New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday said it was prima facie not satisfied with the Uttar Pradesh government’s probe into the Lakhimpur Kheri violence.
A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana also expressed concern over the possibility of a mix-up of evidence collected in two separate incidents — mowing down of the farmers and the consequent lynching of the accused. The bench made it clear the two cases have to be investigated independently.
The court’s remarks came after it perused the Uttar Pradesh government’s status report in the matter. In accordance with the last order, the state government placed on record the details of the investigation carried out in connection with the lynching incident also.
However, in the court’s view, the report gave an impression that the statement of witnesses recorded in the lynching incident was done to benefit “one particular accused” named in the case related to farmers’ killing.
To “infuse fairness and independence” in the probe, the bench further proposed monitoring of the ongoing probe by a former judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. It suggested the names of two retired judges — Justice Ranjit Singh and Justice Rakesh Kumar Jain — to head the independent committee.
“We do not want any political overtones in the matter and are not confident about the judicial commission set up by you (UP),” the bench told UP government counsel, senior advocate Harish Salve, as it gave him time till Friday to come back with a response to the suggestion. The matter would now be heard again then.
Eight people, including four farmers, two BJP workers, a driver and a journalist, died in the clashes in Lahimpur Kheri on 3 October, following violence after a convoy of three SUVs — including one allegedly owned by Ashish Mishra, son of Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Ajay Mishra ‘Teni’ — hit a group of protesting farmers, and sparked violence.
Court points to lapses
At the start of the hearing, CJI Ramana remarked the progress in the probe was not “as was expected.” He rued the lab reports were not yet with the police.
The bench also pointed to lapses in the police investigation in the farmers’ killing case.
The court said as per the status report the police had recovered the mobile phone of only one accused – Ashish Mishra, while no such recoveries were made from the remaining 12 accused. According to the UP Police, there were 16 accused, of which three died in the lynching incident that followed the farmers’ death.
It was noted that the police had seized eight mobile phones, of which only one belonged to one of the 13 accused, while the rest were of witnesses. On the point of non-seizure, Salve claimed the accused had thrown away the phones.
“Why have you seized phone of just one accused? You have not stated anywhere in the status report that the rest accused have thrown away their mobiles, but the police have recovered their call detail records (CDR),” the bench questioned Salve when he argued the police had collected sufficient evidence to establish the presence of accused at the spot at the time of the incident, which included the CDRs and the CCTV footage.
Lakhimpur Kheri incident resulted in the registration of two FIRs — FIR number 219 and FIR number 220. While FIR 219 was filed in connection with the mowing of farmers, 220 was to investigate the lynching incident that resulted in the death of three persons named as accused in FIR 219.
While placing the status report of both cases before the bench, Salve informed the court that the police were finding it difficult to proceed with the lynching incident for two reasons. One, it was a tedious task to ascertain the identity of those who lynched the accused in FIR 219 as they are locals of the area. “Public appeal has been issued to find them,” he said.
Further, Salve added, witnesses who turned up to record their versions in FIR 220 were giving exculpatory statements for the accused in FIR 219. “The police realised that those who came forward in FIR 220 were actually trying to protect the accused in the other FIR, and therefore, they were turned away,” explained the senior counsel.
Salve assured the two probes would be conducted separately, and evidence gathered in one FIR would have no bearing on the other.
However, Justice Surya Kant spoke for the bench and said: “From the status report, it appears the evidence in both cases will overlap. You say the investigation is separate, but your report indicates otherwise. Also, the entire evidence is being secured to protect a particular suspect.”
The court further said the statements of 56 witnesses annexed to the report showed all deposed mainly in favour of the main accused in FIR 219. On this Salve contended the state was bound to record statements of whoever comes forward.
But Justice Surya Kant was of the view that the police should make their own effort to identify those who indulged in the brutal killing of farmers.
Moreover, the judge added, the court had expected the SIT to carry out an independent exercise as far as FIR number 219 is concerned.
“What appears to us is the SIT is unable to maintain an investigative distance between the cases. Whosoever is coming forward, his or her statement is being recorded. At the end it will be oral evidence in one case versus the other,” remarked the judge.
After a brief discussion amongst themselves, the judges went on to suggest the setting up of an independent committee, headed by a retired judge of Punjab and Haryana HC. “This is to ensure the evidence does not overlap,” the bench told Salve.
As the senior advocate sought some time to think over the court’s proposal, he did admit the mix-up that had happened between the events.
Salve told the bench that the journalist who was killed during the fracas died after he too was crushed by the car. On this Justice Surya Kant said: “This is the reason why monitoring is required. The cause of death of the innocent journalist is different, while the public impression generated is that he was beaten to death.”
‘BJP worker beaten by farmers’
Meanwhile, Ruby Devi, the wife of BJP worker Shyam Sundar Nishad who was allegedly lynched in the retaliatory violence, demanded a CBI probe into her husband’s death. Her lawyer, senior advocate Arun Bharadwaj flashed a photograph on his computer screen to claim Nishad was picked up by the UP Police, alleging he was in police custody before he died.
Salve rubbished the arguments and informed the bench that Nishad was one of the accused responsible for the run-over of farmers and that he was given protection by the police when the retaliatory violence commenced. “He was beaten by a group of farmers and had suffered severe injury. Police tried to save him when he was thrashed,” Salve told the court.
The bench asked Bharadwaj to wait till Friday and advised him not to disclose the evidence in his possession.
(Edited by Neha Mahajan)