The higher courts in both cases pointed out problems with trial court findings and reversed them.
Punjab’s powerful political and religious leader Bibi Jagir Kaur and teenager Aarushi Talwar’s cases have one thing in common.
No, it is not the conspiracy theory on honour killings. Rather, it is about higher courts pointing out problems with trial court findings and reversing them.
In the end, if you ask India’s criminal justice system, after 18 years no one killed Bibi Jagir Kaur’s daughter Harpreet.
Harpreet Kaur was just 19 years old when she died under mysterious circumstances in April 2000. Her mother, Bibi Jagir Kaur, was the president of the powerful Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) at that time and a close ally of the Badals.
There are various conflicting reports on whether Harpreet was killed or died of dehydration before the summer heat even started in Punjab. A 21-year-old Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) party worker Kamaljeet Singh, claiming to be her beau, had brought photographs of his engagement with Harpreet in the court and said that her mother opposed their marriage as he belonged to a lower caste.
Harpreet was perhaps pregnant with his child and a 27-week male foetus was aborted, but we shall never know that for sure because there was no post-mortem and she was hurriedly cremated erasing the possibility of a subsequent inquest.
Her cremation was attended by then-chief minister Parkash Singh Badal but the media was not permitted to take photographs.
This week, the Punjab and Haryana High Court acquitted Jagir Kaur in her daughter’s murder case.
“Why a mother would even think of eliminating her beloved elder daughter!” the court concluded, reversing the trial court’s 2012 decision that held Jagir Kaur guilty and had sentenced her to five years in jail.
Today, one can argue that there is no proof of patriarchy, caste or political heft to prove Jagir Kaur could have plotted to kill her daughter.
Harpreet’s case is eerily similar to Aarushi Talwar’s that is still alive in public memory. In both cases, multiple investigative agencies – state police and CBI – probed the case and yet courts point out crucial gaps in procedures.
In both cases, trial court judges came to conclusions of “love affairs” and theories of who killed who based on probability rather than hard evidence. In both cases, the social status of parents, who are also prime suspects, and a watchful media became intertwined with the judicial process.
The Talwars spent nearly four years in Dasna jail on charges of murder. Bibi Jagir Kaur, in contrast, continued to wield political power despite being accused in the case of her daughter’s murder.
Suspecting a cover-up, the same high court that has now acquitted Bibi Jagir Kaur had ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation probe in the case. The CBI had reconstructed the sequence of events based on over a 100 testimonies of witnesses, including Harpreet’s beau Kamaljeet Singh and Dr Balwinder Singh Sohal, a doctor who was supposedly tasked with carrying out the abortion on Jagir Kaur’s orders.
Sohal, who should have been an accused, turned an approver and exchanged statements against Jagir Kaur for a full immunity as per the law.
Trial court judge Balbir Singh in 2012 agreed with the CBI theory. Although the special CBI court dropped the murder charges, Jagir Kaur was convicted for criminal conspiracy, illegal confinement and involvement in the forcible abortion and was sentenced to five years in jail.
Six years later, the high court highlights how the CBI itself found Kamaljeet Singh to be “a dishonest and liar witness” and that the trial court took the approver’s statement as gospel without looking for corroboration as the law requires.
In a 72- page verdict, the high court finds numerous faults with the conclusions of the trial court and pokes holes in the prosecution’s theory with flair. The ruling thrashes the trial court judge for relying on “perceptions” when “there is not even a remote piece of evidence anywhere”.
Jagir Kaur is now not guilty until the CBI gets a nod to appeal against the verdict before the Supreme Court.
Till then, it is worth pondering if India’s legal system can justify an 18-year-long process that ends in nothing against nobody.
In Aarushi’s case and in this one, the high court squarely blames the trial court judges for applying facts selectively. But at the risk of sounding pejorative, just blaming trial court judges is careless and lazy. The multi-tiered criminal justice system is put in place precisely to remedy such errors of courts.
The problem is when it takes 18 years and counting to do so. In that time, the focus of the case will obviously move from uncovering the truth of what happened to Harpreet to exonerating her mother Jagir Kaur.
Read Global Pulse for a sampler of the big international stories, and why they matter.