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Muzaffarnagar Riots: Silence is Not Golden

Muzaffarnagar Riots: Silence is Not Golden
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Above: Victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots who fled to Loni and areas bordering Delhi/Photo Courtesy: YouTube

Despite SIT requests for prosecution of the accused in the 2013 riots, various governments of this state have maintained a stony silence. How long will vote bank politics continue?    

By Atul Chandra

Courts of law are often blamed for delay in dispensing justice. Blinkered by the politics of patronage, the Uttar Pradesh government is equally guilty as it sits on a request since 2014 from the Special Investigating Team (SIT) to grant sanction to prosecute those accu­sed in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013.

But for how long can a government delay its decision on granting sanction? Justice Devi Prasad Singh of the Allahabad High Court had in December 2010 fixed a deadline after which “it will be deemed that the sanction has been accorded”. In a food scam case, a division bench of the Allahabad High Court comprising Justice Singh and Justice SC Chaurasia directed the state chief secretary to “ensure that not only in the present controversy but in all cases where the state agencies, CBI, or other investigating agencies move an application for sanction under various laws, a decision should be taken within three months”.

Making its order stringent, the Court said: “In absence of any decision with due communication, it will be deemed that sanction has been accorded and charge-sheet shall be filed and the trial court should proceed with trial to a logical end in accordance with the law.”

This judgment, according to Justice Singh (now retired), was upheld by the Supreme Court which tweaked the three-month time limit to about one year. The order now lies forgotten as the investigating agency awaits the government’s approval in the 2013 case.

If the present BJP government is in no mood to allow prosecution of its leaders named in the case, then previous chief minister Akhilesh Yadav went a step further—he wanted Muslim leaders’ names to be withdrawn from the case. The government could have denied the SIT request for prosecution sanction, but that would have been challenged in court. Yadav, therefore, wrote to the district magistrates of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli in 2014 seeking their opinion on withdrawing cases against Muslim leaders accused of inciting violence. Their opinion was against such withdrawal.

The BJP, which was then in the opposition, described the move as politics of appeasement. Now that it rules the state, it doesn’t seem keen to allow prosecution of the BJP MPs and MLAs who were accused of fomenting trouble leading to the riots.

Toeing Yadav’s line, the BJP government reportedly identified 131 cases, including those of murder, in which Hindus were accused and began the process to withdraw these cases in March 2018. The stand of both governments has thus helped the accused from across the political spectrum to roam free, subverting justice.

One meeting between a four-member committee of the government and the SIT was held in the state home department in January last year. The SIT officers placed evidence against the accused before the panel. “We are examining the evidence of IOs to take a final decision,” Chhedi Lal Gupta, committee chairman and joint secretary in the government, was reported to have said.

The SIT formed by the government had requested sanction to file charge sheets against 602 accused in 57 cases. These include leaders from the BJP, Congress and BSP. Those facing charges include BJP MP Kunwar Bhartendra Singh, MLAs Sangeet Singh Som and Suresh Rana, former BSP MP Kadir Rana, BSP MLAs Noor Saleem Rana and Maulana Jameel, and Congress leader Saeed-uz-Zama, among others.

The BSP and Congress leaders are accused of making inflammatory speeches at a panchayat organised at Shaheed Chowk in Muzaffarnagar on August 30, 2013, during a protest over the murder of a youth, Shahnawaz, in Kawal village. The three BJP leaders are accused of holding two mahapanchayats at Nagla Mandaur village in Muzaffarnagar to protest against the murders of cousins Gaurav and Sachin to avenge the killing of Shahnawaz.

These mahapanchayats were held on August 31 and September 7, 2013. After the September 7 mahapanchayat, riots broke out in the district. Sixty-four people were killed and around 40,000 displaced during the riots.

SITs require government approval to file charge sheets under Section 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and committing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony) and Section 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings by insult, or religious beliefs).

The withdrawal of cases by a government comes under Section 321 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which stresses that a case may be withdrawn “with the consent of the court” if it is in the interest of justice.

Senior criminal lawyer IB Singh said that for any case to be withdrawn, the public prosecutor has to apply his mind to ensure that it will be in public interest and the court also has to be convinced. So even if district magistrates withdraw cases of some of the accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots under political pressure, their decisions would require the consent of the court.

This is not the first time that the government has been lackadaisical about requests for prosecution sanction. The same pattern was followed in the case of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath who was accused of inciting mob violence in Gorakhpur in 2007. Neither Mayawati nor Akhilesh Yadav gave permission for his prosecution. Adityanath was then an MP from Gorakhpur. Playing safe, these governments did not deny sanction to prosecute Adityanath, but at the same time they simply sat on the investigating agency’s request.

After two successive governments ignored the plea, the incumbent BJP government, with the alleged accused at the helm, said that Adityanath cannot be prosecuted. In view of this landmark judgment of the Allahabad High Court, it is surprising that the SIT continues to wait for the government’s nod. It is probably due to the SIT not wanting to ruffle the feathers of politicians. When it comes to the prosecution of politicians, the UP government first tries to withdraw the cases and save the accused. If that doesn’t work, it takes to delaying tactics. This approach is useful in vote bank politics where the ruling party cannot upset its voters. Although the government knows that withdrawing cases of a serious nature is difficult, talking about the move reassures its voters that their interests are protected.

The accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots are all from western Uttar Pradesh, a politically important region due to Jat and Muslim votes. Neither group can be antagonised before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Sanction to prosecute the top leaders from the region at a time when Jat farmers are already upset with the government’s policies would be politically suicidal. For the same reason, the Akhilesh Yadav government tried to save Muslim politicians, but it did not pay off.

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, which were held soon after the Muzaffarnagar riots, Jats had voted overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP due to the deep communal divide. The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) fared miserably as its mainstay, the Jats, had gone against it due to polarisation. The drubbing was such that its chief, Ajit Singh, lost from the family’s stronghold Baghpat.

Vote bank politics reigns supreme in this country.

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