Pehlu Khan Lynching: Verdict Delivered, Justice Denied

The shocking Pehlu Khan lynching verdict is bound to strengthen the culture of impunity that’s been on the rise.

5 min read
Pehlu Khan Lynching: Verdict Delivered, Justice Denied

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”— this incisive remark by Martin Luther King Jr sprang to my mind as an Alwar court acquitted all the six men accused of beating Pehlu Khan to death. The dead obviously can't cry for justice, and so it becomes our duty, of the living, to ensure there is no travesty of justice.

But justice remained elusive for Pehlu and his family in the verdict that was ironically delivered a day before India’s Independence Day 2019.

Despite video evidence of the horrific mob lynching that shook the nation in April 2017, the court gave the benefit of doubt to the accused, arguing that the probe by the Rajasthan Police was riddled with ‘serious shortcomings’ and ‘gross negligence’. Beyond the brutal violence that killed Pehlu in the name of the Holy Cow, beyond the disturbing mindset of the Gau Rakshaks, and the blatant violation of human rights, is the utter collapse of the police and the criminal justice system, that this case signifies.


‘A Dying Man Can Never Lie’ Wasn’t Applied In The Pehlu Khan Case

The verdict raises serious questions about our entire system, as Pehlu's fate in many ways reflects India's relentless march towards normalising violence and bigotry. In giving the accused the benefit of doubt, the court lists serious “contradictions” in the police probe and in the prosecution’s evidence.

Firstly, no forensics was done on the video of the incident which went viral and was seen by millions. Inevitably, the court ruled that the video footage of the mob lynching could not be treated as admissible evidence, in the absence of its certification by a forensic laboratory. As the verdict says : “The video, on the basis of which the accused were charged in this case, the mobile through which this video was shot, and not finding and confiscating it, signifies gross negligence of the investigating officer.”

The case was further weakened by contradictions in the cause of death — doctors at the private hospital say he died of heart attack but the post mortem report claims Pehlu succumbed to injuries he received from his public thrashing.

In fact, the six men Pehlu Khan named as his attackers before he died, were all absolved of any guilt by the police in 2017 itself. This, despite Indian law regarding a “dying declaration” as evidence so strong, that an accused individual can be convicted solely on its basis. (The premise upheld in countless court rulings is that a “dying man can never lie”.)

The court also points out that in a case when instead of the named accused, other people were made accused by the police, the accused ought to be identified—but shockingly in the police investigation, the identification of the accused was never done.

As the verdict observes: “In this way, during the investigation, serious shortcomings were left, which brings the prosecution’s case in the ambit of suspicion and the accused stand to benefit from that suspicion.”


A Botched-Up Probe Under Raje-BJP State Govt

All this virtually smacks of a shocking botch up by the police under the Raje-BJP government that then ruled Rajasthan with RSS heavyweight Gulab Chand Kataria as its Home Minister. Many believe the police discarded Pehlu’s dying declaration, in order to protect influential cow vigilantes affiliated to Sangh organisations.

Pehlu’s dying statement, in which he gave the names of six people was later not taken as strong evidence, as it had not been signed by the treating doctor.

It is claimed that the doctor of the private hospital did not want to get entangled in a criminal case. But this is precisely where the Police’s role comes into play – to make sure the legal process is followed.

Four others, who were beaten alongside Pehlu, have also complained that names from their statements were deliberately omitted by the police. Aarif Khan, Pehlu’s son, has often underlined the death threats his family received in case they spoke up — but they got no protection, and have repeatedly claimed that the police is helping the accused.

Moreover, the original accused were never interrogated as they were absconding after the incident, and then returned once they were exonerated by the CID.

All this ensured a weak prosecution case based on a shoddy investigation under the Raje government. As Qasim Khan, the counsel for Pehlu Khan’s sons remarks bluntly : “We suspect the police left several loopholes in their probe under pressure from the previous BJP government in Rajasthan.”


Congress State Govt’s Failure: Apathy, Incompetence Or ‘Soft Hindutva’?

Disappointingly, even the Congress government in Rajasthan since last December, made no major effort to plug the loopholes in the police investigation or to strengthen the prosecution case. The Gehlot government did not pursue the case with the vigour or commitment that was needed. The Pehlu case was the most serious lynching case in the country with video evidence — and if this is allowed to collapse, one shudders to think what might happen in other lynching cases where there may not be strong evidence.

Ironically, this year in June, the Gehlot government even filed a chargesheet accusing Pehlu and his sons, Irshad, Arif and truck operator Khan Mohammed of being cow smugglers.

They were charged under various sections of the Rajasthan Bovine Animal Act of 1995. Though Pehlu was later not named in the chargesheet due to his death, the police under the Congress government continued with the same arguments as those filed during the Raje regime.

One can’t help wonder whether this is apathy, incompetence or soft Hindutva on the part of the Congress.

Mercifully, a few hours after the verdict, Chief Minister Gehlot asserted that his government would challenge the verdict in the High Court to ensure justice for Pehlu’s family. Gehlot, in his tweet, also pointed to the new Mob Lynching Act in the state to take care of such cases. The Rajasthan Assembly recently passed a new law which makes mob lynching a cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence, punishable with life imprisonment and a fine up to Rs 5 lakh.


What’s At Stake Now? Not Only Justice For Pehlu, But Also People’s Faith

More than pious laws, however, the Gehlot government needs to initiate firm action. It can begin by identifying and punishing policemen who weakened the investigation as also those in the prosecution team who did a shoddy job.

They need to quickly file a strong appeal in the court to admit fresh/more detailed evidence and ensure the elimination of the glaring botch ups, like the video not getting authenticated.

In short, the government needs to be more pro-active in securing justice for Pehlu and his family. Otherwise, not only will public trust be eroded, the perception will grow that nothing improves for weaker sections of society and minorities — whether it’s the Congress or the BJP which rules.

Also, the verdict on Pehlu, with culprits going scot-free, is bound to strengthen the culture of impunity that’s grown in recent years, especially for majoritarian bigotry and violence.

What’s at stake now is not only justice for Pehlu but people’s faith in the government and the Judicial system. Faith in the Courts for ordinary people is bound to take a knock with verdicts like this one ; and if that faith is not restored and reinforced on priority, Indian Democracy could soon become a Mobocracy that’s under no one’s control!

(The author is a veteran journalist, and expert on Rajasthan politics, who served as a Resident Editor at NDTV. He is currently a professor of journalism at the Haridev Joshi University of Journalism and Mass Communication in Jaipur. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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