When the lynching case of Abhijeet Nath and Nilotpal Das had gone to trial, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. There were many witnesses, the case was expected to be in favour of the victims and pose difficulties for the bail of the attackers. A year on, the trial is still trundling as many witnesses have turned hostile.
On June 7, the Sessions Court in Nagaon permitted the prosecutors to examine the hostile witnesses again but the defence has filed for a review petition against the order.
On June 8, 2018, Abhijeet and Nilotpal had an altercation with a local at Kangthilangso in Karbi Anglong district of Assam. The local, Alphajoz Timung, then allegedly spread a rumour of having spotted a pair of ‘child lifters', and asked the residents of Panjuri Kacharigaon to block the way of one black Sports Utility Vehicle heading towards Guwahati.
The air was rife with rumours of child abductors in the area already, a resident of Panjuri said.
He added that although no child ever went missing, people were alert and ready to catch the lifters if they crossed path. Timung, taking advantage of the fear among villagers, was successful in assembling hundreds quickly, armed with sticks, sickles and axes. They stopped the car at Panjuri, dragged Nilotpal and Abhijeet out and started thrashing them.
Shortly after the incident, the Supreme Court said horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be tolerated and should be curbed with iron hands. The apex court had further said lynching cases should be tried by fast-track courts and preferably concluded in six months.
The police of Dokmoka acted swiftly and arrested 47 men. Special Public Prosecutor Ziaul Kamar and Advocate Bijan Mahajan were appointed to try the case on behalf of the victims' families. The matter was later shifted from Karbi Anglong to Nagaon district by the High Court on request by Advocate Bijan Mahajan to avoid any influence. A chargesheet was filed within 90 days and the first hearing was held on November 8, 2018, in Sessions Court, Nagaon.
After the first hearing, the judge directed the accused to be tried under several sections of the Indian Penal Code including Section 302 for murder, 144 for rioting, 186 for obstructing public servant from performing duty and other sections for theft and having used deadly weapons.
Along with the officer-in-charge of Dokmoka police station, there were several witnesses, mostly villagers who testified before the court that they had witnessed the lynching and could identify some of the accused. David Ingti, a Karbi villager, narrated how the youth were beaten to death and identified one of the primary perpetrators, Timung, who spread the rumour. Two other important witnesses were Ganesh Bordoloi and his cousin Kusha Bordoloi. Kusha Bordoloi revealed that the phone call he received on June 9, 2018, from one Onda Mech, who boasted about killing two boys (child lifters) in their village the previous day.
Even though the case looked strong and identification of 25 accused was done, defence lawyer Manas Sarania did his best to defend his clients. He argued that it was only because of the fear that was prevalent in the village that the villagers attacked the duo and hence they can be tried leniently. Sarania also tried to prove that witnesses were providing statements under massive pressure from the Dokmoka police.
Sarania, who initially had problems with the accused being handcuffed when brought to court, has now filed bail applications for 45 of the accused, the judgement of which is expected to be out soon.
Ankur Saikia, Nilotpal's childhood friend, alleged that the defence lawyers were lengthening the process to avoid frequent hearings and influencing the witnesses in the meantime while also filing bail applications for the accused.
Hostile witnessesThree important witnesses have turned hostile and deviated from their earlier statements. Numol Basumatary, a witness from Panjuri and brother to one of the accused, had earlier stated that he was an eyewitness to the entire incident, identified 12 of the accused and gave a lot of crucial information regarding the incident.
"The witnesses have recorded their statements in front of the Judicial Magistrate and named the majority of the accused. The court is looking into their deviation from their previous statements and verifying, so the argument that they did it under police pressure will hopefully be discarded and their earlier testimonies will be taken which is in our favour," said Ziaul Kamar.
Indranil Barua, Additional Superintendent of Police of Diphu, said: "We have done our best by identifying and arresting the culprits but now because of obvious reasons, the witnesses are changing comments. This is why we had recorded their statements under Section 164 of Code of Criminal Procedure initially."
Ankur Saikia revealed that a few witnesses were approached by the families of the accused, offering bribes.
"Numol Basumatary in the last hearing said he does not recognise anyone who was involved in the murder, but there were gestures and winks exchanged between him and a few accused, which clearly hinted that he wasn't being honest to the court," he said.