It is a case of the judge, jury and executioner (read prosecution) all rolled into one. Three days ago, on February 12, a Muzaffarnagar Additional District Magistrate (ADM) ordered 53 people to pay a total of Rs 23.41 lakh for damage caused to property during an anti-CAA protest on December 20. ADM Amit Singh issued the orders a month after he had issued notices seeking replies from them. Of these 53, as many as 50 had responded to the notices yet these responses were not faily considered it appears.
Firstly, the ADM did not allow the defence (counsel for the accused) to cross-examine the police on explanations and evidence submitted by those asked to pay up. Singh did not even record in detail in his order, the evidence placed on record by the accused. Instead, the ADM’s final executive order only makes a generic sum-up stating that “the accused have refuted all the allegations.
The Devil lies in the details, is a famed principle that informs the law and fair jurisprudence. Authorities from the lower courts to the top echelons of the judiciary are required to pass reasoned orders especially on matters related to fundamental rights and freedoms. This order of the ADM, Muzaffarnagar, does not even give any detail about which accused was involved in the destruction of a particular public property. He simply states that the accused ‘have been held responsible for damage of public property based on CCTV footage and photographs provided by police.’ Was this assessment fair? Did it follow due process? There is nothing in the judicial order to suggest this.
The order records the argument put forward by the accused that “none of them have been named in the FIR” and that “notices make no mention of what are the public properties that have been damaged”. But there is no response from the police on these key discrepancies. The order was passed despite the notices issued last month being challenged before the Supreme Court. On Thursday, the Allahabad High Court stayed similar notices issued in Kanpur on the grounds that their legality is being questioned before the Supreme Court.
In his order, ADM Singh states that on January 1, 2020, Civil Lines Police reported that on the basis of CCTV footage, it had found 27 persons indulging in arson, stone-pelting and destruction of public property. However, it does not explain why police added 32 others to that list 10 days later.
ADM Singh did not respond to multiple requests from the media seeking his responses.
Consider some of the key illustrative examples cited by the accused to argue that they did not get a hearing from the ADM:
Among the 53 persons served (and now charged) is a 14-year-old boy who is preparing for his board exams this week. The boy’s father, who runs a kirana (grocery) shop, placed school records before the ADM to prove that his son is a minor. “The FIR makes no mention of my son. But we have been served a notice. We were not allowed to speak to the ADM directly. They only showed us the video inside the court. I told them my son was not present in the video, he is a minor, and that we have placed all documentary evidence. But they just took our signatures and asked us to leave,” the father said. None of this evidence is recorded in the ADM’s order.
Fearful of his freedoms being denied and possible arrest, the 14-year-old has dropped out of the local tutorial class and moved to his grandparents’ residence. “I always go to the mosque near Madina Chowk on Fridays as the namaz there finishes early. When I came out of the mosque that day, I saw police lathi-charging the crowd. I got scared and ran from the spot. I was not part of any protest, nor was I accompanied by anyone to any protest. What is my fault ? Will they allow me to appear for the exams?” asks the boy, adding that he dreams of being a doctor.
Khurshid Teli, 55, is No.42 in the list on the order. Khurshid says he is a labourer with a wood factory in J&K’s Poonch and left Muzaffarnagar on December 7. “I was here to perform the last rites of my wife. I am shocked that police have sent a notice to someone who has been working outside the state for the last one-and-a-half years,” he has told the media adding that he doesn’t have the money to travel back from Poonch to defend himself. The Indian Express has been following the cases of 53 notices being served in the jurisdiction of Muzzafarnagar.
Khurshid’s father Irshad Teli says he submitted evidence before the ADM to show that his son does not stay here and was absent when the protest took place. It includes a train ticket dated December 7, details of his son’s employer Iqbal Enterprises & Sons, and a rental agreement in Poonch between Khurshid and house-owner Abdul Karim. However, the evidence has not been mentioned in the final order.
The father of a 22-year-old, who is undergoing treatment for a mental ailment, is outraged at the penalty imposed on his son. “He has been suffering from illness for the last 10 years. We don’t even allow him to step out because he suffers seizures. How is it even possible that he would be involved in stone-pelting and arson?” asks the father.
“We have filed all the medical documents, including advice given by a consultant psychiatrist from the most reputed hospital in Lucknow. These documents clearly point to the nature of illness. It is shocking that the administration has refused to accept the evidence,” says the lawyer for the 22-year old. None of this evidence has been recorded in the final order passed by the ADM.
Mohammed Shamshad’s son Feroz, who runs a garment shop in Panipat, 80 km away, is among those asked to pay for the damage. “Feroz has been staying in Panipat for more than five years with his wife and two daughters. He came to Muzaffarnagar to submit evidence. He has submitted all documents. He was shown the videos, and it was clear that he was not present in them. It is shocking that despite pointing out these discrepancies, my son is being targeted. We will challenge the order,” says Shamshad, a social activist.
“The copy of the CCTV footage has not been given to us. If they have found us, they should make the footage public,” says Shamshad. The family is waiting to get a copy of the ADM’s final order.