For the third time in recent weeks, the Supreme Court expressed its dissatisfaction with the handling of the case involving farmers run over in Lakhimpur Kheri last month, allegedly by Union Minister Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish Mishra. “We don’t want to add to political overtones. Let a retired (High Court) judge oversee (the case),” Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said, berating the Uttar Pradesh government over poor progress in the investigation.
“It is not going the way we expected,” the Chief Justice said.
“There is nothing in the status report except saying that some more witnesses examined. We gave 10 days. The lab reports also have not come. It’s not going the way we expected,” the Chief Justice said. The Supreme Court had asked the Yogi Adityanath government to list in a status report how many had been arrested and on what charges.
The judges also said it appeared that two overlapping FIRs in the case were only aimed at protecting the accused, Ashish Mishra, and that the investigations were not kept separate as they should be.
A total of eight people were killed on October 3 on Lakhimpur Kheri. After the killing of farmers, more were killed in the violence that erupted afterwards. The Supreme Court, on the complaint of the families of BJP workers killed in the violence, asked the UP government for a separate report on the killing of four more persons, including a journalist.
Ashish Mishra was arrested on October 11, three days after the Supreme Court expressed dissatisfaction with the Uttar Pradesh government’s progress in the case.
Justice Surya Kant said: “We are sorry to say that prima facie it appears that one particular accused is being given benefits by overlapping two FIRs.”
The Chief Justice said the two FIRs had to be investigated separately.
“One set of murder is of farmers, then there is journalist and there are political workers. There are statements of witnesses that have been recorded that seem to favour the main accused,” said Justice Surya Kant.
He added that it was being said “there are two FIRs and the evidence collected in one FIR will be used in another”.
Harish Salve, representing the Uttar Pradesh government, told the judges that while the attempt was to investigate the FIRs separately, “sometimes witnesses are called to talk about one FIR but started talking about incidents of the second FIR.” He also said the overlap was because of confusion over journalist Raman Kashyap, who was killed that day- whether he was part of Ashish Mishra’s team or not.
“To ensure that evidence of the two FIRs has to be recorded separately, we are inclined to appoint a former judge of a different High Court to monitor day-to-day investigation. We don’t want the judge from your state government’s end,” Justice Surya Kant said, sharply.
In the previous hearing, the Supreme Court had questioned why there were “only 23 eyewitnesses” to the violence on October 3, and had ordered UP to gather more witnesses and give them protection. The UP government was also told earlier by the judges to “dispel the feeling that you are dragging your feet” on the case.
Ashish Mishra is accused of running over four farmers during a protest on October 3. Multiple videos show an SUV ramming a group of farmers from behind.
The judges asked how many mobile phones had been identified at the spot on the day.
“You identified only one accused’s phone. What about the others? Only Ashish Mishra,” Justice Hima Kohli questioned.
“Are you saying none of the other accused had their phones on them?”
Harish Salve replied: “There are eyewitnesses. There is clinching proof that these accused were at incident site. Through CCTV footage.”