When a hale and hearty person is legally dead

NEW DELHI - Deaths can be homicidal, accidental or suicidal in nature. But what is less known is that the Indian legal system also recognises the concept of “civil death”, which can apply to a person who is alive and kicking.

As per Hindu laws and custom, a hale and hearty person who performs his own last rites during his life after renouncing the world, taking ’sanyas’, is legally “deemed to be dead”, explained a Supreme Court vacation bench of Justice Katju and Justice Deepak Verma last week.

“Such a renunciate is said to have suffered a civil death,” explained Justice Katju.

He explained the curious concept of “civil death” to senior lawyer K.V. Vishvanathan, who mistakenly used the term to plead the case of his client Raiben Dayabhai Patel.

The director of Visnagar Nagrik Sahakari Bank Limited in Mehsana district of Gujarat, Patel had been ousted from the post in January this year by the bank on the allegation that a private business firm, run by his wife in partnership with some other entrepreneurs, had not paid its dues to the bank.

Accordingly, the bank management declared Patel himself to be its defaulter and eased him out of service. Patel had come to the apex court challenging his ouster.

His counsel Vishvanathan asserted before the bench, “The illegal removal has led to the civil death of my client.”

That’s when Justice Katju shot back, “Do you know what is a civil death? You people describe yourself as senior Supreme Court lawyers, nothing less than that. Yet in the name of submission you utter whatever you feel like.”

“As per Hindu laws, a person who performs his own last rites during his lifetime after taking ’sanyas’ (a vow to renounce worldly pleasures) is deemed to be dead. It is this type of death which is known as civil death,” Justice Katju went on to give an educative lecture to counsel who seemed a trifle embarrassed.

“After undergoing a civil death, a person cannot have any claim on his own property and it automatically goes to his heirs,” explained Justice Katju, much to the amusement of other lawyers.

The rather outspoken judge is known for his deep knowledge of various personal laws like Hindu laws and Shariat laws.

(Rana Ajit can be contacted at rana.ajit@ians.in)


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