HE Supreme Court Monday disapproved of the manner in which the Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by the Uttar Pradesh Government was investigating the incidents of violence in Lakhimpur Kheri in which eight persons, including four farmers who were part of a protest, were killed.
It said that in order to “infuse fairness” and “impartiality” in the investigation, it would appoint a retired high court judge, Justice Ranjit Singh or Rakesh Kumar Jain from Punjab and Haryana High Court to supervise the investigation till the charge-sheet is filed. The suggestion came from the Court even though the Uttar Pradesh Government has already constituted a Commission of Inquiry headed by former Allahabad High Court judge Pradeep Kumar Srivastava to inquire into the death of eight persons.
A three-judge bench of Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli observed that the appointment of a retired high court judge from outside Uttar Pradesh was necessary in order to ensure that the evidence collected in two different FIRs did not overlap. The bench alleged that the SIT, by way of recording the statements of witnesses in a particular way, was seeking to benefit a particular accused.
“We are sorry to say that prima facie it appears that one particular accused is being given benefits by overlapping two FIRs”, Justice Kant said. He added, “One set of murders is of farmers, then there is a journalist and there are political workers. There are statements of witnesses that have been recorded that seem to favour the main accused”.
Justice Kant told Senior Advocate Harish Salve, who was appearing for the Uttar Pradesh Government, that the investigation into both the cases must be kept apart, adding that the statements of witnesses pertaining to different cases must be recorded separately.
“What it appears to us is that this SIT is unable to maintain an investigative distance between the three FIRs,” Justice Kant said while expressing a need to have a retired high court judge at the helm of the investigation.
The bench, on the request of Salve, adjourned the matter to Friday as the latter sought time to seek instructions from the state government on the suggestion of having a retired high court judge supervising the investigation.
The apex court also observed that there was nothing in the status report filed by the UP government, and expressed its dissatisfaction over the investigation.
“There is nothing in the status report except saying that some more witnesses were examined. We gave 10 days. The lab reports also have not come. It’s not going the way we expected,” the CJI N.V.Ramana said.
Justice Hima Kohli joined in and asked why the phones of other accused persons had not yet been seized. The movement of the accused at the time of the incident could be tracked from their phones. She asked how the call detail records of the accused persons’ phones were not specifically listed as part of the evidence in the status report.
The top court was hearing the matter after two lawyers had written a letter to the CJI seeking a high-level judicial inquiry, also involving the CBI, into the incident.
Four farmers were mowed down by an SUV in Lakhimpur Kheri when a group agitating against the Centre’s three new farm laws was holding a demonstration against the visit of Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya on October 3.
On October 8, the top court had questioned the state government for not arresting Ashish Mishra, the son of Minister of State (MoS) in the Union Home Ministry Ajay Mishra, accused of mowing down protesting farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri. Eight people died in the violence. Ashish Mishra was later arrested by the police.
The protesting farmers alleged the violence broke out after a car in the minister’s convoy ran over protesters. Multiple videos of a car registered under the name of MoS Mishra speeding through a crowd of protestors from behind them and crushing some of them had gone viral over social media. Visuals from the area showed arson and vehicles being set on fire.