Lakhimpur: Anguished SC moots ex-HC judge monitored probe

The bench found that evidence of some of the witnesses in the case relating to the death of the driver and the two BJP workers were overlapping with the case related to the death of four farmers. It raised doubts whether this was being done to benefit a “particular accused”.

The Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India, N V Ramana once again expressed strong displeasure over “intermixing” of evidence by UP investigators probing the cross cases involving the massacre of farmers allegedly overrun by a convoy of three vehicles from behind, including one owned by Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra. “The collection of evidence in the FIR related to the death of farmers has to be an ‘independent exercise,'” Justice Surya Kant supplemented.

The cross-case related to other deaths alleging mob lynching including of a driver and two BJP workers in the retaliatory aftermath that followed on October 3 in the Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh is also being investigated by the same investigators relying on the same witnesses in both the cases.

Examining the status report of SIT probe, the bench found that evidence of some of the witnesses in the case relating to the death of the driver and the two BJP workers were overlapping with the case related to the death of four farmers. It raised doubts whether this was being done to benefit a “particular accused.”

At the onset, the CJI told the senior counsel that there is “nothing in the status report except saying some more witnesses examined” and that the “lab reports (have) not come yet.” Mr Salve said it is “beyond our control. They have said they will give by November 15.”

The bench then questioned him on the seizure of phones of the accused and wondered why only the phone of key accused Ashish Mishra had been seized. “What about the mobile phones of other accused,” Justice Kohli queried.

“Some of the accused have said they don’t have a cell phone. But their call data records have all been obtained,” Salve replied.

Justice Kohli then asked if he was trying to say that none of the other accused had phones with them. Salve said they had thrown away their phones and claimed that they didn’t have any, but the police obtained the CDRs. He said CCTV visuals of the incident were awaiting certification.

Senior Advocate Arun Bharadwaj, appearing for Ruby Devi, wife of slain BJP worker Shyam Sunder, expressed lack of confidence in the probe and urged that his case be handed over to CBI. Mr Salve said the man “came out (of the vehicle). Farmers hit him. Police tried to protect him. Police were trying to save these people who were thrashed by the farmers.”

The bench told Bharadwaj, “CBI is not the solution of everything” and he can submit his evidence before the judge proposed to be appointed to monitor the probe.

In this backdrop of the matter, the apex court by and large made up its mind that let former judge of another High Court monitor the probe observing that it is “not confident” and does not want Uttar Pradesh to continue with the judicial commission it appointed to probe the October 3 incidents in Lakhimpur Kheri. The bench proposed the appointment of a retired judge from “a different High Court” to monitor investigations till the chargesheets are filed. It asked Uttar Pradesh government to respond to its suggestion by 12th November.

“What appears to us is that this SIT (Special Investigation Team), somehow or the other, is unable to maintain an investigative distance between the two cases,” he said. “If this kind of process continues, it will be a case of weighing the oral evidence in one case against the other. To ensure that evidences are recorded independently and there is no overlapping and there is no intermixing of the evidence, we are trying to appoint a retired judge from a different High Court to monitor the investigation on a day-to-day basis. We are not confident. We don’t want the judicial commission appointed by your state to continue,” remarked Justice Surya Kant, one of the three judges on the bench.

The bench, also comprising Justice Hima Kohli who suggested the names of Justice Ranjit Singh and Justice Rakesh Kumar Jain, retired judges of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, said “let a former judge monitor everything till the chargesheets are prepared and filed.” “It appears that one particular accused is seeking to be given benefit by overlapping the two FIRs,” Justice Surya Kant observed without taking names.

Arguing for the UP government, Senior Advocate Harish Salve said he will take instructions on the suggestion. “That will be done, my lord. I can take instructions. Government can appoint,” Salve told the bench. Maintaining that the two investigations are separate, Salve said the mix-up may have happened because some of the witnesses who had come forward to give statements in the case of death of the driver and BJP workers were also making statements about the case involving the death of the farmers. He said when witnesses come forward saying they want their testimony to be recorded, police cannot say no.

Salve pointed out that the confusion may have occurred also because it was initially suspected that the journalist had died in the violence that followed the crash, but it later emerged that he too was allegedly crushed by the vehicles. “Therefore, the investigation into his death,” Salve said, “had moved to the FIR registered in connection with the death of the farmers.”

But, the unmoved bench stuck to its view and reiterated that’s why it wanted an independent judge to monitor till the filing of the chargesheet. Justice Surya Kant said the cause of death of the journalist was “entirely different but impression sought to be given was this journalist was beaten to death.” “They were all crushed by the car,” Salve replied, adding “the trouble is” there were thousands of people at the scene, and there are political overtones for whatever is happening.

