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From 88 witnesses to none: The imploding cases against Varun Gandhi

Varun Gandhi had three cases against him for hate speech, inciting riots, and destruction of public property with 88 prosecution witnesses. Not only was he exonerated. Every single witness turned hostile.

“Just this is enough to raise suspicions,” write Rahul Kotiyal and Atul Chaurasia in Tehelka. “Surely, the higher courts need to take note of it. It’s not just Varun’s reputation that is at stake, but the whole idea of credible courts.”

 From 88 witnesses to none: The imploding cases against Varun Gandhi

Varun Gandhi. AFP

Since Varun Gandhi has been cleared by the courts, his supporters will dismiss the entire sting as a case of sour grapes. But the Tehelka report is worth reading because it shows it’s not about party affiliation, it’s about how the rich and powerful can subvert justice in the country. This is not just a Varun Gandhi story, it’s a power story.

It’s a long and detailed report that records the stories of individual witnesses but here are a few things that stand out.

Justice delayed is justice denied? Given that so many cases just languish in the Indian court system, delaying justice is usually the preferred way political leaders have to quash a case. But Varun’s case was different. His cases were actually fast-tracked. Tehelka’s allegation is that was done not because the administration wanted to swiftly mete out justice before the trail went cold. It was actually a decision of political expediency.

Maywati as chief minister had used the draconian National Security Act against Varun. When the administration changed in Lucknow, Akhilesh Yadav wanted to drop the cases but couldn’t do so publicly without endangering the support of his Muslim voters. So Tehelka claims it fast-tracked them while it was still in control of the state machinery.

"I have been practicing in Pilibhit for several years. I have never seen a case where as many testimonies were taken in a single day as in Varun’s case," Ashwani Agnihotri, the former president of the Pilibhit Bar Association tells Tehelka.

Read the report to find out why the Samajwadi Party was soft on Varun Gandhi for political reasons and why Tehelka claims the BJP is crowning as general secretary a man who had helped defeat its own candidate Satpal Gangwar in 2012 Assembly election.

But that’s all political skullduggery. The larger lesson is party affiliation means little when you are powerful because you will always have friends in high places, even in other parties.

A damning tape means nothing. Taping Varun Gandhi’s speeches at the meetings in question was forbidden claims Tehelka, itself interesting for a public figure on the campaign trail. The cases exploded when a couple of people initially taped them secretly. Questions have been raised whether the tapes were “original videos” as in shot in one take or not. But three election commissioners were satisfied by them saying they had seen them several times and were convinced they had not been tampered with or doctored.

A case that relied on an actual tape, not just hearsay, sounds open and shut especially if allegations of doctoring are discarded. NDTV also had the CD’s authenticity verified. But then journalist Mohammad Tariq who actually taped the speech said in court that he had gone to Barkhera and recorded the speech but that he had not listened to the speech itself.

"This took the ludicrousness of the proceedings to a fresh scale. How can anybody accept that a reporter who works on a story has no idea what his story is about?" asks Tehelka.

But the court and the public prosecutor calmly accepted the testimony without any objection.

When netas fight get out of the way. There are allegations in the Tehelka sting that witnesses were intimidated, coaxed, coerced, offered money, even a Maruti Wagon-R to speak in favour of Varun. But the biggest impediment to justice is that for the common person has absolutely no incentive to stick his neck out because noone has his back. If you read the sting records, that’s what comes across clearly over and over again.

Parameshwari Dayal, a trusted member of Varun’s team told Tehelka in its sting what happened in the case of one witness:

There was one witness… the SP called him over and said, are you literate? He said he had done his PhD. He was a literate person. The SP asked him what his pay was; he said 25,000. The SP said, you must have got a good bride. He said, yes. The SP asked him if he loved his wife; he said yes. The SP said, you want to continue loving her or stop loving her? Then go and think about what you have to say in the court. You want to go back home or not? This is how it happened.

Likewise Bharatveer, a long time opponent of Varun Gandhi, also suddenly made a U-turn. His lawyer told Tehelka that the Superintendent of Police called him three times and told him he would be sent to jail on trumped up charges if he did not listen.

The long and short of it is, that in any case why would a witness take the heat if he feels the prosecution is not interested in the case, the government wants to bury it and the police is in cahoots with the government?

It’s worth remembering this is a country is usually remarkably thin-skinned about hate speech and insults to national honour. Cases are routinely filed in court because Sushma Swaraj inadvertently held a flag upside down or Sachin Tendulkar cut a cake depicting the national tricolour. And it is easy to use hate speech as a convenient way to gag all kinds of speech. But the Varun Gandhi case represents the other extreme. It’s not that a court actually judged the content of his speech to determine if it met the criteria of hate speech. It didn’t have to because all 88 witnesses managed to turn hostile.

Now that’s something that has bigger ramifications than whatever political heights Varun Gandhi goes on to scale. And in a country where justice is anyway spotty and slow, it sets a chilling precedent no matter what one believes about the merits of the particular charges against Varun Gandhi.

Read the entire Tehelka sting operation and listen to audio clips here.

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Updated Date: May 17, 2013 15:53:43 IST