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Ram Rahim Seems to Have Benefitted From Several Loopholes in CBI's Investigation

The court found several shortcomings in the investigation and inconsistencies in the testimonies of the case.

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Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, one of the most controversial self-styled gurus in India, was acquitted last week in the murder case of a manager of his cult, Dera Sacha Sauda. The Punjab and Haryana High Court overturned Ram Rahim Singh’s conviction in the Ranjit Singh murder case.

A special CBI Court convicted Ram Rahim Singh and four others in 2021 for murder and criminal conspiracy, 19 years after Ranjit Singh was shot dead. Ranjit Singh was a former disciple of the sect guru, who has over the years gained notoriety over criminal charges and allegations of exploitation levelled against him.

A division bench of Justices Sureshwar Thakur and Lalit Batra ruled on 28 May that the prosecution failed to establish a clear motive for Ranjit Singh’s murder, casting a major doubt on the narrative presented by the prosecution. This lack of a compelling motive, among other reasons, against Ram Rahim undermined the prosecution's case from the outset, raising questions about Ram Rahim Singh’s alleged involvement. Ram Rahim Singh appears to have benefited from several loopholes in the investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The murder dates back to 10 July 2002. It was alleged that Ranjit Singh was murdered in a village in Kurukshetra in Haryana for his role in circulating a letter that disclosed how women (Sadhvis) were being sexually exploited by the chief of the sect, Ram Rahim, at the Dera headquarters.
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Ranjit Singh’s father, Joginder Singh, had told police that on 10 July that year when he was in his fields in Khanpur Kolia village in Kurukshetra, at about 5 pm, his son brought tea for the labourers working on the farm. After Ranjit served them tea, four men with pistols suddenly appeared and fired indiscriminately at Ranjit. He was taken to a hospital but declared dead. Fingers were pointed at Ram Rahim and his men.

The court found several shortcomings in the investigation and inconsistencies in the testimonies in the case and concluded that the investigation by the CBI was “tainted and sketchy.” First, the car supposedly used in the crime was never confiscated. Second, none of the weapons used in the murder were seized by the CBI, even though three witnesses had stated that all four assailants were armed. Third, the CBI did not prepare any site plan for the location of the crime. Fourth, the CBI did not question the owner or staff of a restaurant, where a witness allegedly saw the other four accused men, barring Ram Rahim, openly celebrating the murder.

An anonymous letter allegedly written by a sadhvi documenting her sexual exploitation and circulated by Ranjit Singh was considered the purported motive for the crime. Initially a staunch follower of Ram Rahim, Ranjit lost interest in the Dera in 2000 and stopped going there. His sister was also associated with the Dera as a Sadhvi in 1999.

The court argued that it was unlikely that Ranjit Singh would jeopardise the marital life of his sister by circulating the letter that alleged sexual exploitation of girls living at the Dera. The CBI also did not provide sufficient evidence in court to prove that the accused men, including Ram Rahim, met in June 2002 and threatened Ranjit Singh for circulating the purported letter.

The High Court observed that Ram Rahim did not have any basis to harbour animosity towards Ranjit Singh. This was one of the many arguments accepted by the court that led to Ram Rahim’s acquittal in the sensational case. The court ruled that a service pistol allotted to one of the accused men, Sabdil Singh, a constable who served as Ram Rahim’s gunman, was not used in the crime, as alleged by the CBI. The agency had alleged that a .455 revolver had been issued to Sabdil Singh, but he had surreptitiously deposited another weapon of the same grade in the armoury to deceive people. However, based on the ballistic report, the court found that the said weapon remained in the armoury the entire time.

Major contradictions in the testimony of witnesses further swung the case in Ram Rahim’s favour. The court concluded that the accused men did not visit Ranjit Singh’s house on 26 June 2002 nor did they threaten him. The CBI’s evidence regarding threats made to Ranjit Singh for visiting the Dera and failing to apologise to Ram Rahim also lacked credibility in the eyes of the court.

The testimony of one of the key CBI witnesses, Khatta Singh, was judged by the court as being tainted. Khatta Singh had testified that on 16 June 2002, Ram Rahim had allegedly conspired with others to eliminate Ranjit Singh. The prosecution’s narrative came under further question as one Darshan Singh, who was purportedly involved in the conspiracy to eliminate Ranjit Singh, was neither summoned as a witness nor charged as an accused.

The court inferred that the prosecution's account of the meeting and the alleged directive by Ram Rahim to kill Ranjit Singh appeared to be concocted and lacking in substantive evidence. The judges also took note of the fact that Khatta Singh, had written to the police chief of Sirsa about being coerced by the CBI to testify against the Dera chief.

Significantly, the medical evidence failed to corroborate the eyewitness testimony of the crime.

The post-mortem report of Ranjit Singh was inconsistent with the testimonies. According to the post-mortem report, four metallic fragments of various sizes and shapes were discovered in Ranjit Singh’s body. A senior police officer Armandeep Singh, who partly investigated the matter, admitted in court during cross-investigation that although three bullets had penetrated Ranjit Singh’s body, they were never recovered.

There is also no mention of the firing distance or any blackening around the injuries in the post-mortem report. Using these points, the court concluded that the post-mortem report contradicted the statement of the complainant in the case, Joginder Singh, also Ranjit’s father, who had claimed that his son was shot from close range.

Another factor that facilitated Ram Rahim’s acquittal was the court’s rejection of the polygraph test conducted on three accused individuals allegedly involved in the murder. The court said they provided deceptive answers to relevant questions. Also, there was no mention of obtaining consent from the accused before administering the polygraph test. Referring to the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Selvi vs. State of Karnataka, the court stressed that obtaining consent from the accused was essential for a valid polygraph test.

In sum, the court emphasised the value of objective analysis through a thorough examination of the evidence presented in over-sensationalised media trials. Ram Rahim, who is still in jail after being convicted in a rape case, is no stranger to controversies. In India’s long-drawn judicial system, where a case takes a new turn at every court, this might not be the last verdict in the Ranjit Singh murder case. But for now, the High Court’s observations on the need for objective analysis of evidence ring loud.

The court noted that the case was a “stark portrayal of the necessity of courts…making an incisive and objective analysis, of the evidence as exist on record, rather than the said objective analyses becoming attempted to become stultified, through a pro-active media trial becoming made of the purported incriminatory role of the accused vis-a-vis the crime event."

(Vertika Mani is a lawyer and human-rights activist based in New Delhi.)

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