Lakhimpur Kheri incident: SC slams UP government over delay in arrest of Ashish Mishra

Published on Oct 08, 2021 07:34 PM IST

SC says the UP Police do not appear to be “really serious” even as the “brutal” episode left eight people dead five days ago

Farmers gather in Tikonia to protest against the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, on October 4. (Deepak Gupta / HT Photo)
Farmers gather in Tikonia to protest against the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, on October 4. (Deepak Gupta / HT Photo)

The Supreme Court on Friday pulled up the Uttar Pradesh government for not immediately arresting Ashish Mishra, son of Union minister of state for home affairs Ajay Mishra ‘Teni’, in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, commenting that the state police do not appear to be “really serious” even as the “brutal” episode left eight people dead five days ago. Mishra has been named as an accused in a murder FIR lodged Monday. The court was exceptionally harsh while commenting on the police’s lenient handling of Mishra, although it didn’t name him.

“This is an offence registered under Section 302 (murder charge under the Indian Penal Code). Do you treat everyone in the same manner? Issue notice and then wait for them to appear? Will an accused in every part of the country be treated in the same way like the present case? Giving them an invitation that you please come? We want to question you so you kindly come?” the bench asked lawyer Harish Salve who was representing the UP government in the case registered by the top court on its own (suo motu) as a public interest litigation.

Mishra dodged a summons to appear before the police (as a witness, not an accused) on Friday. Although he made an appearance on some TV channels to proclaim his innocence, he has not been seen since Thursday.

The bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana held that the apex court is “not satisfied” with the investigation conducted so far in the case. It added that the special investigation team (SIT) constituted by the state government does not inspire any confidence, and asked the state to have an “alternative agency” with independent investigators take over the probe.

“What is the message you are sending? If a case is lodged under Section 302 (murder charge under the Indian Penal Code), the police will normally go and arrest the accused. After all, this is a case involving the brutal death of eight people. The law should have taken its course and all accused should have been arrested in a case like this,” the bench, which also comprised Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli told Salve.

The bench expressed its anguish that instead of arresting him, the UP police issued a notice as a witness to Ashish Mishra despite his name being in the murder FIR lodged on Monday.

The UP police on Thursday arrested two men, both believed to be associates of Mishra. The arrests happened hours after the Supreme Court hearing on Thursday when the bench termed the Lakhimpur Kheri incident “very unfortunate”. Mishra, however, was sent a notice under Section 160 of the Criminal Procedure Code as a witness of the October 3 incident, for presenting himself before the investigators on Friday.

Salve said that the police have issued a notice to Mishra and he has sought time till 11 am on Saturday. “If he does not come, the rigours of law will follow. I was told that the post mortem did not show any bullet wounds that is why a notice has been sent. But there is strong evidence to show prima facie that this is a murder case...the case is extremely serious,” added Salve.

Unmoved by his submissions, the court retorted: “This is the opinion of the bench. We expect you to act as a responsible government and as a responsible police force. When there is a serious allegation of death or gun-shot injury, will you treat the accused like this? You say this is an extremely serious case but the way you are proceeding, you are not really serious. It is only in your words and not in action.”

The court also expressed its amusement at the composition of the SIT set up by the state government to carry out the probe after noticing that the team comprised a deputy inspector general, superintendent of police and all other police officials from the UP police only.

“Look at the composition of the SIT. It has all your officers. This is what happens when you have all local people in the SIT...We don’t know if a good probe is conducted in this case because of the officers involved. Please, ask the DGP (director general of police) to ensure that all evidence is protected and not destroyed in the interim by the time another agency takes over,” said the bench, asking Salve to inform the court on October 20 about some other suitable agency that can take over the probe.

It also inquired from Salve if the state has made any request to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to step in. While Salve said the court could pass such orders on the next date after giving the state an opportunity to show the progress in the investigation, the bench itself remarked that the CBI may not be a solution here “because of the persons involved”.

“We hope that the state will take necessary steps. Because of the sensitivity of the issue, the state should understand that we are not saying anything more... We will take it up after the Dussehra break but that should not mean that the state holds its hands. Take immediate steps. You have to act to inspire confidence,” it told Salve.

Salve, on his part, conceded that what needed to be done has not been done and that he is giving his personal assurance that the state would be in a position to satisfy the court by the next date of hearing.

The court then recorded in its order that it is not satisfied with the steps taken so far by the state government and that Salve has assured it that an alternative agency would be explored for further probe in the matter. The bench has also noted that the evidence collected so far shall be preserved properly.

On Wednesday, the court registered the suo motu case as “In Re Violence in Lakhimpur Kheri (UP) leading to loss of life” after receiving a letter from advocates Shiv Kumar Tripathi and CS Panda. The matter was registered as a criminal writ petition, pertaining to investigation and prosecution.

The development came on a day Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, along with Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, his Punjab counterpart Charanjit Singh Channi, and other senior leaders reached the village, roughly 10km from the India-Nepal border. Since news of the violence broke on Sunday, opposition leaders have made a beeline for the village amid rising political tensions over the incident.

Farm groups say a Mahindra Thar owned by Ajay Mishra mowed down protesters from behind while they were returning from a demonstration in Tikunia village on Sunday afternoon. A video clip that is yet to be authenticated forensically shows the same.

The minister and his son deny the charge and say farmers pelted the car with stones that led to the driver losing control of the vehicle. They also accuse the protesters of lynching two BJP workers and the car’s driver. A local journalist was also killed. The Mishras claim Ashish Mishra was not at the site.

On Wednesday, a new, clearer 45-second video of the incident showed the Thar ploughing through the farmers at high speed, with two vehicles in tow. The identities of individuals in the vehicles were not clear and HT could not independently verify the authenticity of the clips.

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