused the crime but had urged the judge to sentence Thapa as he had not acted with “due care and diligence”.
- The Sessions Judge acquitted Thapa as he believed that Thapa had genuinely committed a mistake of fact. Section 79 of the IPC holds that when someone does something as a result of a genuine mistake of fact, it is not counted as an offense.
- After he was acquitted by the Sessions Judge, Thapa’s case came before the High Court on grounds of appeal.
- The Orissa High Court deliberated the facts and came upon the following key points:
The Court firstly relied on Chatarjee’s statement more than Patro’s as Patro’s was inconsistent. The court then deliberated on the idea of the defendant not acting with “due care and diligence” and the validity of IPC S79 in this case.
- The court held that the servant truly believed that he was attacking ghosts. Both Patro and Chatarjee, two people that he would perhaps have listened to and who could have changed his mind, did nothing to make Thapa believe otherwise.
- Thapa had a torch with him and if there was even a minor doubt in his head, he would have flashed it and seen that the figures were human. Thus not flashing the torch proves that the defendant was truly under a “mistake of fact”.
- As such the High Court upheld the Session’s court’s decree of acquittal.
Analysis of the case:
I truly believe that the defendant was under a mistake of fact. However, I also agree with what the prosecution said too, regarding the fact that the defendant did not act with ‘care’ and ‘due diligence’. If he had a torch in his hand, it would have made more sense to flash them on the figures because ghosts don’t get hurt with weapons.
The High Court judgment also speaks about Patro’s inconsistent statements. While initially he agreed that he had gone with the other two to see witches, later he said that they had not gone to see witches. I do find that the court should perhaps have probed this kind of an inconsistency a bit more.
What transpired that night is something that only the three main characters of this case would know. Perhaps Thapa was influenced and led to believe that he would see ghosts for sure or perhaps he really didn’t think before acting. Either way he was acquitted by the Sessions court and the High Court.
I could not find out what happened to the two women who were gravely injured.
Thapa’s case is an interesting one and perhaps a bit strange. Either way it does teach us all a very important lesson- that is exercising due care before we act in any manner. If there is the slightest chance that our action would hurt others, perhaps we should perform the act only after exercising utmost caution.
Another important lesson from this case could be – to not believe in superstitions!
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