“We don’t want to have any political overtones,” the CJI said, justifying the bench suggestion for a retired High Court judge to monitor the probe. “Find out from your government,” he told Salve.

On October 3, a convoy of three vehicles, including one owned by Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra, ploughed into a group of protesting farmers. In the violence that followed, two BJP workers and the driver of one of the vehicles were killed. A journalist was also among those killed. In the two cases, UP police arrested 17 persons, including the minister’s son Ashish Mishra.

Uttar Pradesh had appointed one-man judicial commission to probe the October 3 incidents headed by a retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, Justice Pradeep Kumar Srivastava, but the apex court rebuked the idea and preferred scraping it.

Responding to the excerpts of the Supreme Court observations, the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a consortium of farmer unions issued a statement saying that their allegations regarding firing by Minister Ajay Mishra Teni’s son and his aide was substantiated in forensic examination proving the complicity of his son in mowing down innocent farmers. Even apex court raised its doubts the way investigations are carried out to benefit a “particular accused.” Looking into the sensitivity and gravity of the high-profile matter, our demand to arrest the union minister and apex court-monitored investigation to ensure free and fair probe and justice to the farmers’ families, is fully justified, the communique added.

After the apex Court directed the Uttar Pradesh government to grant protection to the witnesses of Lakhimpur Kheri in which eight people, including four farmers and a journalist were killed, UP Police has provided security cover to 71 witnesses who turned up to record their statements as well as the families of the deceased. While 23 witnesses had come forward between October 8 and October 26, a total of 48 people showed up after the apex court granted  protection.

“Overall, 71 people have recorded their statements in both the FIRs but most of the witnesses are related to the first FIR that was registered by the farmers,” said prosecuting officer S.P. Yadav. A cross-FIR had also been lodged against the farmers by one of the accused after violence broke out in Tikunia on October 3. “Police have provided security to all the witnesses as per the directions of the apex Court and we are expecting more witnesses to turn up now,” said Yadav. The witnesses have been provided an armed constable each for protection. Extra security cover has been provided to those who were witness to the accused running away from the spot while firing in the air.

Till now, 13 people, including Union minister of state Ajay Mishra Teni’s son Ashish, have been arrested for allegedly mowing down farmers while two farmers were also held for alleged lynching of the BJP workers.

Minister’s son Ashish Mishra was seen roaming freely in the district hospital of Lakhimpur Kheri in viral video clip where he was sent from the jail for treatment of Dengue fever as his police remand was cut short due to his sudden ailment in custody and jail authorities allowed his treatment outside the jail. His hospitalisation was cut short soon after video clip attracted adverse reactions in social media.

Forensic report confirms shots fired from Ashish’s weapon

After Supreme Court’s stringent remarks over the conduct of Special Investigation Team (SIT) allegedly to benefit a “particular accused” in collecting and recording “intermixing” evidences by the investigators in the Lakhimpur Kheri carnage case, a forensic lab report received by SIT also confirmed that shots were fired from the firearms recovered from Ashish Mishra, son of Union minister Ajay Mishra, Latif alias Kaale, and Satya Narayan Tripathi, all the three are main accused of carnage that took place in Lakhimpur Kheri on October 3. A rifle, a revolver, and a repeater gun were recovered from the accused in the days that followed the incident. Arms were sent for forensic testing on October 15 which confirmed in its ballistic report that indeed bullets were shot from Ashish’s rifle.

The farmers’ unions have collectively demanded arrest and dismissal of union minister of state (Homes) to ensure fair investigations and speedy justice in the matter whose stand stood vindicated in forensic examination justifying their demand. Four farmers and a local journalist were mowed down by speeding cavalcade headed by his son Ashish Mishra Monu, his friends and henchmen on October 3,2021.

The SIT confirmed before the court that journalist Raman Kashyap was crushed to death by the cavalcade and not lynched by farmers, as falsely reported by one accused BJP leader Sumit Jaiswal (who filed an FIR against the farmers absconding thereafter). The local police did not register FIR of journalist’s brother who named union minister Ajay Mishra Teni, his son Ashish Monu and 12 others for conspiracy and murder. Soon after SIT admission before the court Raman’s brother Pawan moved an application under section 156 (3) of the CrPC in the chief judicial magistrate’s court to register an FIR against Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish, and 12 others.

Pawan said, “The SIT investigation has clearly mentioned the names of those responsible for my brother’s death. We want an FIR to be registered against all of them. We had earlier filed a complaint with the SHO and SP, Lakhimpur, but our FIR was not registered. The next date of hearing is November 15.”