New Delhi: The defence counsel in the Maruti factory arson and rioting case – in which a general manager Avnish Dev was brutally beaten and was burnt to death – presented significant challenges to the prosecution case at a Gurgaon court on January 23. Following the incident, the Haryana police had later arrested 148 people in connection with it.
Appearing for the accused, senior advocate Rebecca John argued that from dramatically changing the weapons of offence as stated in the FIR, to not being able to prove who started the fire and how a matchbox, cited as evidence, was found completely intact in a burnt down room – the police had done everything to fabricate and embellish the case.
Her arguments also projected the prosecution, which had completed its arguments, in poor light. While 148 workers have been charged in connection with the grievous crime and nine of them are still behind bars, the prosecution has not been able to buttress its allegations with solid evidence.
Apart from John, two more advocates, Vrinda Grover and R.S. Cheema, are part of the defence team. Talking about the case, Grover said “The main foundation of the prosecution case were dislodged today by the arguments of Rebecca John. She opened the arguments on behalf of the defence. Basically it was shown how the entire case has been fabricated and evidence is completely missing in order to implicate these large number of workers.”
Change in weapons of offence
To begin with, Grover said “The First Information Report itself speaks about certain kinds of weapons like birja, lathi, danda and when the witnesses come to the court to depose they all start speaking about car-door beams and shockers and there is a dramatic change in weapons of offence – a change for which no explanation has been brought on record by the prosecution. This shows that in the prosecution case, right from the beginning there was an attempt to fabricate and embellish the case.”
No one knows who started the fire
Further, Grover said, the prosecution case is that a fire had broken out and in that, one official had died. “It is a fact that a fire had broken out. What the prosecution has to prove is who lit the fire. On that point the evidence was read in detail and the only conclusion that can be drawn from it is that firstly none of the witnesses saw the fire being lit. They say that when they saw, the fire had already started. They say the main four workers were there. But all the witnesses give different names and none of them say how the fire began.”
Grover said the prosecution has also not been able to establish the kind of inflammable material used. “Was it a matchbox or fuel, none of the witnesses speak about that. So the prosecution case just falls apart because its evidence on this aspect is completely missing.”
The third most important point which was argued today was that while the accused workers are facing a charge of murder, they have only been accused of beating the official on the legs. “Now the death of one person has taken place due to asphyxiation because he died in the fire. None of the witnesses are saying how the fire happened and who lit the fire. What they are saying is that the person who died was beaten by these people on his leg. Now beating somebody on the legs or feet, which is a non-vital part of the body cannot attract the charge of murder. No human being is going to die because of being hit on the leg,” Grover said.
She said if the prosecution case is that the workers hit Dev because they were going to light a fire, then it should “lead evidence saying that they lit the fire. But none of the workers say that.” So the defence argued that “a murder charge is not made out against anybody.”
As for the commission of the crime, Grover said, “yes there was a fire. I don’t know how it started. The prosecution has to prove that. Maybe the management lit the fire. How do we know. Simply if there was a fire, the accused cannot be held responsible for it unless you have the evidence to prove that.”
Allegations of foul play
Grover said the most interesting aspect about the case is the prosecution theory about a match-box. “They have shown that the next morning when the police is investigating, the IO (investigation officer) Om Prakash and the SHO (station house officer) take a photographer and they take photographs but they don’t find anything in a particular room where they say this man has died. His body is charred to death and they have some very gruesome photographs.”
However, the case takes a curious turn thereon. “At 12 noon a Forensic Science Laboratory man comes and he says, ‘I have found the cover of a matchbox in that room’. How interesting, the whole room is burnt, the body of the man is charred beyond recognition but the cover of a matchbox does not burn, even though it is made out of paper, and it is claimed that it was found in the same room. This is beyond any kind of human imagination.”
The defence argued that this shows fabrication of evidence. “Obviously,” Grover said, “it was planted there at some point beyond the fire theory was not holding up and this matchbox then makes an appearance in pristine condition with not a burn mark on it and the forensic man, who claims he saw it, is not produced as a witness. He does not come to the court.”
Lamenting that such “is the nature of evidence on which 148 workers are sought to be implicated for the death of a man and nine of them have been in custody since July 2012”, she added that “this is simply because Maruti company said a very serious incident and rioting had happened on the premises. Yes it happened, but who did it. Just because something has happened people cannot be punished without proper evidence.”
The defence arguments in the case would continue over the next two days. The prosection had argued the matter earlier, on five days, beginning on December 9 and concluding on January 10.
While as of now nine workers have been in jail without bail for the last four and a half years, two others have been behind bars for over two years. These arrested persons include union leader Ram Meher and Jiyalal, a Dalit worker from Narwana, who is among the ‘main accused’. In all, 216 workers are awaiting the judgment in the case.
Some of the workers, like Satish, believe that state is deliberately targeting them. “It does not feel like we are talking of legal arguments,” but, he said, it rather feels that the outcome of the case was a foregone conclusion.
They have also questioned the active role of Maruti in the case. For instance, they said when the application moved on December 21 when Ram Meher vs State of Haryana was being argued by a special public prosecutor, Maruti’s legal cell representative, Vikas Pahwa, who can only assist, also argued the matter and the sitting judge did not object to it.
The workers are also suspicious of how they were arrested on the basis of an alphabetical list that was allegedly provided to the police. Moreover, they have claimed that while no one had identified the accused, in the case of one Satbir, no one had named him and yet he was charged.
The prosecution case
The Supreme Court had, in an order in the case of State of Haryana versus Ram Meher and others, in August 2016, stated the facts in brief.
“The prosecution case before the trial court is that on July 18, 2012 about 7 pm the accused persons being armed with door beams and shockers went upstairs inside M1 room of the Manesar factory of Maruti Suzuki Limited, smashed the glass walls of the conference room and threw chairs and table tops towards the management officials, surrounded the conference hall from all sides and blocked both the staircases and gave threats of doing away with the lives of the officials present over there.”
It had added: “As the allegations of the prosecution further unfurl, the exhortation continued for quite a length of time. All kind of attempts were made to burn alive the officials of the management. During this pandemonium, the entire office was set on fire by the accused persons and the effort by the officials to escape became an exercise in futility as the accused persons had blocked the staircases. The police officials who arrived at the spot to control the situation were assaulted by the workers and they were obstructed from going upstairs to save the officials. Despite the obstruction, the officials were saved by the police and the fire was brought under control by the fire brigade.”
The court further observed: “In the incident where chaos was the sovereign, Mr Avnish Dev, general manager, human resources of the company was burnt alive. The said occurrence led to lodging of FIR No. 184/2012 at police station Manesar. After completion of the investigation, the police filed charge sheet against 148 workers in respect of various offences before the competent court which, in turn, committed the matter to the court of session and during trial the accused persons were charged for the offences punishable under Sections 147/ 148/ 149/ 452/ 302/ 307/ 436/ 323/ 332/ 353/ 427/ 114/ 201/ 120B/ 34/ 325/ 381 & 382 IPC.”