Akhlaq’s Lynching: 7 Years on, Only 1 of 25 Witnesses Testify as Trial Reaches Evidence Stage
New Delhi: Time stands still in Dadri's Bisahda village — fons et origo (the original source) of India's mob lynching template — as this is the month of despair and desolation for octogenarian Asghari, who has been waiting for justice since seven years when misfortune befell her home on September 28, 2015, taking away her son, Mohammad Akhlaq.
Many in the village still hate to hear the name of the 45-year-old, who was mercilessly beaten to death by none other than co-villagers for allegedly slaughtering a calf and consuming and storing the beef in his fridge.
A murderous mob of 15-20 people, infuriated by rumours, broke into his two-storey house at around 10:30 p.m when the family was preparing to go to bed after dinner. They smashed a sewing machine on Mohammad Danish's head, the 29-year-old younger son of Akhlaq, who fell unconscious, blood oozing out with pieces of flesh (as narrated by sources in the know of the incident).
Presuming him to be dead, they said, the mob's fury focused on Akhlaq, who was attacked with iron rods and sticks. One of the attackers charged menacingly toward Shaista (27) and tried to molest her. She resisted and batted him away.
It was also reported that a larger mob was waiting for the victims outside, and the time was running out as sirens of police vans began reverberating. They held Akhlaq (who was bleeding profusely but still conscious), stripped him and began dragging him out of the ransacked room by his feet.
As the mob dragged Akhlaq to the ground floor, his head hit each of the 14 concrete steps of the staircase. “This was the worst torture for Akhlaq’s mother, wife and daughter,” they told NewsClick.
While Akhlaq succumbed to injuries, Danish survived the assault had had to undergo multiple complicated brain surgeries. He had a fractured skull with bleeding in the frontal lobe.
An loudspeaker announcement from a local temple — asking residents of the village to gather near a transformer in response to the rumour of cow slaughter — had led to the incident, the sources said.
Seven years later, a cursory walk along the alleys and pathways in the village of Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Buddha Nagar district still makes one believe that little has changed over the years.
Muslim-sounding names and nomenclatures among the locals sting villagers to the core even now, justifying the fears of the family, who expressed surprise over the sudden change of atmosphere in her village.
This correspondent, as he was saying, "this is Akhlaq's village" during his piece to camera, was interrupted by a passer-by who wanted the sentence to be corrected. "This is Bisahda, not Akhlaq's village," he said furiously.
A SNAIL-PACED TRIAL
Seven years after the killing, trial in the case (FIR No. 241/2015, PS Jarcha), which that began only last year, has now reached the evidence stage. While the first charge sheet was filed by the Uttar Pradesh Police in December 2015, the charges could be framed only in February 2021.
The key eye-witnesses (Asghari, Ikraman — Akhlaq's wife, Danish and Shaista) were supposed to depose before a fast-track court at Surajpur District and Sessions Court in Greater Noida on March 25, 2021, but could not do so because the court summons could not reach them.
Advocate Yusuf Saifi, the informant lawyer of the deceased family, told NewsClick: “Though the court had issued summons, the police failed to ensure that those were delivered to the family on time. The deposition was then rescheduled for April, but again it could not happen.”
Finally, Akhlaq’s daughter Shaista was able to testify before Additional District Judge (fast track court-1) Ranvijay Pratap Singh from June 16 this year. Her testimonies continued for three days.
Saifi said Shaista would be followed by the deposition of her mother, her brother and grandmother.
"As an eye-witness, she corroborated the sequence of events. She recounted witnessing her father being assaulted and pulled out of the house to be killed. She named the accused who carried out the brutal killing. One of the defence lawyers cross-examined her as well," the lawyer said.
She had previously recorded her statement under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).
Apart from the eye-witnesses, 25 other witnesses include policemen, doctors, etc. The statements of the accused, too, have to be recorded.
"The testimony of the accused will also be recorded as they have presented evidence in their defence," he added.
Asked about the reasons behind the delay, Saifi said the defence tried its best to ensure that charges were not framed on one pretext or the other.
"Their lawyers were putting up several discharge applications. They also filed applications seeking a CBI investigation and direction to register a case against the deceased family for possessing beef. Other pleas were also filed. While a majority of their prayers were dismissed, yet a few were allowed," he added.
In addition, he said, the lawyers’ strike in September last year and the transfer of judges compounded the delay.
