Message from Auraiya
A life sentence for a police officer, a politician and his goons shows how India's shaky system can work — if citizens make it work. Samar Halarnkar writes.india Updated: May 12, 2011 16:55 IST
The autopsy report revealed that Manoj Kumar Gupta died a slow, painful death. There were 32 injuries on his body. One of his arms was fractured. He had been administered electric shocks and his hair had been violently pulled out in clumps.
And in a display of particular brazenness, Gupta’s assailants took him, barely alive, to a police station at 5 am, demanding the police charge him with “hooliganism”. Only two hours later did the police take Gupta to hospital, where he was declared as already dead.
A graduate of the elite Institute of Technology, Benares Hindu University (IT-BHU), class of 1979, Gupta was an Uttar Pradesh government engineer who refused a “donation” towards the annual birthday celebrations of chief minister Mayawati.
His murder could have easily become a statistic irrelevant to the India beyond Auraiya, 200 km southwest of state capital Lucknow. The man who dumped Gupta’s body at the police station was ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) legislator Shekhar Tiwari, who knew Dibiyar Singh, the station house officer.
But last week, a trial judge in Lucknow convicted ten men, including Tiwari and Singh, to life imprisonment for Gupta’s murder. The story behind it must be told now because it reveals three important things to emerging India.
One, the system we frequently criticise and abandon, can work. Two, we must make it work. Three, if it works once, it will again.
So, what worked? Old-fashioned determination, courage and networks of citizens emboldened by previous success and united by a desire to see justice done.
A lawyer in Lucknow braved death threats to bring the case to trial. Another lawyer in Delhi defended the case in the Supreme Court for free. Two IIM graduates in Mysore — who once did not know the difference between an FIR and a chargesheet — helped the family get legal help.
“I am just so happy right now,” said Anjali Mullati, alumni of IIM (Lucknow), batch of 1993, when I called her in Mysore, where she runs a finance-education company with her husband H Jaishankar (IIM Bangalore, 1991).
Anjali and Jaishankar connected Gupta’s grieving but resolute family to Indra Bhushan Singh, a combative Lucknow lawyer known for defending those who can’t access legal services. When the case reached the Supreme Court on four occasions, Kamani Jaiswal, one of India’s top lawyers, appeared for the Guptas gratis.
“This has been one of the most difficult cases of my life,” Singh, a lawyer for 35 years, told me. “Intense pressure was brought on witnesses, counsel and they (the accused) challenged everything; we had to fight simultaneously on many fronts. Every order passed by the trial judge in Lucknow was challenged in the Allahabad High Court and Supreme Court.”
Initially, BSP supremo Mayawati backed Tiwari, terming the allegation that her MLA was extorting money “an opposition slander campaign to malign me and my party”. India often jeers at the opportunism of politicians, but mass action by opposition parties helped. There was rioting in Auriya, trains were stopped in many UP districts and more than 1,000 protestors arrested across the state.
Gupta’s family was not wanting in fortitude. Son Prateesh, a software engineer with Hewlett Packard in Bangalore, resigned his job and moved to Lucknow to pursue the case. Gupta’s wife Shashi, locked up by the killers in a room while her husband was tortured at their Auriya home, was equally determined. Her husband’s engineering-school batchmates asked Anjali to suggest a lawyer. When she recommended Singh, the Gupta family forwarded his name to the UP government, which hired him as public prosecutor. By now, Mayawati had lost her bravado.
Singh was closely involved with Anjali and Jaishankar through their public-service initiative, the Manjunath Shanmugham Trust, set up after the murder of Manjunath Shanmugham, an IIM Lucknow alumni and Indian Oil Corporation officer killed on November 19, 2005, by a petrol pump owner adulterating fuel in the remote northern UP district of Lakhimpur-Kheri.
Backed by a swell of nationwide support, Singh ensured the first conviction in Shanmugham’s murder within nine months. An appeal by the accused was dismissed in the Allahabad High Court. It is now in the Supreme Court, where Jaiswal will represent the Shanmughams.
“They (the trust) have done a fabulous job,” said Jaiswal. “They also help build the commitment of the lawyers in such cases, otherwise it becomes just another brief. After a while, you just give up.”
Jaiswal said the commitment of Anjali and Jaishankar and numerous other IIM alumni was critical to the Shanmugham case. “Think about it, the parents live in south India, the murder was in Lakhimpuri Kheri,” she said. “It’s only with the backing of this group that the Manjunath case has come this far.”
Singh has a record of defending those who cannot get legal representation. In 1994, he won the release of 36 women languishing in UP jails for between 20 and 26 years. This legal struggle became the subject of a film, Barred for Life, made by the British Council in 1995 and still played at human-rights courses held by the council worldwide.
As Singh was preparing to fight the case in January 2009, Gupta’s IT-BHU batchmates, doubtful if justice could be done, started an online petition addressed to the prime minister, requesting “an independent CBI inquiry, free from any undue political influence”.
They said: “We are the common men and women of India, who believe in the idea of India as a superpower of the future, a moral and spiritual benchmark for nations, a land where truth and justice always prevail. We are confident you will restore our faith…”
That faith was indeed restored — not by the prime minister, but by the people themselves.