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Maruti case judgment: Can life and death be decided on the basis of dubious clues?

A close reading of the Maruti case judgment reveals the anxiety lurking in the heart of India’s criminal justice system: How to decide matters of life and death on the basis of doubtful evidence gathered by a police force that often operates outside the realm of law?

gurgaon Updated: Mar 22, 2017 23:56 IST
Aman Sethi
Aman Sethi
Hindustan Times
Maruti factory riot,Manesar,Maruti HR manager
Gurgaon, India - March 17, 2017: Maruti accused who were convicted taken into custody, in 2012 factory violence case at District Court, in Gurgaon, India, on Friday, March 17, 2017. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times)(Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

“To decide this case, it was a herculean task,” additional sessions judge RP Goyal wrote in his judgment on the case involving the death of a Maruti factory manager, adding, “But as I believe in the saying of Napolean Bonaparte, the word ‘impossible’ is nowhere in the dictionary.”

A close reading of the judgment reveals the anxiety lurking in the heart of India’s criminal justice system: How to decide matters of life and death on the basis of doubtful evidence gathered by a police force that often operates outside the realm of law?

On July 18, 2012, a violent altercation between the workers and management at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant resulted in the death of one Awanish Dev, a senior human resources manager. Soon after the event, 148 workers were arrested, denied bail, and jailed for two to four years as trial progressed.

On March 18 2017, nearly five years after the event, judge Goyal sentenced 13 of the accused workers to life imprisonment for murder, four to 5 years in jail for violent trespass, while 14 were convicted for causing grievous harm but released as they had already served out their sentence. Out of 148 accused, the court acquitted 117 men of all charges, with the judge leaving enough in his judgment for the convicts to appeal in a higher court.

“In a case with 148 workers, if the court concluded there was no basis to convict 117 people, what remains of that prosecution?” asked defence lawyer Rebecca John, “What is the nature of that evidence?”

In the Maruti case, the prosecution’s task was straightforward: identify the men who killed Awanish and explain how they did it.

Instead, court documents reveal, the police arrested workers en-masse and drowned the court in dubious evidence, changed their descriptions of murder weapons and ultimately resorted to rhetoric in the hope that something would stick.

In an interview, Gurgaon Police commissioner Sandeep Khirwar declined to comment on how the investigation was conducted as, he said, was appointed to his post after the probe had been completed.

“Our industrial growth has dipped, FDI has dried up,” said special public prosecutor Anurag Hooda, when asked why his office demanded the death sentence for the convicted workers. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi is calling for Make in India, but such incidents are a stain on our image.”

Illegal arrests

The majority of 117 acquittals were because the court found 89 men had been arrested and detained solely on the basis of a list prepared by the Maruti management in the dead of night and handed over the police in the early hours of the morning.

Court documents show that Nitin Saraswat, assistant manager at Manesar, arrived at Maruti’s main factory in Gurgaon at 3am on July 19, 2012, a day after the incident, printed a list of 89 names, which he handed over to police inspector Om Prakash at 6am.

Eighty nine men were arrested and that afternoon, the police retrospectively found four labour contractors to pose as eye witnesses and name these 89 men as suspects — who were already in custody.

“It can be concluded that the investigating officers arresting the aforementioned persons… have violated the law of the land without any justification,” judge Goyal wrote, as he acquitted the men.

Who started the fire?

The fire on the first floor of the Manesar plant has proved to be one of the case’s most enduring mysteries.

To be sure, a fire did break out – the fumes, a post-mortem report reveals, asphyxiated Awanish Dev and the flames charred his body beyond recognition. Yet, the police couldn’t identify the source of the fire, the fuel used or the method of ignition and by corollary the men who did it.

A solitary matchbox was produced, which – on cross-question – inspector Prakash admitted had not been swabbed for fingerprints or DNA traces.

“No doubt the recovery of the matchbox is a matter of doubt,” judge Goyal writes, “but it does not mean that the accused did not light the fire.”

Instead, the judge relies on statements by Maruti officials, and places the onus on workers to prove that they did not light the fire themselves.

In a separate petition before the court, Maruti worker and murder accused Amarjit, alleged that the fire was started by Maruti’s bouncers to sabotage the nascent factory union.

“Amarjit failed to explain…who were the bouncers that set the M1 [first floor] on fire,” the verdict reads, “It means that in the absence of explanation by Amarjit and his colleagues, it were they who had set M1 on fire.”

Such reasoning is visible in many parts of the judgment.

On page 458, for instance, judge Goyal finds that policemen fabricated their own meedico-legal certificates (MLCs) to falsely claim that workers had attacked them and thereby exaggerate the extent of violence on that day.

“Police officials did not visit the doctors even then their MLCs are appearing,” the judge observes, but “merely because their MLCs are bogus does not mean the injuries of all eye witnesses are bogus.”

Asked to respond to the judge’s observations on the conduct of his police force, commissioner Khirwar said, “We will wait for our copy of the judgement, decide if we are going for an appeal and then take a decision.”

Commissioner Khirwar declined to comment on whether he would take action against the investigating officers who may have forged their MLCs.

“Such decisions can only be taken once we decide on our future course of appeal. All these matters are intricately linked,” Khirwar said.

Ultimately, Goyal also relies on a 2013 Supreme Court judgment that holds that the mere fact of a negligent investigation cannot serve as grounds for acquittal. If this was the case, he notes, then “the faith and confidence of the people in the criminal justice administration would be eroded.”

In the Maruti case, this might have happened already.

“The police have fabricated the entire case under pressure,” said Sunehra Singh, whose brother Ram Mehar was convicted of murder. “That is the whole truth of this case.”

Commissioner Khirwar declined to comment on Sunehra’s allegations.

First Published: Mar 22, 2017 17:48 IST