It is of utmost importance for a country to grow, develop and reach new heights of good governance that its government should be able to offer its citizens a peaceful and egalitarian environment. Peace, and more importantly, the belief that peace prevails, is essential to the existence of a civilized society. Maintaining public order and ensuring tranquility in public discourse is every government’s primary objective. The legislators of our nation have taken commendable steps in order to preserve public order and tranquility among the people of society. The legal provisions relating to public order and peace have been primarily enshrined in the IPC.
An assembly may become unruly and may cause injury to individuals, property or public order. Such an unruly assembly is referred to as an ‘unlawful assembly’. The principal reason why unlawful assembly is criminalized is to preserve public peace and order. In order to deter people from committing crimes in groups, the Penal Code provides for vicarious responsibility. Section141 reveals that the essence of an unlawful assembly is that five or more people collectively commit an offence. The main components of this section are that there has been an assembly of five or more persons and they have a common object, one of the five specified in this section must be this common object. The ‘common object’ expression means that all the members of the assembly should share and possess the object. There must be an ‘objective community.’
Essentials of Unlawful Assembly
1. There has to be an assembly of five people:-
In Dharam Pal Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the SC of India upheld that:-
“Where only five named persons have been charged with constituting an unlawful assembly and one or more of them have been acquitted, the remaining accused (less than five) may not be convicted as members of an unlawful assembly unless it is established that, in addition to convicted persons, the unlawful assembly consisted of other persons who were not identified and who were unable to be named.”
2. There must be a common object:-
The law does not declare a mere assembly of men, however large it may be, as illegal if it is not inspired by an unlawful common object. “The court stated that “the word ‘object’ means the purpose or design of doing a thing that is intended to be done in the case of Sheik Yusuf v. Emperor, and that the object must be ‘common’ to the individuals who make up the assembly.”A common object is where all or at least five members of the assembly possess one object and share it.
3. The common object must be to commit one of the five illegal objects specified in the section:-
The object was specified as follows in section 141:-
1. To overawe government by criminal force:-
‘Overawe’ means creating fear in someone else’s mind. That is when, through the use of force, a public procession tends to overpower government, like what the Stone Pelters do in parts of Kashmir to protest against the government, such an assembly is called an illegal assembly.
2. To resist the execution of law or legal process:-
Resistance by an assembly to a legal process or execution of law, for example, executing a judgment or order of a court is subject to law enforcement, so restricting the arrest in the case of Baba Ram Rahim in Harayana was an unlawful act by individuals and the government decided to disperse the unlawful assembly pursuant to section 144 of the 1973 Code of Criminal Procedure.
3. To commit an offence:-
Where an assembly of five or more persons having a common purpose of performing an act that is prohibited by law or that constitutes an offence under the Indian Penal Code or other special or local laws, such an assembly would be an unlawful one.
4. Possession and dispossession of property by force:-
Where an assembly uses a criminal force to deprive a person of the right to use water or any other incorporeal right that the person enjoys and possesses or obtains possession of any property or to impose such rights, those acts referred to above are prohibited under clause 4 of section 141 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
5. Unlawful compulsion:-
If the assembly compels them to carry an illegal act by using criminal force on others, it would be an unlawful assembly.
Member of an Unlawful Assembly
The key component of section 142 is that as soon as the individual is aware of the fact that the assembly is unlawful, despite knowing that it is unlawful, it must be proved that he remained part of such an assembly. The word ‘continues’ under section 142 means physical presence as a member of an unlawful assembly, that is, physically being present in the crowd. A person who understands that the assembly is unlawful and is present as a just bystander cannot be attributed to this chapter.
IPC section 143 embodies the punishment for having been a member of an unlawful assembly. Any person who is a member of an unlawful assembly shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 6 months, or by a fine, or both.
Section 144 aims to punish persons in an unlawful assembly armed with an offence weapon. It prescribes the punishment of imprisonment for a term that can extend to 2 years, or fine, or both. This section is intended to reduce the risk of hampering the tranquility of the general public.
IPC section 145 provides for punishment for knowingly joining an unlawful assembly that has been ordered to disperse. This section is in consistent with IPC section151 and section 148. Section 151 deals with cases of a special nature in which disobedience leads to an infringement of public peace, and section 188 deals with cases in which there is an infringement of any legal order by any public servant. Section 129 of the Code of Criminal Procedure provides that a police officer has special powers to order the dispersal of an unlawful assembly.
Section 150 makes individuals who have been hired to join the unlawful assembly liable. It provides that if a person is hired to be a member of an unlawful assembly, he is liable in the same way as if he had been a member of that assembly and had committed the offence himself. Section 157 of IPC is a broader section that provides for the harbouring of hired individuals to be punished. Anyone who knowingly harbours the persons being hired as part of an unlawful assembly shall be liable for imprisonment that may extend to six months, or for fines, or both.
Dispersal of Unlawful Assembly
Under sections 129 to 131 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the power to disperse the unlawful assembly can be exercised in three different ways:-
By use of civil force:-
Section 129 of the Code authorizes police officers and magistrates to order members of an unlawful assembly or prospective unlawful assembly (assembly of persons likely to commit any of the acts under section 141, IPC) to disperse and cease to violate public peace. Powers shall be conferred primarily on any executive magistrate (including sub-divisional magistrate and district magistrate) or officer in charge of a police station or any officer in his absence, but not below the rank of sub-inspector, for the purposes of dispersing unlawful meetings.
Three prerequisites as mentioned in Karam Singh v. Hardayal Singh should be met before any force can be used for dispersal of an unlawful assembly. First, an unlawful assembly for the purpose of violence, or an assembly of five or more people likely to disturb public peace and tranquility, should be held. Secondly, it is ordered that such an assembly be dispersed by the component authority immediately. Third, despite such dispersion order, such an assembly does not disperse or, ex facie, does not appear to be dispersing. The provisions of section 129 allow the use of only civil force, i.e., command, order or warning, and therefore, in a situation that did not justify the firing, the firing took place and that the State also ordered the victim’s dependants to be compensated without the authority’s order.
