Lakhimpur Kheri: Supreme Court wants U.P. to dispel impression of ‘dragging its feet’

Union Minister Ajay Mishra’s son is accused of mowing down protesting farmers on October 3.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday found it hard to dispel the impression that the Uttar Pradesh Government is “dragging its feet” in the Lakhimpur Kheri case in which a Union Minister’s son is accused of mowing down protesting farmers.

A three-judge Bench, led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, discovered from a status report filed by the Government just minutes before the hearing that only four of 44 witnesses to the brutal incident have given their statements to the judicial magistrate so far.

The incident, which allegedly involves the convoy of Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra Teni, occurred on October 3.

A statement recorded by a magistrate under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) is valuable later during trial as corroborative evidence. It can be used to bolster the prosecution case against the accused. Any delay in recording statements under Section 164 CrPC creates room for influencing the witnesses.

‘Delay due to Dussehra holidays’

Senior advocate Harish Salve, for U.P., said he was instructed that the delay occurred due to the Dussehra holidays. The courts had been closed for the festival.

“What is the connection between Dussehra vacation and criminal courts?” Chief Justice Ramana shot back.

Justice Surya Kant stated, “Why have the statements of only four witnesses been recorded out of 44? Your Special Investigation Team is the best person to know who can be browbeaten?”

The State’s Additional Advocate General, Garima Parshad, said the police had not wasted time and, in the meanwhile, “reconstructed the crime scene”.

Chief Justice Ramana addressed Ms. Parshad, “The reconstruction of the crime is different from recording the Section 164 CrPC statements of witnesses. Our question is why were they not taken all this while?”

Justice Hima Kohli, on the Bench, told the State “we think you are dragging your feet… Please dispel the impression”.

Chief Justice Ramana told Mr. Salve, “Please tell them to start on the Section 164 statements… ”

The senior lawyer urged the court to adjourn the case to next week. He promised that things would be cleared up by then. He said that in the last hearing on October 8, the court voiced doubts whether the State was “going soft” on the accused.

“How many of the accused have been arrested?” the CJI asked.

Mr. Salve said 10 have been arrested in the case of the farmers’ deaths. He highlighted that there were two crimes involved. One was regarding the running over of farmers and the other concerning the lynching of three people in the ensuing violence. He submitted that the second incident was “more difficult to investigate” as it was a mob that was involved.

Bifurcation of case

The court observed that the case needed to be bifurcated. The Bench, which had taken suo motu cognisance of the Lakhimpur Kheri events, said it would first focus on the farmers deaths.

“How many of the 10 accused persons in this case are in judicial custody and police custody?” the CJI asked.

When Mr. Salve said four were in police custody, the court asked about the remaining six accused.

Ms. Parshad informed that they were “earlier in police custody” and then sent in judicial custody.

At this point, Justice Kant asked whether the police had even made a case for extension of their custody of the six before the magistrate. He said, “There are two ways. One, the police insists on extension of their custody but the court refuses and sends them to judicial custody. Two, the police does not insist and the court has no alternative but send them in judicial custody… Which one happened here?” he asked Mr. Salve and Ms. Parshad.

Ms. Parshad noted that the State had asked and got three days of police custody of the accused. Their statements had been recorded. Further, there were “more than 70 videos” of the incident in question. Hence, there was no need for further police custody and interrogation of the accused.

“They [accused] should not amend their story later,” the CJI voiced the Bench’s skepticism of the State’s confidence.

The court finally adjourned the hearing to October 26, giving time for U.P. to provide more information about their investigation.

“You gave the status report at the last minute… How are we supposed to read it? Last night, we waited till 1 o’clock for the material… Nothing. Please file the reports early,” the CJI addressed the State side.

On Wednesday, the Bench was compelled to take a few minutes off at the beginning of the hearing to go through the State’s status report even though Mr. Salve suggested adjourning the case. He promised to file the next status report early.

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