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PUCL, Nov, 2012

The Conviction of Dr. Sunilam and others in the Multai police firing case of 1998 in which 24 farmers were killed by police bullets: A critique of the judgements

Background : What happened
On the 12th of January, 1998, 24 farmers were killed and a 150 injured in a police firing in Multai Tehsil, Betul District of Shahdol division of MP. Since this was the 3rd year of crop failure, These farmers were demanding Rs 5000 compensation as against Rs 400 offered by the DigVijaya Singh Government. In this firing the driver of a fire engine was killed and according to the police more than fifty policemen were injured. 66 cases were filed by the police against Dr Sunilam and other farmers. Of which Dr Sunilam is facing trial in 18 cases and convicted in 3 cases on the 18th of Oct. Dr Sunilam was convicted for life against cases 277, 278 and 280. Who is Dr Sunilam, What are these FIRs? And why has he been convicted? Here is a brief write up.

Who is Dr. Sunilam
Dr. Sunilam was born as Sunil Mishra on 27 July 1961 in Bhopal, India. After schooling in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Gwalior, he graduated from Govt. Science College, Gwalior and completed his post-graduation - Msc in Applied Physics from M.I.T.S., Gwalior. He received a PhD in Bio-Medical Electronics from Delhi University. He was Research Associate with CISR. After returning from Burn's Institute, Melbourne, Australia, he became a full-time political worker.

A social activist, politician and writer, Dr. Sunilam published and co-authored two books. In Samajwadi Andolan ke Dastavej (in Hindi with Prof. Vinod Prasad Singh), he collected various facts and papers relating to the socialist movement. In English he prepared a book with Shri Surendra Mohan, the late shri HariDev Sharma and Prof. V.P. Singh titled "Evolution of Socialist Policy in India". Sunilam also compiled a book on Urvaiam, the northeastern frontier by Rammanohar Lohia. Sunilam continues to write articles in national newspapers and local dailies. Dr Sunilam was twice MLA, once as an independent from Multai between December 1998 and December 2003 and the second time as a Samajwadi Party MLA from 2003 December to 2008 December. He lost in the elections in 2008 December. His defeat is attributed to his struggle against the land acquisition which was being under taken by the Government for Adani’s Pench power plant and the construction of the dam on river Pench by Adanis which was displacing more than 35 villages. His removal now from the scene has already hastened the process of land acquisition with the district collector giving an ultimatum that if farmers would not vacate their farmland and homes by the 4th of November then their homes and crops would be razed and taken over. This order came on the 30th of October. Police and Para military has already spread itself in that area for the takeover.

What are the Cases
Judgement 277/2006: Attempt to murder and injuring than a incharge S N Katare and snatching his arms. Total witnesses examined 16 - Policeman 13, Doctor 1 and Independent 2. Dr. Sunilam and two others convicted u/s 148 for one year, 145 for one year, 152 for one year, 333/149 for five years and Rs 1000/- fine and 307/149 for seven years and Rs 1000/- fine. Judgement 278/2006: Attempt to murder and injuring policeman Sarnam Singh. Total witnesses examined 14 - Policeman 8, Doctors 3 and Independent 3. Dr. Sunilam and two others convicted u/s 148 for one year, 332/149 for one year with Rs 500 fine and 307/149 for seven years with Rs 1000/- fine.

Judgement 280/2006: Murder of Dhir Singh, driver Fire Brigade. Total witnesses examined 30 - Policeman 12, Doctors 3, Administration 10 and Independent 5. Sunilam convicted with 7 others u/s 148 for one year, 145 for one year, 152 for one year, 323/149 for one year and Rs 1000/- fine and 302/149 for life and Rs 5000/- fine and section 3 of prevention of damage to public property Act Rs 50000/- fine.

The Critique
What a travesty of natural justice that the police and administration who in a pre-meditated manner had come in full force to kill and repress a gathering of farmers who had shown no inclination to violence in their nearly week long agitation (give details) have been left scot free and unaccountable for their crime but the leader of the farmers Dr. Sunilam a believer and practitioner in non-violent politics has been convicted for life. It is clear from a perusal of judgement in the three cases in which Dr. Sunilam has been convicted that the administration and the police connived to frame Dr. Sunilam and his close colleagues in order to hide their own act of pre - mediated murder and repression inflicted on farmers protesting for their rights. It is unfortunate that the judgement bought the police case hook line and sinker and reflected the police bias.

Regarding the unfortunate events of 12th January, 1998 there are two versions or narratives.

1) Of the agitating farmers.
2) Of the police and the administration.

To summarise the version of the farmers is : that it was a lawful and peaceful assembly of the farmers at the Tehsil premises in exercise of their constitutional rights to freedom of expression, protest and association and assembly. When they gathered they were making a legal demand and when they gathered there were no prohibitory orders in place. The agitation demanding compensation for the crops damaged by hail storm had been on for a period of time in the course of which the District Collector ??? himself had come to their meeting on the 9th?? January, 1998 indicating a sort of understanding with the administration. But on 12 January, 1998 the attitude of the Administration had undergone a seachange andn they had posted a disproportionate police force in great numbers to crush the legitimate and peaceful agitation, of the farmers violently. Section 144 of the CrPC was imposed suddenly to deliberately declare the assembly unlawful, unprovoked lathi charge, tear gas and police firing followed in quick succession resulting in the death of 24 farmers. The three judgements completely disregards the few witnesses of the defence to this narrative. But it relies preponderantly on the testimonies of the police and government witnesses discounting the fact that they could be bound by a common self interest of washing of their crime of killing 24 farmers and thus colluding to frame the leader of the farmer in false cases.

