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Allahabad HC modifies sentence of ex-MP Annu Tandon, others in Unnao rail roko case

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The Allahabad High Court has modified the sentence awarded to Ex-MP Annu Tandon and others in connection with a Rail Roko protest case.

A single-judge bench of Justice Dinesh Kumar Singh passed this order while hearing a Criminal Appeal filed by Annu Tandon and three others.

The appeal under Section 374(2) read with Section 389 CrPC has been filed by the appellants against the order dated 18.3.2021 passed by the Special Judge, MP/MLA/Additional Sessions Judge, Court in Session Case under Section 174(a) of the Railways Act, 1989, Police Station RPF Post, Unnao, whereby the Special Judge has convicted and sentenced the appellants under Section 174 (a) of the Railways Act with simple imprisonment for two years and further under Sections 357 and 359 CrPC has imposed fine of Rs 25,000 on each appellant to be deposited with the Railway administration and default of payment of fine, one month additional simple imprisonment.

The facts, are that a complaint was filed by the RPF, Post Unnao stating that the Station Master, Northern Railways, Unnao on 12.6.2017 at around 11.42 AM gave information to the RPF/GRP, Unnao that the train was stopped soon before it was about to reach the platform by some protesters of the Congress Party having flags and banners in their hands. On the said information, Incharge Inspector Srinivas Mishra, along with Constables Durgesh Kumar Yadav, Dheeraj Kumar Singh and Antesh Kumar Tewari, reached the overbridge, which was on the eastern side of the Unnao Railway Station.

The RPF team found that 150-200 people with Congress flags and banners in their hands standing under the overbridge. At that time, train was coming to Platform. These protesters, seeing the train coming, came on the railway track of platform. The driver of the train, finding the crowd standing on the railway track, stopped the train near the overbridge before platform at around 11.38 AM. As soon as the train was stopped, some protesters climbed on the engine of the train and raised slogans. The GRP/RPF team could, however, persuade them to come down from the engine of the train, and the crowd was also persuaded to leave the railway track. The track was cleared at around 11.50 AM and the train started from the said place at around 11.54 AM to platform. Altogether, the train was detained by the protesters for 12 minutes.

Annu Tandon, Surya Narayan Yadav, District President of Congress Committee, Unnao and Amit Shukla, City President of Congress Committee, Unnao and Ankit Parihar were leading the protest. There was apprehension of law and order getting disturbed if these people were arrested and, therefore, no arrest was made.

Necessary formality was completed at the Post and a complaint was registered against the appellants and 150-200 other unknown persons at Case under Section 174(a) of the Railways Act on 12.6.2017 at 13:00 Hours. The said offence was investigated by Sub-Inspector Srinivas Mishra. Chargesheet was submitted against the appellants under Section 174(a) of the Railways Act. Appellants were summoned. Accused denied the charge and claimed trial. The prosecution to prove its case produced as much as 22 documentary pieces of evidence and examined seven prosecution witnesses.

The trial court has held that the prosecution witnesses have proved the presence of the appellants at the time and place of the incident. The witnesses have also said that they were eyewitnesses to the incident. The trial court also held that there was no such a glaring contradiction, which would raise suspicion regarding the prosecution case. It has also held that the prosecution has proved the case beyond reasonable doubt by leading oral and documentary evidence that on 12.6.2017, the accused-appellants had led the protest/ Rail Roko Agitation at the Unnao Railway Station and in this sequence, Train was stopped near the railway over bridge and the railway traffic got disrupted for 15 minutes because of the said agitation.

The trial court also held that the Railways had suffered Rs 3,06,015 @ Rs 20,402/- per minute loss for 15 minutes disruption of the railway traffic, therefore, under Sections 357 and 359 CrPC each accused was fined for Rs 25,000, which fine has been deposited by the appellants.

Kamini Jaiswal, counsel assisted by Rohit Kumar Singh and Rohit Kumar Tripathi, appearing for the appellants, submitted that the protest was staged at the open space near the railway track by the appellants and other Congress workers, and it was not the Rail Roko Agitation as held by the trial court. The Congress workers led by the appellants wanted to give a representation/memorandum to the President of India through the City Magistrate, Unnao regarding the alleged atrocities on the farmers of the Madhya Pradesh by the Bharatiya Janata Party Government of the said State. A protest against the alleged atrocities on the farmers of Madhya Pradesh, was organized near the railway track in the open space by the Congress workers. The driver, seeing the crowd near the railway track, slowed down and stopped the train and some protesters allegedly climbed on the engine of the train and after some time, they came down from the train and allowed the train to move.

