The Indian criminal law, when read as plain text, might look confusing and overlapping. Both, the substantive and procedural laws, are drafted in a language that is beyond the understanding of a layman. Even people involved in the legal profession find it difficult to differentiate between certain offences or punishments, simply because there are way too many offences and way too many procedures. The primary law that deals with offences under the Indian criminal law system is the Indian Penal Code of 1860, which itself contains more than 500 sections, add to it the procedural laws of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, along with other, secondary laws. Thus, one cannot help but feel perplexed at the plethora of laws the criminal law of our country has to offer.
Chapter XVII of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, mentions the offences against property (of a person). It contains the infamous offences of theft, robbery, dacoity etc., which are committed against the property of someone. While they may sound similar, or even imply a similar kind of offence, theft, robbery, extortion or even dacoity are very different from one another. The major offence of theft is different from that of the aggravated forms of robbery, extortion etc. In the following text, two main offences of this chapter, theft and robbery, are discussed, along with their differences and similarities, if any.
The crime of theft is as old as the concept of private property. Theft is an offence against a property where the offender takes the property of another person without that person’s consent. Generally, theft can only be done against the movable property because movable property can be taken away from one place to another, by an offender with a dishonest intention, which would constitute theft. Immovable property, such as houses or land, does not come under the ambit of theft simply because that would amount to illegal possession or the like, and not theft.
Section 378 of the Indian Penal Code states the offence of theft. It says that a person who has the intention to take away the movable property of another person out of his possession in a dishonest manner, and moves such property out of that person’s possession in order to take it, is said to have committed theft. The most essential ingredient to constitute theft is intention, which must be dishonest at the time of taking the property. If the dishonest intention to take the property is absent, it will be very difficult to prove the offence. Section 378 is attached with 5 explanations that further the actual meaning of the words used in the section.
Illustration: A cuts down a tree from Z’s land, in order to take away that tree dishonestly, out of Z’s possession without Z’s consent.
Here, A commits the offence of theft as soon as he severs the tree from the land of Z. The offence is complete as soon as the tree is removed and taken away by A.
Illustration: A discovers a ring belonging to Z, and hides it with the intention of selling it once he gets the chance to remove it from hiding.
Here, A has committed theft because he took Z’s ring with a dishonest intention. Had the ring not belonged to anyone, A wouldn’t have committed theft, though he may have committed criminal misappropriation of property.
A dishonest intention exists when a person intends to cause wrongful gain to himself or some other person, or to cause wrongful loss to another person. It is not necessary that the taker of the property must gain something wrongfully from the theft committed; if the owner of the property suffers wrongful loss, i.e. loss which he would, otherwise, have not suffered had there been no theft, then it would be sufficient to constitute theft. Also, the taking of property need not be permanent; the property might be disposed of or destroyed. The main point is that the owner is deprived of his/her property. Even if a person takes away the property of another with the intention of returning it later or on some condition, it will amount to theft because the owner of that property was deprived of it, the time period of deprivation does not matter. Of course, it should not be a mere few seconds or minutes. In the case of Pyarelal, a Government servant gave away a file to an outsider and after two days, returned it to the office. The servant was held guilty of theft.
But if a person takes another’s belongings in good faith believing them to be his own, he will not be guilty of theft. Since there is no dishonest intention on part of the taker, he will not be responsible even though wrongful loss may have been caused to the owner.
Robbery can be said to be inclusive of theft. Section 390 states that in every kind of robbery, there is either theft or extortion. When an offence of theft includes all the essential elements that constitute a robbery, that offence of theft will become the offence of robbery. This happens when, during the commission of theft or during the taking away of or the attempt to take away the stolen property, the offender causes or attempts to cause any of the following offences:
- Death, or fear of instant death
- Hurt, or fear of instant hurt
- Wrongful restraint, or fear of instant wrongful restraint
The essence of robbery is the presence of imminent fear or violence. Theft is devoid of any kind of violence to the owner of the property or any other person. However, since robbery is an aggravated form of theft, it involves causing threat to the life of a person. It is aggravated because not only the offender is committing theft, but he is also causing violence to further his offence of theft.
Illustration: A pushes back Z and snatches his jewellery, money and other belongings from him.
Here, A has committed theft by stealing the belongings of Z, but has also committed robbery because he put Z in wrongful restraint while snatching Z’s belongings.
Illustration: A stops Z in his car on a highway, takes out his pistol and points at Z, and demands all of Z’s belongings as well as his car.
Here, A has put Z in the fear of instant death or instant hurt, so not only A has committed theft by taking his property from him, but has also committed robbery by pointing a pistol at him.
