Acquittals in Mohsin Shaikh Murder Point to the Need for Witness Protection, Says Intervener in Case

Pune Sessions judge S.B. Salunke on Friday acquitted all 21 accused in the case. All the accused are linked to a radical Hindutva outfit called Hindu Rashtra Sena.

Mumbai: Nine years after a Muslim youth was killed by a raging mob on a busy street in Pune, a sessions court on Friday, January 27, acquitted all 21 persons accused of rioting and participating in his cold-blooded murder. All accused are a part of a radical Hindutva outfit called Hindu Rashtra Sena (HRS). The victim, Mohsin Shaikh, a 24-year-old techie, was killed outside Unnati Nagar Masjid of Hadapsar, Pune on June 2, 2014, when he was returning from the Maghrib Namaaz (evening prayer).

Pune Sessions judge S.B. Salunke on Friday acquitted all accused, including Dhananjay Desai, an HRS leader. Besides being charged for Shaikh’s murder, Desai is also facing several other criminal cases for his diabolic anti-Muslim speeches and actions in the district.

Azhar Tamboli, a human rights activist from Pune and one of the interveners in the trial, said the case fell apart after the prime witnesses in the case failed to stick to their statements. One of the prime witnesses and also a victim of mob rage turned hostile in the case.

Tamboli feels the witnesses can’t be held responsible. “It was for the state to ensure the witnesses felt protected. The accused in this case are all powerful Hindutva leaders and are known for violence. In such a situation, one can’t expect the witnesses to risk their lives once again,” he said.

Shaikh, originally a resident of Solapur, had moved to Pune for work. He was murdered in a riot that had broken out in Pune soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power at the national level and Narendra Modi became prime minister. The attack was allegedly caused due to a few objectionable posts against King Shivaji and Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. Shaikh’s killing had stirred a nationwide furore and the then Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government in the state had promised to handle the case stringently.

The trial, however, faced several hurdles and the accused persons were released on bail only to be indulging in similar communal crimes in the city. In 2019, when Desai was released on bail by the Bombay high court, and strict bail conditions were imposed on him. But as soon as he stepped out of Yerwada central prison, a large contingent of his supporters had descended outside the prison, blocking the road and chanting “Jai Shri Ram” slogans throughout.

The accused named in the case, besides Desai, include Vishal Sutrave, Atul Agam, Ranjit Yadav, Sagar Sutar, Shubham Barde, Dada alias Shekhar Modak, Akash Lashkare, Prashant alias Bala Thorat, Ajay Lalge, Vijay Gambhire, Vicky Khandale, Akshay Sonawane, Ravi Sathe, Akash Kakde, Rohan Bobde, Pratik Sangale, Prasad Pansare, Rahul Kurule, Abhishek Chavan and Mahesh Khot.

The Wire had spoken to Shaikh’s younger brother, Mubeen Shaikh, soon after Desai was released on bail in 2019. Mubeen had said he had lost hope for justice a long time ago. Today, after the verdict, Mubeen switched his mobile phone off, anticipating calls from the media.

Tamboli said Mubeen had been disturbed. “He has lost just so much in the past 10 years. What can he possibly tell the world,” Tamboli said. Within years of Shaikh’s death, his father, Mohammed Sadiq, who was closely following the case, died after a prolonged heart ailment. Shaikh, with his engineering degree and a handsomely paying job, had been taking care of the family. With his death, the family faced financial hardship.

On Shaikh’s death, the state announced compensation to the family. But soon after the incident, the Congress government in Maharashtra fell and the new Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government is unwilling to pay the compensation. The family had to move the Bombay high court for the compensation.

Speaking to The Wire, Tamboli said the case fell apart after the prime witnesses failed to stick to their statements. One of the prime witnesses and also a victim of mob rage turned hostile in the case. This particular witness was also attacked allegedly by the same mob that killed Shaikh. They were both sporting skull caps, a clear giveaway of their religious identity. While Shaikh succumbed to the injuries inflicted on his head with hockey sticks, this witness suffered multiple fractures and injuries to his limbs. The witness had taken shelter in a nearby shop and had seen the accused violently hit Shaikh with hockey sticks.

“But when the witness came to court, he feigned ignorance and simply said he doesn’t recall seeing any faces as it was dark,” Tamboli says. This was contrary to what the witness had told the police soon after the incident, he adds.

Another witness, a person who had accompanied Shaikh to the Masjid and was also attacked by the mob went missing soon after the incident. Shaikh’s family, Tamboli and several human rights activists of Pune had tried hard to trace him. But could not.

Tamboli feels the witnesses can’t be held responsible.

Following the family’s demand, the state government appointed a leader advocate Ujjwal Nikam as a special public prosecutor in the case. But in 2017, he recused himself without offering any explanation. Since then, the case was handled by a local lawyer.

In 2019, Desai was granted bail by Justice Sadhana Jadhav. The same court in 2016 had denied Desai bail under the pretext that he had urged Hindus to “wage war against Muslims on religious grounds.”

“On 19.1.2014, despite the fact that the permission was rejected, Hindu Rashtra Sena held a public meeting and the present applicant delivered a speech by which he had incited feelings of hatred in the minds of Hindus against Muslims. The language was not only ferocious but the applicant had made an unconstitutional speech. The transcript of the said speech is part of the compilation of the chargesheet. The people were urged to wage a war against Muslims on religious grounds. An attempt was being made to create an imbalance in the social harmony of the society,” Justice Jadhav observed in 2016.