After 34 years, accused is declared ‘juvenile’

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Photos: AFP
Photos: AFP

The clock ticks on. It’s thirty minutes past 10 am. “Kosha,” a howl comes from the room number four of additional Sessions court judge, Ramabai Nagar, Kanpur Dehat in Uttar Pradesh. The call, however, receives no response. Neither the defence advocate nor the prosecution counsel and not even ‘ Kosha’, one of the alleged accused in the 1981 Behmai Massacre is anywhere to be seen.

After an hour, arrives Vishwanath, another accused in the case. Tall, dark complexioned, nattily clad in dark grey shirt and trouser with a green sweater on top of it, he is holding a stack of files of his lawyers. Anxiety is writ large on his face. Certainly, after the 23 November 2015 judgement of him being declared a ‘juvenile’ at the time of the crime, the alleged dacoit wants an early disposal of the case.

It’s been 34 years since late Phoolan Devi, also known as ‘woman Robin Hood’ along with her team of dacoits raided a Rajput dominated village, Behmai on 14 February 1981 and gunned down 22 men. The massacre, seen by some as an act of standing upto the caste hierarchies, made her the most worshipped dacoit of the era.

But before she surrendered in 1983, Uttar Pradesh Police made several arrests and encounters after the news of the massacre spread through the ravines into the political corridors. Among the 16 accused against whom chargesheet has been filed in the Kanpur court, is Vishwanath. The list includes Phoolan too but she never appeared in the court as her demand at the time of surrender was to remain in a Madhya Pradesh prison.

Phoolan was incarcerated for more than eleven years while her gang was moved to Kanpur court for trials. In one of her interviews she said, “The others went to Uttar Pradesh and stood trial, in defiance of my orders.”

Today, after three decades of the incident and four years after the first testimony has been recorded in the case, the trial has come down to five people who are alive and two who are absconding. Only one is in jail, almost blind now while the remaining four are out on bail.

Quizzed on his age, Vishwanath says, “My birthday is 1 July 1965. You can calculate.” He says he has been reiterating his age in the court since 2007 when his counsel filed the application claiming he was a juvenile at the time of the crime.

It took eight years for Vishwanath’s counsel to establish this solely on the basis of his high school marksheet and certificate.

Interestingly, if Vishwanath is convicted in the final judgement of the Behmai Massacre, his juvenility will play a key role in reducing his punishment. His case will be transferred to Juvenile Justice Board under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2000.

The prosecution, however, says Vishwanath will be treated like an adult prisoner. “His years of punishment might be less than the other accused but he will have to serve the term in a prison for adults,” says Raju Porwal, additional district government counsel (criminal), Kanpur Dehat.

Meanwhile, the defence lawyer has been alleging that the appellant was nabbed by the police in place of another man named Vishwanath. In the list of 16 accused, against whom chargesheet has been filed, there are two Vishwanaths – one is the appellant Vishwanath alias Krishna Swarup alias Putani, while the other one is Ashok.

However, Porwal in his counter arguments has been claiming if Krishna Swarup was nabbed in place of Ashok, then his name should not have been in the chargesheet.

As per the records, the appellant was arrested on 21 March 1981, almost a month after the massacre. And the same year, on 22 May, he appeared in front of the witnesses and victim’s family for the identification parade. No surprise, witnesses recognised him. Interestingly, the police at that time in their chargesheet have registered Vishwanath’s age as 21.

A question here is why it took the defence counsel so many years to claim their client’s juvenility. “When Vishwanath alias Krishna Swarup mentioned about his education, we decided to file an application,” says Girish Narayan Dubey, defence lawyer.

Citing a ruling by Supreme Court in 2013, Dubey says, “Claim of juvenility may be raised at any stage even after final disposal of the case. As per the ruling the delay in raising the claim of juvenility cannot be a ground of rejection.”