“Once all the depositions happen, the judgment will be reserved. We hope the matter will be concluded in the next seven-eight months,” he added.
GLARING DEFIANCE OF SC GUIDELINES
Observing that “hate crimes as a product of intolerance, ideological dominance and prejudice ought not to be tolerated; lest it results in a reign of terror”, the Supreme Court in 2018 in Tehseen S. Poonawalla Vs. Union of India & Ors. had issued a slew of directions, including preventive, remedial and punitive steps, to deal with the crime. But the guidelines seem to have no meaning in Uttar Pradesh.
The court had ruled cases of lynching and mob violence shall be specifically tried by designated court/fast track courts earmarked for that purpose in each district. The trial shall preferably be concluded within six months.
The case was sent to the special court in April 2016 for a hearing. Forget six months, the matter has not reached its conclusion even after seven years of the incident.
Advocate Saifi said none of its provisions was being followed. "The guidelines say that a nodal officer, who could be an IPS officer, has to overlook the progress of the case. That has not happened. I even gave a copy of the SC guidelines to the Senior Superintendent of Police two years ago, but he did not take any action. Though the case is being heard by a fast-track court, the progress is extremely slow," he said.
After Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh, the investigating officer of the case, was transferred to Varanasi all of a sudden, no further progress was made in the matter.
Singh had a key role as the investigating officer in the Akhlaq murder case. He had arrested all the 10 accused named by the victim's family.
Apart from the 10 named accused, the complainant Ikraman had said there were others as well in the group whom they did not recognise.
Ironically, as per some journalists who have extensively covered the incident, no attempts were made to identify and apprehend them.
All the accused were granted bail by the Allahabad High Court after the prosecution failed to strongly oppose it.
"My understanding is that the case has been weakened by the prosecution from the stage of FIR itself. The merit of a case is not what crucial facts you and I know; it depends on the case the police have prepared — registration of the FIR, evidence collection and filing of the charge sheet. The court delivers its verdict on the basis of these documents. The manner in which the case is progressing, my fear is that it would result in acquittals. The court proceedings so far prepare us for the final disappointment," Mohammad Ali, who covered the case extensively for The Hindu and is writing a book on it, told NewsClick.
Asked what disappointed him to the extent that he is predicting acquittal in the case, he said it was the “first case of lynching that had attracted the world's attention”.
"Shockingly, all the accused were enlarged on bail in just one year or two, and the prosecution kept acting like a mute spectator. It was a murder case, after all. The accused were glorified, given a heroic welcome and even got a job at the NTPC. One of them (Ravin Sisodia) who died in judicial custody was given a martyr’s burial, with his body draped in tricolour,” he said, adding that the tragedy of the case is that a soldier (Akhlaq’s elder son, Sartaj) of the Indian Air Force is running from pillar to post to get justice for his father’s murder.
Asked if the family also wants to move on as it is not seemingly pursuing the case aggressively, Ali said it was only logical that the already traumatised family would try to give up.
A WATERTIGHT CASE?
The police claimed they had prepared a watertight case against the accused, and it would result in convictions. "We have done a professional investigation and will secure convictions. The culprits will have to pay the price of what they have done," a senior police official, refusing to be named, told NewsClick.
The sister of Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh, who was killed on December 3, 2018, by a Right wing mob incensed over cow carcasses in Bulandshahr, had earlier alleged that her brother was “murdered because he was investigating the Dadri lynching case”.
And the conspiracy to eliminate his brother, she had further alleged, was hatched by the Uttar Pradesh police.
Being an investigating officer in Akhlaq's lynching case, Singh was one of the prime government witnesses. He was witness number one in the case.
ATTEMPTS TO ‘STRIKE A COMPROMISE’
All the 18 accused (through their relatives) are learnt to have reached out to Akhlaq’s family 40-odd times seeking a compromise.
In June 2016, a case of cow slaughter was registered against Akhlaq's family members (Ikarama, Danish, Shaista and Jaan Mohammad, who is the deceased brother) on the directions of the district court on the complaint of one Surajpal.
However, the Allahabad High Court restrained the police from taking any coercive action against the family.
The accused have been projecting Akhlaq's family as those who killed the cow and have been allegedly pressuring them saying they will withdraw their case of cow slaughter if cases against them are taken back.
However, the police concluded three months after booking Akhlaq's family for cow slaughter that there was no evidence to prove that Akhlaq and his family ever slaughtered a cow.
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