By use of armed forces:-
In relation to the use of the nation’s armed forces to disperse the unlawful assembly, section 130 of the Cr.P.C. provides that if the Executive Magistrate believes that the unlawful assembly cannot be dispersed by the use of civil force and that its dispersion is necessary for public security, it may cause the armed forces to disperse the assembly. The Magistrate may, with the assistance of any group of persons belonging to any of the three Armed Forces (the Army, the Navy and the Air Force) and with such officers under his command, order the arrest and detention of persons belonging to the three Armed Forces. Clause 3, however, provides that the armed forces and the commanding Magistrate should use as little force as necessary and cause minimal injury to any person or property as possible.
By certain armed forces officers in the absence of competent authority:-
The provisions of section 131 shall apply only when public security is manifestly threatened by the presence of an unlawful assembly and no magistrate may, in the circumstances specified, be contacted. If these two conditions are satisfied, the forces under his command may use any commissioned or gazette officer of the armed forces to disperse such an unlawful assembly.
In Bhanwar Singh v. State of M.P., the court held that, on the one hand, the common purpose of an unlawful assembly depends on whether that object can be classified as one of the objects described in section 141; on the other hand, that common object does not have to be the product of a previous concert, but can form at the moment. Finally, the nature of such a common object is a matter of fact to be determined by taking into account the nature of the arms, the nature of the assembly, the conduct of the members, etc. in essence, the common object to be examined takes into account the acts of the members and the circumstances surrounding a particular case. In addition, there is always the possibility that an assembly could be turned into an unlawful one.
In the case of Karnataka state v. Padmanabha Beliya, when without lawful orders from the authorities, the district armed reserve police fired members of an unlawful assembly and caused the death of one person, it was held that the State Government was vicariously liable and had to pay compensation to the dependants of the deceased.
In the case of State of U.P v. Sughar Singh, five accused, with armed guns, were lying in a bush on either side of a lane. When the deceased approached, he was exhorted by the accused 4 and 5, and the accused 2,3 and 4, shot the deceased with their guns respectively. 1,2 and 3 of the accused threatened the witnesses.The trial court held that all these were sufficient to conclude that these five accused constituted an unlawful assembly and that members had a common object to kill the deceased. They had a prearranged plan. The trial convicted the accused. The conviction was quashed by the high court upon appeal. The conviction against the accused was upheld by the Supreme Court.
Moti Das v. State of Bihar, the assembly, which was lawful to begin with, became unlawful when one of the members called on the others to assault the victim and his associates, and all the members of the assembly began to chase the victim while he was running in response to his invitation.
Allauddin Mian Sharif Mian v. State of Bihar, there is a relationship created between a common object and an offence when the offence is committed with a common object, then each person is liable for it.
In Rajnath v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the court held that all or a few members of the assembly could form a common object at any stage, and that other members could just join and adopt it. It need not continue to be the same once it is formed, it can be modified, altered or abandoned at any stage.
Lallan Rai and Ors v. the State of Bihar, the court held that the law’s requirement is that the person having the common object must be present at the site of the occurrence.
Yunis alias Kariya, etc. v. State of Madhya Pradesh, Eight accused were charged under sections 302,147,148 and 149 of the Indian Penal Code for criminal offences. During the trial 2 of the 8 accused had been released on temporary bail on various occasions. They did not surrender, and were unable to be arrested. Therefore, it had to be separated from their trial. The remaining six accused have been tried and convicted of offences under IPC section 302/149. The court found that for conviction, the presence of the accused as part of the unlawful assembly is sufficient. The fact that the accused was a member of an unlawful assembly and his presence was not disputed at the place of occurrence is sufficient to hold him guilty even if he is not charged with any overt act.
Amar Singh v. State of Punjab, initially seven persons were charged for crimes pursuant to sections 148 and 302/149, two of them were acquitted by the Sessions court and one by the High Court, and no other person other than those seven was charged with the crime. The Court held that, pursuant to section 148 or section 149, the convictions of the remaining four cannot be upheld as a minimum of 5 persons are required for the application of these sections. The acquittal of three accused persons and the remaining four accused cannot therefore be convicted.
Every government’s main objective is to maintain public order and ensure tranquility in public discourse. Our nation’s lawmakers have taken commendable steps to safeguard public order and tranquility among the people of society. Peace is essential to the existence of a civilized society, and more importantly, the belief that peace predominates. Preserving public peace and order is the main reason why unlawful assembly is criminalized. The Penal Code provides for vicarious responsibility in order to deter individuals from committing crimes in groups. Being ‘knowingly’ part of the object of an unlawful assembly would render a person equally responsible for punishment regardless of his role in the assembly.
References Lawtimesjournal.in/offences-against-public-tranquility (accessed on 17th September,2020)  Blog.pleaders.in/ipc-144/ (accessed on 17th September,2020)  Lawtimesjournal.in/unlawful-assembly/ (accessed on 17th September,2020)  Legalbites.in/dispersal-unlawful-assembly-removal-of-public-nuisance/ (accessed on 17th September,2020)  (2008) 16 SCC 657  (1992) Cr LJ 634  AIR 1978 SC 191  AIR 1954 SC 657  (1989) Cr LJ 1466: AIR 1989 SC 1456  AIR 2009 SC 1422  1962 Supp.(3) SCR 848  AIR 2003 SC 539  AIR 1987 SC 826
Author Details: Anuhya Venkat Padma Nidadavolu (GITAM School of Law)