Counsel for the appellants further submitted that it is not the prosecution case that appellants instigated or exhorted the people gathered near the railway track to stop the train, which was going to the Railway Station. The appellants did not ask the protesters to come on the railway track or climb on the engine of the train.

She has also submitted that this was neither ‘Rail Roko’ Agitation nor the protest on the railway track, but it was a symbolic protest to hand over the memorandum to the President of India through City Magistrate, Unnao. If some protesters came on the railway track and climbed on the engine of the train, it would not come within the meaning of Section 174(a) of the Railways Act. To organise and hold peaceful protest against the Government, is permitted in democratic polity. It is part of the right of freedom of speech and expression. These are fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1) (b) of the Constitution of India. The appellants and other protesters were exercising the said fundamental right on 12.6.2017 and they were holding the symbolic agitation to raise the issue. This was not a violent protest. For holding a peaceful protest, the appellants could not have been prosecuted for offence under Section 174(a) of the Railways Act.

On the other hand, Shiv P Shukla, counsel for the respondent, has submitted that it is admitted that the train was stopped for 15 minutes due to the agitation led by the appellants and other protesters, and the track got cleared after the RPF/GRP team reached there. Annu Tandon was leading the protest with three other appellants and other Congress workers had obstructed the running of the train for 15 minutes as they were on the railway track and they also climbed the engine of the train, which would amount to picketing. The prosecution by cogent and credible evidence had proved the case against the appellants, and there is no ground to interfere with the well reasoned judgement and order passed by the trial court, which is based on sound reasoning and appreciation of evidence. He said that the appeal is liable to be dismissed.

The Court observed,

As mentioned above, the facts are not in dispute inasmuch as on 12.6.2017 the appellants, who were leading the protest along with 150-200 Congress workers were staging a protest with flags and banners of the Congress Party in their hands and demanding that the City Magistrate, Unnao should come there to receive the memorandum in the name of the President of India. It is nobody’s case that it was a violent protest.

However, the fact remains that Train was detained by the protesters, including the appellants, and as per the prosecution case, when the train reached near the railway over bridge, the protesters in large number came on the railway track and the driver slowed down the train and stopped it finding large number of protesters on the track. Statement of the Driver is a cogent and credible piece of evidence, which cannot be brushed aside. Thus, because of the protest by the appellants and other Congress workers, the railway traffic got disrupted for 15 minutes on 12.6.2017 between 11.39 AM to 11.54 AM. The presence of appellants on the date, time and place of incident is not in dispute nor the incident is denied except to say in their 313 CrPC statements that they were not involved in stopping the train in question.

The Court held,

Thus, if any Railway servant or any other person obstructs any train by squatting or picketing or during Rail Roko Agitation and Bandh etc., the offence under Section 174(a) of the Railways Act would get attracted. Though the trial court has mentioned that it was a ‘Rail Roko’ Agitation. If the said finding is discarded, even then this Court would be required to consider as to whether the offence under Section 174(a) of the Railways Act was committed by the appellants or not. As per provisions of Section 174(a) of the Railways Act, if running of the train is obstructed by squatting or picketing, this would attract the offence under Section 174(a) of the Railways Act.

Even if a peaceful agitation/protest can lead to obstruction of running of any train by squatting or picketing or during any Rail Roko Agitation or bandh, the same would amount to an offence under Section 174(a) of the Railways Act. It is no one’s case that the protest was violent, but the fact remains that the protesters, including the appellants, had stopped the train for 15 minutes by picketing on the railway track and climbed on the engine of the train when it was stopped.

In view thereof, the offence under Section 174(a) of the Railways Act is clearly established against the appellants and the trial court has not committed any error of law or jurisdiction or evidence in convicting them for offence under Section 174(a) of the Railways Act.

However, so far as the sentence is concerned, the Court found that awarding the sentence to the appellants for a maximum sentence of two years of simple imprisonment in the facts and circumstances of the case, is excessive. In democracy under our Constitution, people have the right to protest against Government policies/ action/ inaction, provided the protest does not lead to commission of an offence by the protesters. Except for detaining the train for 15 minutes, there was no damage to private and public property by the protesters. By and large it was a peaceful and symbolic protest.

In view thereof, the Court further found that imprisonment of two years is unwarranted in the facts and circumstances of the case and, therefore, the impugned judgement and order dated 18.3.2021 passed by the trial court is modified to the extent that the appellants are sentenced with fine only. The appellants had already deposited the fine of Rs 25,000 each and, therefore, no further fine is required to be deposited by them. The appellants are on bail. Their bail bonds are cancelled and sureties are discharged.

Subject to above modification of the impugned judgement and order, the Court allowed the appeal.

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