Maharashtra: Families await justice as cases under Atrocities Act get delayed due to govt negligence
The non-implementation of a clause in the Prevention of Atrocities (SC and St) Act that clearly directs the setting up of special designated courts for hearing cases registered under the Act has delayed judgment in several pending cases.
The adage — 'justice delayed is justice denied' — is especially true in the case of Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, who died before his case reached a conclusion at the Supreme Court. The situation could have been different if the government had taken seriously the formation of dedicated special courts under the Prevention of Atrocities Act (SC and ST), 1989.
Bhaiyalal Bhotmange of the Mahar caste who converted to Buddhism and the lone survivor, and a witness in the Khairlanji massacre, passed away due to a heart attack on 20 January, 2017. He kept fighting for justice even after 10 years of the massacre — from the sessions court to the Supreme Court.
Four members of the Bhotmange family were lynched to death at Khairlanji in Maharashtra's Bhandara district by a frenzied mob on 26 September, 2006. Enraged by a police complaint lodged the previous day by Bhaiyalal's daughter Surekha, over a land dispute, the accused allegedly dragged Surekha, her brothers and mother out of their homes and hacked them to death. Surekha and her mother were also sexually assaulted. But their bodies were never examined during the postmortem.
This incident unleashed a wave of fury in Maharashtra. It was announced by the then chief minister that a fast track court would be set up. Trial was completed in an ad hoc sessions court and the six of the accused were sentenced to death, while two were given life imprisonment. The entire process took two years. Moreover, the court did not think that this case merited the application of the Prevention of Atrocities Act.
The death sentence was challenged in the high court and it was commuted to life sentence of 25 years for all the six accused. The high court’s decision was challenged in the Supreme Court. Bhaiyalal had hoped for justice from the Supreme Court.
The fight for justice is on for a triple murder case in Sonai, Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Rahul Kandhare, Sachin Gharu and Sandip Thanwar of the Mehatar caste had never imagined that the new year morning of 2013 would be their last day. The trio, all in their late 2os, were allegedly murdered by the members of Darandale family. They were called by the members of the Darandale family to clean the septic tank. But the day took a horrific turn — all three were killed and later their decapitated bodies were dumped in the septic tank and a well. The murders came to light when the tattoo on Sachin's body was identified after their body parts were found. Action was only taken upon the insistence of an Army jawan and Sandip's brother Pankaj Thanwar.
Like Khairlanji, proceedings in the fast track court were announced by the minsters. The hearing started in November 2014 in the sessions court. The last hearing for this case is expected on 6 February, almost three and half years after the murders.
The case of Nitin Aage is no different. On 28 April, 2014, Aage left home for his extra classes in school. He was brutally tortured, killed and his body was hung on a tree by three members of the Maratha community. They claimed that Aage was in a relationship with one of the accused’s sister. When Aage did not return home, his father started searching for him, only to find his dead body hanging from a tree outside the village. Even in this case, the ministers announced the setting up of a fast track court. It’s been more than two and half years since the incident, and the trial has just begun. The process of examining the witnesses and evidences is currently going on in the sessions court.
"Calling it a fast track court will be a joke. Does a fast track court mean that it will take three to four years to complete trial?" asks Pankaj Thanwar.
"If this is the condition of a fast track court, I can't image the plight of people contesting their cases in regular courts," adds Dr Nitish Navasagrey, a Dalit rights activist and a professor at a law college in Pune.
The reason for delay: Non-implementation of a clause in the Prevention of Atrocities (SC and St) Act that clearly directs the setting up of special designated courts for hearing cases registered under the Act.
The chapter four in the Act states: "For the purpose of providing for speedy trial, the state government shall, with the concurrence of the Chief Justice of the High Court, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify for each district a court of session to be a special court to try the offences under this Act... For every special court, the state government shall, by notification in Official Gazette, specify a public prosecutor or appoint an advocate who has been in practice as an advocate for not less than seven years, as a special public prosecutor for the purpose of conducting cases in that court."
But a fast track court was all that was promised in each of these cases. Setting up of the special court was completely ignored until it was demanded by a few organisations. It was only in 2011 that the then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan announced the setting up of special courts citing low conviction rate. Six courts were supposed to be set up in various districts of Maharashtra. Six courts for 36 districts are hardly enough, however, the process of setting up of such courts has just begun. Three courts have been set up in Nagpur, Thane and Aurangabad. While the courts in Pune, Amravati and Nashik are still in the pipeline.
"When any serious crime comes to light, the court issues a notification designating a special court for hearing the matter and the proceeding takes place along with the other cases pending before the court. This leads to the delay," explains Asim Sarode, a Pune-based human rights lawyer.
As the part B of the Act states that the government is also supposed to appoint special prosecutors, a panel of such lawyers is expected to be formed at a district-level, which can lend their expertise to the case.
"But can this be expected from a government that doesn't even take setting up of the courts seriously?" asks Navasagrey."Delay in the hearing sometimes also leads to the witnesses turning hostile. At times, even finding the witnesses and requesting them to appear before the court becomes difficult. This is what is happening in the Sonai case," he adds.
A state vigilance committee, chaired by the chief minister of the state, is supposed to take a review of the atrocity cases. The last time a committee meeting was held was in March 2015 after the Devendra Fadnavis government came to power. Formation of district and taluka level committees were announced by the Fadnavis government.
"When the state-level committee is not functioning properly, how can we expect it to function at the district and taluka level" asks Priyadarshi Telang, an activist who leads an organisation called Manuski, which advocates for Dalit rights. "These committees normally only reviews the figures of the crimes registered, they never take cognizance of the cases pending before the court," he adds.
Thanwar has started losing hope. "Bhaiyalal Bhotmange was hoping that the judgment would be pronounced in a year or two because the case was fast tracked. But he passed away before the case reached a conclusive end. Sometimes I believe, I will meet a similar fate," he says.
"If the government sets special designated courts, the proceedings can be faster. We also need strong punishment that would set an example and prevent such crimes taking place in the future," he adds.
In 2015, there was 2.71 percent increase in crimes against SC and 9.03 percent rise in crimes against ST in Maharashtra, according to the annual crime report published by the CID. The rate of conviction has also reduced by almost three percent in 2015 for crimes against SC and ST.
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