“This cannot be an unending affair,” said a bench of Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli after perusing the sealed-cover status report of the SIT probe into the October 3 incident in which a vehicle ploughed through protesting farmers, resulting in the death of four of them. Enraged farmers allegedly lynched three of the occupants of the vehicle.
The state, through senior advocate Harish Salve, informed the court that two FIRs have been lodged with regard to two incidents of crime. In the incident of the vehicle running farmers over, 10 accused, including the son of Union junior home minister Ajay Mishra, have been arrested and 44 witnesses examined. However, he said that probing the lynching incident is posing difficulties as “there was a big crowd of farmers and it would be difficult to find out who did exactly what”.
On the first FIR, in connection with farmers being run over, the bench said: “You said the SIT has examined 44 witnesses out of which statements of four witnesses have been recorded before the magistrate under Section 164 of CrPC. Why were other witnesses’ statements not recorded? A statement recorded before the magistrate has far more evidentiary value than a statement recorded by police under Section 161. If you are relying on Section 161 statements, it will take the case nowhere.”
Salve said the state is taking all steps to get the witnesses’ statements recorded before the magistrate but the court repeatedly expressed concern as to why only four have recorded their statements before the magistrate. Salve said that an impression was created that police were going soft on the accused.
When the UP government attempted to mollify a concerned SC by saying all those arrested are in jail, the bench asked, “Of the 10 arrested relating to the incident of a vehicle ploughing through protesting farmers, how many are in police custody and how many are in judicial custody? Until and unless they are interrogated by police, you may not get any information.”
Additional advocate general Garima Prasad informed the court that four were in police custody and the remaining in judicial custody. She said that the six were interrogated by police for three days and thereafter the court sent them to jail in judicial custody.
The bench asked, “Did you apply for police custody or did the court straight away send them to judicial custody? We want the facts to be clarified. There are cases in which the police want custody but the court sends them to judicial custody. There are cases where police say we no longer require their custody and the court is left with no choice but to send them to judicial custody. What is the situation in this case?”
Prasad said, “We had sought police custody and it was granted for three days.” The bench then asked, “So you do not require them to be interrogated further?”
Salve pitched in and said, “Their statements have been recorded. Their phones are seized and a lot of video (sic) received in those phones have been sent for forensic examination. Once the forensic report comes, many things will be clear. There are a total of 70 videos sent for testing.”
The CJI-led bench sensed that the enormity of evidence to be collected was being cited to indicate that the probe may take a long time before reaching its logical conclusion. “We do not want this to be an unending story,” it told Salve and asked him to impress upon the Yogi Adityanath government to provide protection to vulnerable witnesses and those witnesses prone to influence before recording their statements before the magistrate.
Salve said the second status report, which can be filed in a few days, would satisfy the court about the progress in investigation. While allowing the state to file the second status report before October 26, the bench, as a parting shot, “We think you are dragging feet. Please dispel that impression.”
In the October 3 incident at Lakhimpur Kheri, the vehicle reportedly belonging to Ajay Mishra and allegedly being driven by his son Ashish had run over a crowd of protesters leading to the death of four farmers. The farmers then allegedly turned violent and lynched three occupants of the vehicle. One journalist covering the protest also died allegedly of a gunshot injury. The minister denied that his son was in the vehicle at the time of the incident. Ashish was arrested soon after the SC on October 8 took up the case based on two letter petitions.