The prosecution cases and the judgement rests on the following points.
1) The Assembly of the farmers was unlawful and violent led by Dr. Sunilam.
2) The violence among other things resulted in the death of a the driver of the fire brigade Dheer Singh, attempt to murder and injuries to Sarnam Singh and Thana Incharge SN Katare and Sarnam Singh.
3) Dr Sunilam is culpable for this violence not only as the leader instigating a violent gathering but he led an participated in the acts of violence in full knowledge and murdered and attempted to murder the persons concerned in full knowledge.
4) The use of force by police, including lathi charge is justified to disperse an unlawful and violent assembly of farmers and establish the rule of law.

The three judgements reliance on the testimonies of police and administrative witnesses, which suffer from several contradictions of its own is demolished by a perusal of the Roznamcha Sanah ( Daily Diary 12.1.1998) of the police of 12.01.98 the day of the incident. This daily dairy is quoted by the judge in Judgement number 280/2006 but not in judgements 277 and 278 of 2006. A careful reading of the daily diary reveals that the police activities of gathering in full force had begun early in the morning in a pre-meditated manner even before the agitating farmers had gathered and a little later the evidence quoted about the violent intent of the gathering farmers was quite flimsy. The daily diary also revealingly betrays the fact that the declaration of section 144 CrPC precedes and the lathi charge and tear gassing on the crowd precedes any violent activity from the side of the crowd. In short an inference can validly drawn from the daily diary of the police itself that the declaration of sec 144 CrPC was pre-meditated and merely a tool used to declare the assembly unlawful. This chain of events revealed by the case diary but ignored by the judgement makes the subsequent testimonies by the police and Government completely untrustworthy because they seem to be an after thought and a result of collusion among these witness bound by a common interest of hiding there crime of wilfully murdering 24 farmers. The judge has completely ignored the fact that to do this they framed the leader of the farmers Dr. Sunilam through false testimonies.

According to the Roznamcha Sanah ( Daily Diary) of the police of 12.01.98 quoted in the judgement 280/ 2006 the police activity begins at 7.25 am when the interaction with the SHOs of various police station begins by which time the agitating farmers had not even gathered. At 9.03 am various police officers were deployed with full force at the premises of Multai Tehsil with proper instructions “ even before the farmers have gathered and begun their activity at the aforesaid premises”. The question here arises as to what these “proper instructions” are? since these have been left unspecified.

In the Roznamcha the first reference to any so called violent intent of the gathering farmers is at 11.32 am on 12.01.1998 in which one Ashok Ghanghoria is said to have given the information that members of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti intended to encircle and to lock up the Tehsil and information is said to have been received from an informer that members of the samiti were bringing illegal arms and stones hidden in their pockets and bags and also in tractor trolleys with an intention of causing destruction and arson in the Tehsil premises. The intention of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti members was supposed to be extreme and dubious as they were shouting slogans like “die or kill, our right will be ours”, the reliance on supposed informers is highly dubious which information would an informer be able to look into pockets and bags for illegal arms and stones and how could any informer on the basis of the aforementioned slogans which are routine in any agitation surmise the violent intentions of an agitating crowd. It is important to note here that according to the Roznamcha the agitating farmers have not indulged in any actual violent activities till 11.30 am that day. According to the Roznamcha CrPC section 144 is imposed at 11.35 am without any violent act having occurred and by 11.40 the roznamcha is still recording the fact that the crowd was merely shouting slogans. According to the Roznamcha the announcement of imposition of section 144 was made at 11.45 am. IT is clear from this that section 144 was imposed without any actual violent activity occurred and the purpose was to simply declare the assembly illegal. According to the Roznamcha tear gas and lathi charge were ordered at 12.55 pm but there is said to have no effect on the mob as it is said to have become violent. It is noteworthy that the 1st instance of stone throwing from the side of the agitators is recorded at 12.56 pm in the Roznamcha after the use of lathi charge and tear gas. Thus the stone throwing should be inferred as a reaction from a section of the crowd to the violence unleashed by the police. All subsequent violent actions by the crowd have been entered after 1.05 pm including the so called violent acts of Dr Sunilam for which he has been convicted.

All the three judgements taken together have painted Dr. Sunilam as a superman or spiderman who within a short span of nine minutes, between 12.56 pm and 1.05 pm beats the police tear gassing and lathi charge to enter the premises snatches the rifle from a police officer and tries to kill him and injures him in the process then goes on to attack another police officer and tries to kill him and jumps on to a moving fire-brigade vehicle drags the driver out, smashes his head with a stone in order to kill him. All this is highly impossible for anybody whatever the testimony of any of the witnesses be.

The SDM is said to have testified to have given the firing orders at 1.15pm on the basis of the information of the police officer regarding the above mentioned implausible acts of violence. Clearly the SDO has signed on the dotted orders. It is unfortunate that the judgement has accepted such a flawed police case.

It is on these grounds that the judgement must be read and analysed.
It is our opinion that the judgement is biased and section has become a tool for declaring all constitutional expressions of democratic dissent as unlawful. It has also become a tool to inflict and justify police atrocities and absolve them of all crimes. This flawed judgement has naturally ignored all the contradictions in the testimonies of the various police and administrative witnesses which are major and cannot be ignored, even the doctors have differed on the cause of death of Dheer Singh the driver of the fire brigade.

-- By Kavita Srivastava, PUCL (in consultation with Sr. Council Ravi Kiran Jain, Allahabad High Court, Supreme Court)

People's Union for Civil Liberties, 81 Sahayoga Apartmrnts, Mayur Vihar I, Delhi 110091, India. Phone (91) 11 2275 0014