In Venugopal v. State of Karnataka, the appellants intercepted the victims and robbed them of gold and cash by threatening them with a knife. It was held that the evidence presented clearly established that the appellants committed robbery and therefore, their conviction is proper. It was further observed that robbery is only an aggravated form of theft/extortion, and that aggravation is in the form of violence, of either death, or hurt, or wrongful restraint. Violence must be committed during the course of theft and not subsequently. Also, it is not necessary that actual violence be committed; even an attempt to cause violence is enough. The words of the section “for that end” imply that the violence caused must be in order to either commit the theft, or to carry away the stolen property.
Merely causing incidental injury does not convert theft into robbery. In the case of Edward, the accused, while cutting the string of a basket which he was attempting to steal, accidentally cut the wrist of the owner, who was trying to seize the basket from the accused. The accused was held guilty of not robbery but theft. However, in a case, the accused, while attempting to snatch the rose ring of a lady, cut her nose causing her blood to flow. The accused was held guilty of robbery.
Difference Between Theft and Robbery
Theft is essentially a crime against property, whereas robbery is a crime against the property as well as person. Both the offences can be confused because both involve the taking of someone else’s property without consent. However, as stated earlier, robbery is an aggravated or enhanced form of theft; it is the use of force that converts an offence of theft into that of robbery. Robbery is a more serious offence if compared to theft. It is an offence against a person, and it includes the element of violence. In robbery, there is always the presence of victim. But in theft, there is no victim as such, it is only the owner of the stolen property who suffers a wrongful loss of that property.
The difference between theft and robbery can also be viewed from their penalties. Robbery generally falls in the ambit of felony, and an offender of robbery would likely see some prison time. Section 392 of the IPC mentions the punishment for robbery, which states that an offender of robbery shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine. Moreover, if the offence of robbery is committed on a highway between sunset and sunrise, i.e. during night time, then imprisonment may extend to 14 years.
Even an attempt to commit robbery is punishable with rigorous imprisonment that may extend to 7 years, and shall also attract fine.
If the offender voluntarily causes hurt in an attempt to commit robbery, then the offender and any such accomplice of his shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with rigorous imprisonment that may extend to 10 years, as well as be liable to fine.
Theft, on the other hand, has a punishment of imprisonment of either description (depending on the gravity of offence), which may extend up to 3 years, or with fine, or both. Imprisonment for theft can be either simple or rigorous, depending on the circumstances of each case. Thefts usually attract misdemeanour penalties, and in many petty cases, offenders are often released with a warning or minimal fine, or even after returning back the stolen property. But section 379 deals with theft in a general sense. Other cases of thefts, such as theft in a building, tent, vessel etc., or theft by a clerk or servant who is in possession of some property of his master, is punishable by imprisonment of either description extending to 7 years, along with fine. Meanwhile, Section 382 punishes the offence of theft with rigorous imprisonment extending to 10 years, along with fine, if theft is committed after preparation of death, hurt, or restraint in order to commit such theft. In this case, the offender deliberately prepares such circumstances which may lead to the causing of violence from his part, because the owner of the property may resist the taking away of his property.
The fact that the offences of theft and robbery are placed in separate sections, and their punishment is also accordingly placed in separate sections, along with special circumstances that may arise in furtherance of both the offences, in itself states that both the offences are separate and distinct from each other. For someone who does not know the essentials constituting the offences, theft and robbery may mean the same thing, while they are not. In order to understand the distinction properly, it is necessary to go by the language of the Indian Penal Code and draw the line of separation accordingly.
FAQs on Difference between Theft and Robbery
Since theft and robbery are two separate offences, their attempts also constitute different elements. The major difference between an attempt to theft and an attempt to robbery is that an attempt to theft is not punishable within the IPC, but an attempt to robbery is very much punishable under Section 393 of the Code, with rigorous imprisonment that may extend to 7 years, and also fine.
Section 390 itself states that in all kinds of robberies, there is either theft or extortion, which means that robbery is an aggravated form of theft. Robbery involves the use of violence in order to fulfil the offence of theft, which makes it an umbrella term for theft.
The offence of theft becomes robbery when violence in order to cause death, hurt, or wrongful restraint, or the instant fear of any of these offences is caused by the offender in order to commit theft.
The punishment for robbery is rigorous imprisonment which may extend to 10 years, and also fine. Also, if the robbery is committed on a highway between sunset and sunrise, i.e. during night time, then imprisonment may extend to 14 years.
 Madra, AIR 1946 Nag 326.
 AIR 1963 SC 1094.
 Nagappa, (1890) 15 Bom 344.
 2008 II Cri. L. J. 1634 (SC).
 (1843) 1 Cox 32.
 Tikai Bheer, (1866) 5 WR (Cr.) 95.
 The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Act No. 45 of 1860), s. 393.
 Id., s. 394.
 Id., s. 379.
 Id., s. 380.
 Id., s. 381.
Also Read – Difference Between Kidnapping And Abduction
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