The Punjab and Haryana High Court commutes the sentences in the Manoj and Babli' case and raps the police for poor investigation.
IT was exactly a year ago, in March 2010, that a sessions court in Karnal district, Haryana, convicted seven persons for the murder of a newly married couple, Manoj and Babli of Karora village, Kaithal district. The court awarded the death sentence to five persons; one person got life imprisonment and another was given seven years' rigorous imprisonment. All of them appealed against the verdict in the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
On March 11 this year, a two-judge Bench of the High Court not only commuted the death sentence for four of the accused to life imprisonment but acquitted two of the main accused. One of them had been awarded the death penalty, while the other had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the lower court.
The Manoj and Babli case, as it came to be known, received much attention, not least because the sessions court's order seemed to send a strong signal to those who felt they could get away with such murders in the name of honour. The case successfully mobilised public opinion against honour killings. Women's organisations hailed the verdict, which they hoped would act as an effective deterrent. Led by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the women's groups also demanded a comprehensive law dealing with honour-related crimes, and the Centre, too, began contemplating seriously the merits of such a law. For Manoj's widowed mother, younger brother and sister, the verdict was a positive step in securing justice.
It was, of course, expected that the convicted persons would appeal in a higher court. It was also expected that the State would do its best to ensure that the order was not reversed. This was not an ordinary scenario. The convicted persons not only enjoyed open community support but also had political support as the community itself constituted an important vote bank in the politics of the State. It was not a coincidence that following the sessions court order, there began a clamour for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act, proscribing same-gotra marriages.
Manoj and Babli, both residents of Karora village and belonging to the Jat community, left their village on April 6, 2007, and got married the next day. Babli's family registered a complaint against Manoj, who secured anticipatory bail from the court. On June 15, the couple were produced before the investigating officer, and Babli's statement was recorded. She was then produced before the court of the additional chief judicial magistrate and her statement was recorded again: she said she had married Manoj and was living with him in Chandigarh on her own volition and that nobody had exerted pressure on her.
Two police escorts were given to the couple. They accompanied the couple in a bus, and they were followed by a sub-inspector who was in a private vehicle. The couple got off the bus at a stop and, according to the police, expressed a wish to be left alone. However, Manoj's mother, Chanderpati, says she received a call that day from her son, who said that Babli's relatives were in the bus and had been following them from Kaithal. It is not clear why the couple should want the police to leave when danger was clearly so close. Anyway, the police left them at the Pipli bus stand.
During that phone call, Manoj told Chanderpati that they would go to Delhi. That was the last she heard from her son. At around 5 p.m., at Bhutana police station, the head constable got a message that a couple had been forced to get off a bus by around 16 people and bundled into a Scorpio car.
On June 23, in Narnaud district, a watchman found Manoj's body, with the hands, feet and neck tied up. The same day, Babli's body was found in a canal in Hisar district. It was wrapped in a white gunny bag, which was oozing maggots. Police investigations unravelled the identity of the driver of the vehicle; with his help, the other suspects, who were Babli's relatives, were found.
All the accused pleaded not guilty and alleged that Manoj's mother had falsely implicated them. The defence argued that the couple's threat perception came from both the families and that the investigation had been misdirected towards Babli's family alone. No mother would have waited five long days to lodge a complaint when there was serious threat to the life of Manoj and Babli. Who committed the abduction and murder had not been established by the prosecution beyond reasonable doubt, the defence lawyer argued in the High Court. The trial court, the defence said, had been swayed by the vague reference to the family members and relatives by Chanderpati.
The Bench, however, dismissed the defence argument that Manoj's family had an equal motive in murdering the couple. Indeed, the court's order seemed to accept most of the arguments of the prosecution, including the fundamental one that the couple faced a constant threat to their lives from Babli's family. (The persons convicted by the sessions court included two of Babli's uncles, a cousin and a brother.)
But while the Bench condemned the shameful act of hollow honour killing and the barbarism it involved, it held that unfortunately in this case there is no eyewitness to the occurrence and that the entire case of the prosecution depended on circumstantial evidence. It was, therefore, left with little option but to infer certain facts on the basis of the circumstances projected by the prosecution. As we have rendered the verdict based on circumstantial evidence, our conscience does not permit us to confirm the death sentence awarded to the accused, it held. It also said that no offence had been made out against one of the five who had got the death sentence. The Bench referred to a recent decision of the apex court where the death sentence given by the trial court and confirmed by the High Court in a similar case of honour killing had been commuted to 25 years of actual imprisonment to three of the accused and 20 years to the fourth.
The Bench also added that Babli's family had no criminal antecedents and that there was nothing to show they could not be reformed while serving their sentence. A neighbour had taken away the girl and got her married. They had been confronted with a disturbed mental feeling, the Bench said. It also said: Just because it is a case of hollow honour killing, we cannot jump to a conclusion that the case [ sic] squarely shall not choose to incline that it squarely falls under the category of rarest of rare cases.
Four of the accused were convicted under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Bench directed that they would not be released until each of them completed 20 years of actual imprisonment without remission. An additional fine of Rs.5,000 each was imposed on them.
Two of the accused, Ganga Raj, who allegedly masterminded the crime, and Satish Kumar, were acquitted of all charges, including abduction, murder and criminal conspiracy. The Bench rejected Chanderpati's plea for enhanced compensation from Ganga Raj. Chanderpati and her family said that they would appeal against the High Court order.Investigating agencies censured
The role of the investigating agencies came in for severe criticism from the Bench, which observed that it was constrained to infer that police officers were hand in glove with the accused and had left a loophole at each and every stage of investigation. It ordered the State's Director General of Police to initiate disciplinary proceedings against three police officers for their role in the botched investigations. It also said that the murder could have been prevented had the police acted on the message that they received soon after the abduction. To our surprise, no step was taken by the Bhutana police station based on such a VT message with respect to abduction. We do not approve of such inaction on the part of the police force. It appears that the investigating officials were completely sleeping over the matter even when the abductors forced the family members of Manoj to plunge headlong into the search. The police officials had not woken up from their deep slumber till the dead bodies were identified.
The police had bungled at every stage, beginning from the withdrawal of security to the couple, which ensured that they landed in a death trap, the Bench said. The mobile phones of the persons involved were not seized; crucial witnesses in the bus in which the couple travelled were not examined; and the owner of the phone booth from where Manoj made his last call to his mother was not cited as a witness. The Bench observed that the investigating officials just investigated the matter for the purpose of giving disposal to the investigation.