An accused should not be incarcerated for an indefinite period unless he is proven to be guilty of an offence, the Supreme Court said on Thursday while hearing the bail plea of Union Minister Ajay Kumar Mishra's son, who is one of the accused in the Lakhimpur Kheri violence case.
The top court said the worst victims in the case are those farmers languishing in jail and if Ashish Mishra is not granted anything, then they are also likely to remain in jail.
Reserving its order on the bail plea, a bench of Justice Surya Kant and Justice J K Maheshwari said it is a case of balancing the rights of the parties.
On October 3, 2021, eight people were killed in Lakhimpur Kheri district's Tikunia in a violence that erupted when farmers were protesting then Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya's visit to the area.
According to Uttar Pradesh Police FIR, four farmers were mowed down by an SUV, in which Ashish Mishra was seated. Following the incident, a driver and two Bharatiya Janata Party workers were allegedly lynched by angry farmers. A journalist also died in the violence.
"The state has a right to ensure there is a fair trial uninfluenced by extraneous circumstances. The state has a right because society has a lot of stakes involved. The accused has a right that unless he is proven to be guilty of the offence, he should not be incarcerated for an indefinite period.
"To us, this is not one petitioner before us. My principle has been for the last 19 years that I never see the victim who is before me, I also see the victims who cannot come to court and they are the worst victims. You want us to open our mouths. The worst victims are those farmers who are also languishing in jail. Who is going to look after them? If this man is not granted anything, then nobody is going to grant them. They will remain in jail for times to come. The trial court has already rejected their bail," Justice Kant observed orally.
Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for those opposing the bail plea, said he was surprised and disappointed at this comparison by the court.
The top court said this is a case which requires further monitoring by this court and it was inclined to do that.
"We will keep this case pending till the witnesses are examined. We cannot build pressure on the trial court and it will be unfair to order day-to-day trial also," the bench said.
The apex court heard submissions from Additional Advocate General for Uttar Pradesh Garima Prashad, and senior advocates Mukul Rohatgi and Dushyant Dave. "We will pass orders," the bench said.
Opposing the bail plea, Prashad told the top court that the crime was grave.
"It is a grave and heinous crime and (granting bail) will send a wrong signal to society," she said.
Dave said granting bail will send a terrible message to society.
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Mishra, strongly opposed Dave's submission and submitted that his client has been in custody for more than a year and the way the trial is going, it will take seven to eight years to complete it.
He said that Jagjeet Singh, who is the complainant in the case, is not an eyewitness and his complaint is just based on hearsay.
"Jagjit Singh is the complainant and he is not an eyewitness. I am surprised that when there is a large number of people saying we ran over people mercilessly, an FIR is registered on the version of a person who is not an eyewitness?" Rohatgi, appearing for Mishra, said.
"My client got bail in the first instance. This is not a cock and bull story and there is truth in my story," Rohatgi said, adding that his client is not a criminal and there are no past records.
On December 6 last year, a trial court had framed charges against Ashish Mishra and 12 others for the alleged offences of murder, criminal conspiracy and others in the case of death of the protesting farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri, paving the way for the start of the trial.
A total of 13 accused, including Ashish Mishra, have been charged under IPC sections 147 and 148 related to rioting, 149 (unlawful assembly), 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 326 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means), 427 (mischief) and 120B (punishment for criminal conspiracy), and section 177 of the Motor Vehicle Act.
The other 12 accused are Ankit Das, Nandan Singh Bisht, Latif Kale, Satyam alias Satya Prakash Tripathi, Shekhar Bharti, Sumit Jaiswal, Ashish Pandey, Lavkush Rana, Shishu Pal, Ullas Kumar alias Mohit Trivedi, Rinku Rana and Dharmendra Banjara. All of them are in jail.
While hearing the matter on December 12 last year, the apex court had asked the state government, which opposed the bail plea of Ashish Mishra terming the offence "very grave", to file an affidavit concerning the status of the case lodged over the killing of three occupants of the SUV.