'My brother's murder was a contract killing'
Ramprasad Gupta tells MiD DAY about the twists on the way to haul Lakhan Bhaiya's killers to trial, and how the lawyer and journalistic fraternity shunned him in his fight to bring the accused cops to justice
On the day court absolved dismissed cop Pradeep Sharma of all the charges in the controversial encounter of Lakhan Bhaiya, MiD DAY speaks with the man pivotal in bringing the case to trial and securing convictions for the accused, 14 of whom are cops.
Ramprasad Gupta, brother of Ramnarayan Gupta alias Lakhan Bhaiya, is a lawyer by profession. He first filed a criminal writ petition in the Bombay High Court in 2006, days after Bhaiya’s killing, and had an FIR registered against the encounter specialist Sharma and other senior police officers.
In an exclusive interview with MiD DAY, given shortly before the judgment exonerating Sharma but holding 21 others guilty, Gupta relates the personal and legal travails that came before the trial, the aversion he had to face from his own fraternity as well as the media, and the onerous fight that lies ahead.
But he says he’s poised to see the case to its just end, all the way up till the Supreme Court, so it may set an example for such cases in the future.
Excerpts from the interview:
I think of the case as a good achievement. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but it was largely a single-handed effort. Normally in cases of police atrocities, nothing ever happens. But here I filed a criminal writ petition on the basis of which an FIR was registered and the case was eventually brought to trial.
I’m satisfied, though, that after the Supreme Court rejected the accused’s bail plea and observed in the bail order that policemen responsible for encounter killings should be hanged, there have been no encounter killings in Maharashtra.
The Khwaja Yunus case pre-dates mine, and I observed its developments very closely, which helped me prepare for this case. Yet the trial there has not even started yet. Bringing my brother’s case to trial took time, but it got done. It is unprecedented. I have no doubt I will have to fight this case all the way up to the Supreme Court, in which case it will become a precedent for other such cases in future.
The sessions court bar association, of which I used to be a committee member, has supported Rizwan [Merchant] after he tragically lost three members of his family (in the Aftab Manzil building collapse in Mahim on June 10). My deepest sympathies are with him, but no one intended that the building should cave in. My brother’s murder was deliberate. Yet the bar association shunned me, and I received no support from any members. On the contrary, senior lawyers appeared in the trial against me, on behalf of the accused police officers.
The media, too, abandoned me. These encounter specialists were great heroes for them. There were around 20 media persons who knew of the murder. Yet none of them came forward. The only journalist we examined during the trial turned hostile. If the media is so keen on reporting the truth, why not back the truth up in court?
The biggest hardship I faced was having to give up my own matters to concentrate on this trial, which was being held day-to-day. It took up so much of my time that I went through serious financial difficulties. Apart from that, one of my witnesses, Anil Bheda, was murdered during the course of the trial. My brother did have a criminal background. But he was a loving person, who enjoyed cricket and Bollywood songs. His murder was nothing but a contract killing.
Nov 11, 2006: As per defence’s version, Lakhan Bhaiya arrives at Nana-nani park, Versova in an auto. Cops waiting for him ask him to surrender. Instead, Lakhan opens fire on police and is killed in the returned fire. Lakhan had multiple criminal cases against him, and encounter was carried out acting on tip-off received by police. On the other hand, lawyer Ramprasad Gupta, Lakhan’s brother, alleges that he and Anil Bheda were picked up earlier that day by cops and senior IPS officers were informed that their (Lakhan and Anil’s) lives were in danger.
Nov 16, 2006: Ramprasad Gupta files criminal writ petition in Bombay high court seeking high-level probe into his brother’s death. He then files a petition before National Human Rights Commission.
Nov 22, 2006: Gupta urges for his brother’s viscera to be preserved, a request the court declines as it is a case of death by firearm, not poison. Lakhan’s body is handed over to Gupta the same evening by JJ Hospital.
Dec 7, 2006: NHRC asks DG (Investigation) to collect facts of the case and directs Commissioner of Police, Mumbai to conduct a detailed inquiry within four weeks.
Feb 8, 2007: Taking into account NHRC’s extensive powers, high court requests it to complete probe within four months.
July 20, 2007: High court comes down heavily on investigating officer in the case for appearing in court without case papers.
Aug 17, 2007: Magisterial inquiry commences into the death. After sub-divisional magistrate tasked with the probe drags his feet, court summons him personally and issues contempt notice.
Oct 4, 2007: Magistrate assures court that inquiry would be completed within three weeks.
Feb 13, 2008: High court observes that executive magistrate’s report has failed to inquire into certain aspects of the case, such as the gun supposedly used by Lakhan Bhaiya, and whether he was killed while already in police custody. In particular, there was the fact that police commissioners of Thane, Mumbai and Belapur had been made aware by telegram that Lakhan and Anil Bheda had been picked up before their ‘encounter’. “Unexplained silence on part of the police authorities in relation to the grievance made in the telegrams to our mind, is sufficient to raise reasonable doubt about the conduct of the police authorities in relation to the contention regarding the alleged encounter,” the court observed.
Jan 23, 2009: Inspector Nitin Sartape, an accused in the case, intervenes in Gupta’s petition against ongoing magisterial inquiry. Petition is rejected in August that year after court observes that an FIR had already been ordered to be registered on the basis of Gupta’s petition.
Aug 11, 2009: Metropolitan magistrate, railway mobile court, Andheri, finishes inquiry and concludes that Lakhan died in police custody.
Aug 13, 2009: Court had asked prosecution to submit names for a panel after consulting office of director-general of police, Maharashtra, so that one of them could be appointed as investigating officer (IO) and head of a special investigation team (SIT) the court intended to constitute. Accordingly, KMM Prasanna, then a DCP, is chosen. He in turn is allowed to handpick a few officers to examine the case. The team periodically submits progress reports of investigation to court.
Sept 10, 2009: With assistance of high court, SIT gains access to call records of certain persons involved in the case.
Jan 4, 2010: High Court directs Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL), Kalina to expeditiously conduct lie detector tests on the complainant and three witnesses, as required by SIT.
Jan 7, 2010: Pradeep Sharma arrested. SIT eventually apprehends 21 other accused -- six police officers, seven constables and eight civilians. Several cops accused in the case were absconding, and were eventually suspended.
Feb 8, 2010: A gag order is placed on media from displaying pictures of the accused, so as not to prejudice the identification parade.
April 3, 2010: A chargesheet is filed in the case. Police later file additional, supplementary chargesheets.
July 5, 2010: High court orders disciplinary action to be initiated against seven absconding police officers.
Sept 20, 2010: Original criminal writ petition filed by Gupta in 2006 disposed of, after court observes a crackdown is ongoing against remaining accused in the case. Gupta granted liberty of reviving petition if he sees fit.
May 13, 2011: While rejecting bail applications of the tainted cops, Supreme Court observes, “Encounter philosophy is a criminal philosophy, and all people must know this. Trigger-happy policemen who think they can kill people in the name of encounter and get away with it should know that the gallows await them.”
June 26, 2012: As trial drags on, high court, while hearing bail application of one accused, orders registry to relieve judge hearing the case of all other matters before him. On June 11, it had already ordered the trial to be conducted on day-to-day basis.
March 8, 2013: Judge VD Jadhavar, seventh judge hearing the trial, receives transfer orders. By this time, judgment is under dictation, a task, which ultimately takes from April to July. Judge Jadhavar eventually allowed to complete the mammoth task of dictating the judgment.