1. This is a reference by the learned District Magistrate of Ballia. A Magistrate of the First Class of that district took proceedings against a witness, Bhardul Kurmi, under Section 480, Cr. P.C., and convicted him of an effence under Section 179, Indian Penal Code, sentencing him to a fine of Rs. 10. It appears that the witness, Bhardul Kurmi, was examined as a witness and gave certain prevaricating replies in cross-examination. The Magistrate before whom he was examined interpreted his answers as refusal to answer questions within the meaning of Section 179, I.P.C. The learned District Magistrate in whose Court Bhardul Kurmi made an application for revision has differed from the Magistrate and made the present reference. The following question and answer will disclose the nature of the offence of which Bhardul Kurmi was convicted:
Q. You were asked in cross-examination what was the result of the case, Sheoshankar v. Gajadhar, in which you were a witness? Instead of saying 'yes' or 'no,' you deliberately said, 'I do not know.' Will you explain why proceedings should not be taken against you under Section 179, I.P.C.?
A. When I remembered afterwards, I said that the case was dismissed.
2. There is a note by the Magistrate that the answer was given after he was arrested. It is a well-established doctrine that a penal statute is to be construed strictly. Section 179 of the Indian Penal Code makes a refusal to answer a question put by a public servant in the exercise of his legal powers as such public servant punishable as an offence. In this case the Magistrate seems to have been of opinion that the question put by him to Bhardul Kurmi was capable of only one of two answers, i.e., in the affirmative or negative. Bhardul Kurmi might well not have been aware of the result of a case in which his only interest was that he had given evidence. The Magistrate was not justified in assuming that the witness before him was aware of the result of the case and deliberately stated that he did not know. Apart from this the witness could not, by any stretch of language, be considered to have refused to answer the question put to him. He gave perfectly rational answers and there was no reason for the Magistrate to hold that the witness declined to answer it. The reference is accepted. The conviction of Bhardul Kurmi is set aside and the fine, if paid, shall be refunded.