NO ONE KILLED PEHLU KHAN?
In the August 14 acquittal of six men charged with the 2017 lynching of Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer from Haryana, Alwar additional district and sessions judge Sarita Swami condemned the police probe as shoddy. While the judge found that a forensic report had upheld the genuineness of the video of the attack on Khan, she said one of the investigating officers claimed the video had never been sent for such a test. Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, whose Congress government took over from the BJP in December 2018, has said a special investigation team (SIT) will be formed to examine
and correct lapses. Khan’s son Irshad said his family was in shock but determined to see the process through to a higher court. The Gehlot government has also indicated its intention to appeal against the judgment.
For anyone who has been following the investigation, though, the court’s withering review of the police efforts was not a surprise. From the start, the police investigation has been subject to the intense scrutiny of political lobbies, pressure groups and activists. Simultaneous investigations had been launched into Khan’s lynching and the possible smuggling of cattle by him. Khan was stopped on the Jaipur-Delhi highway near Behror in Rajasthan on April 1, 2017, and beaten by a mob that, he said, consisted of as many as 200 people. He was returning to his hometown with cattle he claimed to have legitimately bought at a fair. Among the men allegedly captured on camera participating in the brutal beating was Vipin Yadav, a 19-year-old ‘student leader’. Yadav was not named in the original first information report (FIR) in which Khan, lying bloodied and beaten in hospital, named six of the mob. All of those six were cleared by the police in September 2017
because cellphone data apparently showed they were not at the scene.
Police investigators told the media it was a surprise Khan had named six people given that he was unfamiliar with the area and the mob. The court refused to frame charges against these six men, whom Khan’s sons and other witnesses did not name in their statements a day after the mob attack. Police filed charges against Khan himself because they could find no evidence that he had purchased the cattle found in his truck, though Khan’s sons claim the papers validating the purchase and transport had been destroyed by the vigilantes.
Two days after the beating, Khan, still in hospital, asked doctors if he could go home. They declined. Hours later, he died. The doctors say he’d had a heart attack and also that he visited a heart specialist in Jaipur on April 1, 2017. The autopsy report, though, pinned the cause of death on internal bleeding from broken ribs; his lungs and chest muscles too were ruptured.
Khan’s death became a national scandal and the police were under pressure to find the guilty. A police officer involved in the early investigations even suggested that “left-wing activists” had “tutored” Khan to name local gau rakshaks thought to be close to the BJP and the RSS. There was also speculation that a police officer added the six names to a blank paper signed by Khan. The court said the police appeared to have made little effort to find out how those names appeared in the FIR. In October 2017, nine people, including Yadav and two minors, were named in the final chargesheet. They were identified through cellphone footage of the incident.
The Alwar court judge said the footage was too grainy to prove absolutely that the men charged by the police were those who beat up Khan. The judge also refused to admit into evidence an undercover video by a TV journalist in which Yadav allegedly boasts about his involvement in the lynching. The mobile phone that supposedly recorded the video was not produced before the court and its alleged owner was declared a hostile witness. The court was sceptical about the prosecution’s procedure, given that the new accused were not put through an identity parade and that Irshad was unable to identify the men in court.
Two years on, Irshad told the court it had become difficult to pick out specific faces. The court rejected the explanation. Also, police said there was no evidence that he and others had been fired at last September while on their way to court. Some observers argue Khan’s case was not helped by activists who appeared more concerned with ideological grandstanding than finding evidence. But most of the blame appears to lie with the investigative authorities and the prosecutors’ inability to present the court with a persuasive case. Now, Khan’s family must rely on the SIT for some semblance of justice. ■
IN WAITING Pehlu Khan’s family at a sit-in protest in New Delhi in the days following his lynching