A division bench of the Karnataka high court acquitted on Thursday all 46 accused in the Kambalapalli massacre in which seven dalits were burnt alive in broad daylight by an upper caste mob on March 11, 2000.
The bench headed by Justice Mohan Shantanagoudar held that a conviction would be "pre-judicial" to the interest of the accused given that 14 years have passed since the incident and all the 22 eyewitnesses have since turned hostile.
The court also observed that the investigating police officer and some of the eyewitnesses were not cross-examined properly.
The witnesses in the case, many of who had narrowly escaped their lives, had turned hostile during the trial in a lower court, resulting in a similar acquittal in 2006. Immediately after that verdict was delivered, many of the witnesses told the media that they backtracked because of threats from upper caste groups.
The carnage, which occurred in the Kolar district, just 75 km from the IT hub, had triggered a mass exodus of dalits from the region. Most of the families have still not returned and upper caste lobbies continue to define the polity in the region to this day as successive elections have shown. SCs and STs form nearly 30% of the population in Kolar.
Following the national outrage triggered by the Kambalapalli incident, the state government had constructed a rehabilitation colony for the fleeing dalits in a place named Mini Kambalapalli. However, poor infrastructure in the colony, lack of employment opportunities and continued hostility from upper-caste Reddy groups forced many inhabitants to vacate it.
Chief minister Siddaramaiah, who is seen as a champion of the depressed classes, has so far refrained from commenting on Thursday's judgment.
Karnataka advocate General Raviverma Kumar told HT, "The carnage happened in broad daylight. It is a very important case. The question of going on appeal to the apex court will be taken after we receive a copy of the judgment."
Former CPI(M) MLA GV Sriram Reddy, who hails from the region, said, "Judiciary stands on technical issues and not on reality. We are very disappointed and were hoping that in the light of the serious irregularities in the investigation, the court would reopen the case." Dalit leader Mavalli Shankar said that judgment was a "travesty of justice" and alleged that pressure from upper caste lobbies had vitiated the investigation and the trial from the beginning.