Print edition : March 11, 2005

The Supreme Court's judgment acquitting all but one in the Shankar Guha Niyogi assassination case causes shock and dismay.

in New Delhi

Shankar Guha Niyogi.-S. ARNEJA

ON January 20, when the Supreme Court was to deliver its judgment on the appeals against the acquittal by the Madhya Pradesh High Court of all the accused in the assassination of the popular trade union leader of Chhattisgarh Shankar Guha Niyogi in 1991, it was not just the fate of the accused that was at stake; the faith of workers' movements across the country, including that of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), a trade union movement formed by Niyogi, in the justice delivery system was on test.

The Supreme Court's judgment that day confirming the acquittal of all the accused except Paltan Mallah, the hired killer, in the case came as a shock. For those who joined the spontaneous protests against this judgment, in regions under the influence of the CMM in Chhattisgarh, their 14-year-long wait for justice had ended in dismay.

Niyogi's role in successfully bringing together the unorganised contract workers in the coal mines of Dalli Rajhara, Dani Tola and at the Associated Cement Companies (ACC) cement factory in Bhilai was unique. His struggle for their rights resulted in their jobs becoming permanent and their getting better wages and working conditions.

Niyogi had also put forth a concept of alternative development based on people's participation. He sought to prepare the people to realise his ambition to free Chhattisgarh from starvation and exploitation. He became a legend in his lifetime. His murder on September 28, 1991, at Bhilai by hired killers, allegedly at the instance of some industrialists who felt threatened by his struggles, was therefore, a major setback to the movement he had led.

But Niyogi's contribution was qualitatively different in that the movement depended on people's support for its sustenance rather than on individuals. Over the years, punishment for Niyogi's murder was a key issue that held the workers' movements and civil liberty groups in the region together against the collective oppression of the industrial class. In other words, Niyogi became a symbol of the workers' quest for rights and justice, in the face of countrywide attempts to dilute their interests for the sake of globalisation and economic reforms.

In this context, the trial of his alleged killers, and the award of due punishment to the guilty assumed considerable importance. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which was entrusted with the case, charged nine accused persons with the crime. The trial court acquitted three for insufficient evidence.

In June 1997, the trial court, the Second Additional Sessions Judge at Durg, found Simplex industries owner Moolchand Shah, Oswal Iron and Steel Private Limited owner Chandrakant Shah, Gyan Prakash Mishra, Abhay Singh and Awadesh Rai guilty of murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), read with Section 120-B (criminal conspiracy). The court sentenced them to life imprisonment and imposed a fine of Rs.10 lakhs each on the two industrialists. Paltan Mallah, a young man from Gorakhpur accused of committing other crimes in the region, was found to be the hired assassin and was held guilty under Section 302 of the IPC. The Sessions Judge concluded that this case was the "rarest of rare" since the hired assassin, while murdering "defenceless" Niyogi, with "no personal animosity" and "no motive except money", had "harmed not only his family but human feelings of thousands of workers who form the foundation of our society". Thus "with a view to prevent such mega crimes in future", the trial court sentenced Paltan Mallah to death.

In June 1998, the Madhya Pradesh High Court reversed this judgment and acquitted all the accused. Both the CBI and the CMM appealed against the acquittal in the Supreme Court.

At the outset, the Supreme Court made it clear that the case being an appeal against acquittal, it would be slow in interfering with the findings of the High Court unless there was perverse appreciation of the evidence that had resulted in a serious miscarriage of justice. The Supreme Court Bench, comprising Justices K.G. Balakrishnan and A.R. Lakshmanan, suggested that if the High Court had taken a plausible view, the Supreme Court would not be justified in interfering with the acquittal and if two views were possible and the High Court had chosen one view, which was just and reasonable, then, too, the Supreme Court would be reluctant to interfere.

The CBI had adduced extensive evidence to show that Chandrakant Shah, Abhay Singh, Moolchand Shah and Chandrabaksh Singh were owners of certain industries at Durg and Niyogi's trade union activities had created a lot of problems in running their business and caused loss to these industries.

The Supreme Court Bench, in its judgment, referred to the evidence that Simplex and Kedia Distilleries were acting against the interests of the workers and there were a series of agitations by the workers against the factory owners. The court also acknowledged that evidence was also adduced to show that Simplex had retrenched some workers, and they had agitated demanding their reinstatement. But the court dismissed this saying that "this by itself would not prove the prosecution case of conspiracy". The court said: "Motive by itself is not sufficient to prove the guilt of the accused."

Another item of evidence is the recovery of a diary maintained by Niyogi. In it, he had written that industrialists of Simplex and Kedia, along with higher officials of Durg district, had formed a fascist gang and that the sad thing was that the judiciary of Durg and Rajnandgaon districts had also joined this gang. On page 172 of the diary, he had written the names of the accused Gyan Prakash Mishra and Avdesh Rai.

In an audio cassette, Niyogi had recorded a speech in which he mentioned that he apprehended danger at the hands of some persons. He also said that some people in Simplex were indulging in mischief; in particular, he mentioned Moolchand Shah.

Niyogi had also submitted a memorandum to the President of India, prior to his murder. In this, he stated elaborately the grievances of the workers and emphasised that the industrialists had been doing their utmost to break the workers' organisation and they had even resorted to physical violence against workers. He alleged that police personnel were helping the industrialists and he appealed to the President to bring a check on these acts of violence by industrialists.

Commenting on these pieces of evidence, the Supreme Court Bench said the statements of a person who is dead could be relevant only if they referred to the cause of his death or any of the circumstances that led to his death. Having said this, however, the court concluded that the entries in the diary and the cassette do not refer to any event that ultimately was the cause of his death.

The Supreme Court's judgment has examined each piece of evidence against the accused independently of each other, and seems to have ignored the connecting links between them, to see whether there was conspiracy.

There is, however, different reasoning for reversing the High Court's acquittal of Paltan Mallah alone. The Supreme Court relied on the extra-judicial confession of this key accused to a prosecution witness, Satyaprakash Nishad, his relative. In this confession, Paltan Mallah disclosed to Nishad that the accused had given him money and that he had murdered Niyogi for the sake of money. Nishad was cross-examined extensively during the trial. The Supreme Court Bench said: "He could withstand the cross-examination successfully".

Yet, the Bench, considering Paltan Mallah's confession to the same witness about the co-accused giving him money for the crime, found it insignificant in the absence of any "substantive" evidence against them. So the question of why Paltan Mallah killed Niyogi remained unanswered.

The answer is probably found in the trial court's judgment which had woven together the financial loss caused to the accused by Niyogi's agitation, the watching of Niyogi's movements by the accused, their trip to Nepal to purchase firearms, Niyogi's audio cassette and diary entries naming them, the payment of Rs.20,000 by one accused to another after the commission of the crime, and the absconding of the accused soon after the crime.

The Bench sentenced Paltan Mallah to imprisonment for life, rather than death, as there was a long lapse of time since the commission of the crime.

Seen in the context of the Supreme Court's recent verdict holding the right to strike illegal, the import of the Niyogi judgment is disturbing to the working class.

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