Print edition : September 13, 2019

Irshad, son of Pehlu Khan, with other family members at their residence at Jaisinghpur village in Haryana. A file picture. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

A Rajasthan court acquits all the six accused in the Pehlu Khan lynching case but the victim’s family is determined to continue its fight for justice.

THE spotlight refuses to shift from the emblematic Pehlu Khan lynching case. In April 2017, the 52-year-old cattle trader and dairy farmer was lynched by a mob of cow vigilantes on the Jaipur-Delhi highway at Behror in Alwar district of Rajasthan as he and four others were transporting cattle from a fair near Jaipur to Jaisinghpur village in Nuh district in the Mewat region of Haryana. On August 14, 2019, the Alwar district court exonerated all the six accused in the case, leaving many shocked and Pehlu Khan’s family disappointed. Shoddy investigation by the Rajasthan Police during the previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime and political support to the accused, it is alleged, resulted in the acquittal. However, it will not be the last one hears of the court battles waged to get justice for the deceased.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot tweeted: “Our State government has enacted law against mob lynching in first week of August 2019. We are committed to ensuring justice for family of late Sh Pehlu Khan. State Government will file appeal against order of ADJ [Additional District Judge].”

The Additional District and Sessions judge, Sarita Swami, pronounced the judgment in the presence of the accused, who had been released on bail during various stages of the trial. Three other accused, all minors, are facing proceedings as children in conflict with law at Alwar’s Juvenile Justice Board. During the trial, 44 witnesses, including Pehlu Khan’s sons Irshad and Arif, deposed in the case, registered under Sections 302 (murder), 147 (rioting) and 341 (wrongful restraint) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The charge sheet was submitted in a court in Behror, but the trial was later shifted to Alwar.

Giving the benefit of the doubt to the accused, the court noted “contradictions” in the investigation carried out by the police and in the prosecution’s evidence. It refused to take the video footage of lynching as conclusive evidence in the absence of certification by the forensic science laboratory. It was also contended that the sons of the victim reportedly could not identify the accused and the prosecution could not prove that they were the ones seen in the video.

“The court acquitted all six men who were accused of murdering Pehlu Khan,” informed Qasim Khan, who has extended legal help to the team in the widely covered lynching case.

The Congress government responded by deciding to appeal against the verdict and also constituting a Special Investigation Team (SIT). The decision came following a high-level meeting chaired by Gehlot soon after the verdict was pronounced. The SIT will probe any irregularities or lapses in the original investigation to fix responsibility. The team, monitored by the Additional Director General of Police, will submit its report within 15 days.

Meanwhile, the Chief Minister promised to set up a Heinous Case Monitoring Unit to trace “serious cases” right from the investigation stage until the trial process in order to ensure justice. “It will monitor the investigation of the case, and what is special is that monitoring will continue even after the charge sheet is filed by the police. The cell will monitor serious cases such as that of Pehlu Khan. Even after the charge sheet is filed, the duty of legal officers will be to monitor the case in the court, the state of witnesses, whether any witnesses have been left out, etc,” Gehlot told the media.

Alluding to the Pehlu Khan case, he said, “The Pehlu Khan case had shaken the nation. The kind of carelessness that the previous government displayed is unimaginable. That is why the accused were given the benefit of the doubt by the court and were acquitted. The previous government intentionally shielded the accused. In such a big case, the investigating officer was changed multiple times. You can understand why. The SIT constituted will find out the shortcomings in the probe and action will be taken against those responsible.”

Pehlu Khan, it may be recalled, was lynched on April 1, 2017, on suspicion of smuggling cows. The accused intercepted the truck in which Pehlu Khan and his sons were travelling on their way back home. They dragged Pehlu Khan out and attacked him. A mobile phone video of the assault was uploaded online. The police arrested six persons, Kaluram, Dayaram, Bhim Rathi, Yogesh Kumar, Vipin Yadav and Ravindra Kumar, and charged them under Sections 147, 302, 308, 323, 341, 379 and 402 of the IPC. However, the six persons,Pehlu Khan named in his dying declaration were absolved by the police of any guilt.

In May this year, a charge sheet was filed against Pehlu Khan’s sons under the provisions of the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995. In January 2018, the police filed charge sheets, not against the men accused of killing Pehlu Khan but against Azmat and Rafeeq who were also attacked along with the dairy farmer.

However, the acquittal by the lower court did not shock the family, as the members had been vocal about the lack of support and transparency in the police investigations. In many ways, they had seen it coming, with uncertainties creeping into the case at every stage. For instance, based on mobile phone call records and the statement of the staff at a cow shelter, the police gave a clean chit to the suspects (named by Pehlu Khan). They failed even to charge-sheet them. Instead, they booked a different set of people, including three minors. The police also claimed that there was an apparent contradiction between government doctors’ declaration that the victim died of injuries and a private hospital’s claim that the cause of death was cardiac arrest. Further, the Criminal Investigation Department-Crime Branch took over the case two months after the incident and filed a charge sheet. Worse, those charge-sheeted were granted bail not long after.

Local people believe that Pehlu Khan’s dying declaration was discarded to protect the cow vigilantes affiliated to Sangh Parivar organisations. Their fears were founded on the fact that last year, when Karwaan-e-Mohabbat volunteers tried to place flowers on the sidewalk of the road where Pehlu Khan was lynched, there were protests from members of the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Jagran Manch. The State police also tried to dissuade them. The volunteers confined themselves to laying a handful of marigold flowers near the place where the lynching occurred.

Irshad vowed to approach the High Court for justice for his father. His brother, Mubarak, told the media: “I have invested nine months of my earnings in pursuing the case in court. I was shattered to hear the judgment. Justice is denied because the police diluted the case and produced no evidence before the court.”

A Jamaat-e-Islami activist who helped the family get treatment for Pehlu Khan’s injured sons said: “If a widely circulated video is not taken as evidence by the court, how does one hope to get justice? Worse, the dying man’s declaration, which has the value of evidence, was not taken note of. There is not much hope for justice at this stage. But we are determined to fight on. We have a long battle ahead.”

The family remains united and determined to pursue the case. Pehlu Khan’s brother Hakimuddin alleged that the police were “hand in glove” with the accused and justice was denied to the family. Irshad said: “Even if we have to sell our house to arrange money for the case, we will continue to fight for justice. I will take this fight to the Supreme Court. I am committed to fight until my last breath. Remember an FIR was filed soon after the incident. It named six persons and said that the assailants included 200 other unidentified persons. However, none of them was apprehended. The collusion started there. My father was killed because he had a beard.” The question is, will the Gehlot government be as good as its word?

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