Circumstantial evidence

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In a recent judgement in the case of Md. Younus Ali Tarafdar v/s The State of West Bengal, the accused was acquitted by the Apex Court after a long trial in different courts which lasted 36 years. The appellant had been held liable on the basis of a signature, which was for the slip for repair of an Anglo-Swiss watch, apparently belonging to the deceased’s brother and last worn by the deceased.

The testimony by 3 people only pointed that the last person the deceased met was the appellant and on basis of those testimonies and the fact that he was in possession of that watch, the appellant was sentenced of rigorous life imprisonment under Section 302 with Section 34 and under Section 102 of Indian Penal Code. Later the appeal was dismissed by High Court and the decision of trial court was affirmed.

However, acquitting the accused, the Supreme Court noted in its judgement: “There is no direct evidence regarding the involvement of the appellant in the crime. The case of the prosecution is on the basis of the circumstantial evidence… A close scrutiny of the material on record would disclose that the circumstances relied upon by the prosecution to prove the guilt of the appellant were not complete and do not lead to the conclusion that in all human probability the murder must have been committed by the appellant”. It was held that if there is any conviction on basis of circumstantial evidence, it should be so when there is no room left for the doubt and the hypothesis is proven right beyond any reasonable doubt.

Meaning of circumstantial evidence

What is evidence? Evidence is the documents and materials presented by prosecution and defence for the court to reach a decision or verdict. That evidence can be oral, documental, Real, Primary, Secondary, Hearsay, Direct and Circumstantial evidence. The evidence gives base to the argument of someone’s fate; as they decide a person’s guilt or innocence.

Circumstantial evidence is defined by Peter Murphy as “evidence from which the desired conclusion may be drawn but which requires the tribunal of fact not only to accept the evidence presented but also draw an inference from it.”  Circumstantial evidence is referred to as indirect evidence. Direct evidence is given more preference than circumstantial evidence as it does not require any type of inference and it is a direct proof of an illegal act committed. But in the cases of serious offence such as murder for which the punishment is death penalty, conclusion cannot be drawn solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence as it needs the help of inference to prove it.

Legal provisions involved

Section 106 of Indian Evidence Act 1872 states that – “Burden of proving fact especially within knowledge.—When any fact is especially within the knowledge of any person, the burden of proving that fact is upon him”

For instance, if the wallet of the deceased person was found in house of accused after his murder, the burden of proof is on accused to show how he came to be in possession of the deceased person’s wallet and that he has not committed murder. This is an example of “Last seen doctrine” where it can be implied that it is the accused who has committed a crime, just because he was last seen with the victim. Even then, conviction cannot be based on this said assertion solely, but in such cases the burden of proof is on the accused person.

Conduct of the accused also plays an important role in corroborating circumstantial evidence. If the accused has behaved in an abnormal and unnatural way such as absconding, inability to prove his alibi or contamination of crime scene etc., which can establish the mala fide intention of the accused or can destroy his innocence; this can be a relevant factor in building the chains of events which can lead to him being liable for the said crime.

Can circumstantial evidence be considered conclusive?

Judiciary has not concluded whether the circumstantial evidence can be considered as the evidence solely for the conviction or innocence of a person; however in such cases the judges and prosecution are expected to take higher precautions because it varies from case to case how much emphasis should be given to such evidences. It is also essential that the circumstantial evidence should be in corroboration with other indirect evidences including DNA test, finger print, and witness, and handwriting, discovery of an object in possession of accused which can connect the accused to the crime and set his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt or can prove his innocence without any question.

In cases where the prosecution has solely based the case on circumstantial evidence, then the courts have to satisfy that various circumstances building a chain of events rule out any possibility of the innocence of accused. If in case the chain of events has any loophole or a break in between, then in such cases the consequent circumstances cannot be considered to establish the guilt of the accused.

There are various cases where circumstantial evidence plays an important role like adultery and dowry cases. But as circumstantial evidence is indirect evidence, it cannot be taken into consideration without proper examination. There are certain cases where circumstantial is not considered to be strong evidence. For instance, if Mr. A saw Mr. X lying dead on the floor and Mr. Y was holding a wooden stick which was covered with blood, the question which arises in one’s mind is regarding intention to kill. The main reason behind the death of Mr. X cannot be determined without proper examination. 

Case laws

In Shah Guman Mal v. A.P. [AIR 1980 SC 793], a person was found in possession of gold with foreign markings and the Supreme Court held that burden lay upon him to account for his possession.

In State of Tamil Nadu v. Arunachalam [1992 Cr Lj 3930 (Mad)], the sample of flour was taken from a grocery store which was not good in quality and the person who was accused took the plea that it was kept not for human consumption but for pasting purpose. It was held that it was a special knowledge of the accused and it was for him to prove such knowledge and having not done so, it could not be said that the burden cast on him had been successfully discharged.

In Provincial Government, Central Provinces and Berar v. Champalal [(1946) Nag 504] and in Gullegar Setty v. State of Mysore [(1953) Mys 298], it was held that non-appearance as a witness would be the strongest possible circumstance to discredit the truth of the case.

In Sucha Singh v. State of Punjab [AIR 2001 Sc 1436], the court said that depending upon the circumstantial facts of the case, it could be presumed that all the abductors were responsible for the murder. If not, it was held that it was for the abductors to explain what they had done to the victim.


From the following facts and circumstances, we can figure out that circumstantial evidence plays a vital role during the investigation process as well as during the examination of the facts. It also helps to find out the motive behind the act or crime. But it does not mean that circumstantial evidence provides relevant fact of the case all the time. Therefore, we can conclude by stating that circumstantial evidence gives us a general idea and fact of the case and if it is properly analysed and examined, then it can lead to a definite conclusion.

Authors: Uttara Roy from NEF Law college and Antish Rathore from Alliance University of law, Bangalore.

Editor: Ismat Hena from Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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