New Delhi: Fourteen years after a young business executive, Nitish Katara, was murdered by the brother and cousin of his friend Bharati Yadav, daughter of politician and former MP D.P. Yadav, the Supreme Court on Monday sentenced both of them to 25 years in prison without remission. The order has finally provided closure to the victim’s mother, Neelam Katara.
Pronouncing the sentence, the apex court noted that it had the power to impose such “special sentences”. This order of the bench comprising of Justices Dipak Misra and C. Nagappan also set to rest all speculations about whether the convicts would be able to come out of jail early using their political clout, as now they cannot be released before serving 25 years each.
The bench, however, also modified the high court order which had given an additional five years sentence to both brothers for the destruction of evidence by stating that all the sentences shall run concurrently. This effectively means that rather than the 30-year sentence to the two ordered by the high court, the Supreme Court has in its ruling demanded that they serve 25 years each.
Nitish was abducted and murdered by the convicts as they did not like his proximity to their sister. His body was burnt to hide his identity.
The Supreme Court, which had on August 17 stated that it was a “very well planned” murder, also ordered that the third convict, Sukhdev Pehelwan, be imprisoned for 20 years.
The order has been welcomed by both Neelam, who battled the powerful accused despite allegedly facing repeated threats and intimidation, and senior Supreme Court advocate Kamini Jaiswal, who stood solidly besides Neelam and even had the case transferred to Delhi as it was feared that the borthers’ politician father would be able to influence proceedings in Uttar Pradesh.
Worse than death?
Talking to The Wire, Jaiswal hailed the Supreme Court order. “It is life imprisonment, but what they have said is 25 years without remission. That means in any case it will be 25 years. In every other case after 14 years the government can release you. There is the power to grant pardon. The remissions are there. Every year in custody you get remission of about 30 days. So the 14 years actually become less than 13 years. But here they will have to be in jail for actual 25 years. Nobody can do anything to reduce the term now.”
Jaiswal, who is known for her stand against the death penalty, said, “I am totally against death sentence and I think life term means life and 25 years of actual custody is definitely more painful for a living being than to get exonerated after death. Death is a momentary thing. I believe that 25 years of incarceration is actually worse than death.”
As for this case serving as a deterrent in honour killing cases in general, the senior advocate said, “This was not the first and last honour killing case. Honour killings are going on rampantly. And it (death sentence) could have been a good deterrent but even 25 years should be a good deterrent. If for an honour killing gets you 25 years in jail without remission, I think it is a good deterrent for others.”
Jaiswal said her stand against the death penalty was not without reason. “I feel the state does not have the power to take anybody’s life. You can’t take what you can’t give. Though my client had asked for the death sentence, I have my very firm opinion on death sentence. But since death sentence is there on the statute books, this was the case – especially after the courts had found that this was honour killing – that a death sentence could have sent a good message to society.”
Jaiswal also explained that the sentence could have been even more. “Judgments of Supreme Court say life means life. Maru Ram onwards they have said this. It is in exceptional circumstances that you get remission. Because of his (D.P. Yadav’s) political clout, people were worried that they will manage to get out of jail fast. But that is what the Supreme Court has fixed in this case. Now there is no coming out before 25 years.”
A long journey
As for Neelam, Jaiswal said she was glad that “there is some closure for her”. “For the last 14 years she has been running to court for every single hearing, every single parole application, every single bail application. She has attended the courts diligently. Hats off to that lady. She has really been very brave all through. Despite all the intimidations in courts, despite all the threats, she has stood firm. It was only recently that the threats stopped after the father (D.P. Yadav) himself went to jail in another murder case.”
For her part, Neelam hoped that the judgment would prove a deterrent against and prevent “honour killings”. She also called for a law to expedite such cases of honour killing.
Talking to the media about the judgment, Neelam said, “Now I feel that I have got supreme justice. Since they have been sentenced to 25 years in jail, so somewhere it is clear that this is not an ordinary murder. Even the court had agreed to this.”
On whether she felt fatigued or relieved after the prolonged legal battle of 14 years, Neelam said she would have been satisfied had the brothers had been ordered to spend their entire life behind bars. “Even otherwise, I am satisfied with the order of the Supreme Court and yes, there is some sense of gratification after this long battle.”
Neelam said a stronger message would have gone out had then convicts been sentenced to death or a life in prison. “But,” she said, “when all the arguments were placed before the Supreme Court and it has pronounced a 25 year sentence then it is quite clear that this was a case of barbaric murder.”
Neelam, who continued to keep the pressure on the judiciary through the course of the trial and repeatedly protested bails and hospital stays which the Yadavs sought to stay out of prison, said the last 14 years had been very difficult and painful. “Such a fight is not easy for any ordinary person. When your opponents are really powerful and resourceful then such a fight becomes all the more difficult. But I did not budge and never felt scared.”
Recalling the horrific day when her son was murdered, she said when she had gone to identify his partially burnt body, she had identified it immediately. “For a moment, everything seemed to have ended but then I regained my composure and asked where will the DNA test of the body take place. At this everyone began looking towards me. Rather than breaking down I resolved to fight for justice for my son and that became the motive of my life. It was that determination which saw me through. Some divine power got into me and my fears and apprehensions also went away.”
Neelam said she was also threatened several times during the course of the trial. “Sometimes, there were calls, other times letters. The threats were both covert and overt but they never had an impact on me and that is why I managed to keep fighting all these 14 years for justice.”
During the course of the trial and while protesting the repeated visits of Vishal and Vikas to hospitals during their stay in jail, she had also raised the issue of providing adequate medical facilities in jails across the country. She had also spoken repeatedly about how criminalisation of politics should be brought to an end and it should be ensured that those with criminal antecedents were not elected to parliament or other elected bodies.