Bali Munda cannot forget the 89 days he spent in jail after being “falsely” accused of cow slaughter. Nor can he forget the 21 trips he made from his village to the Khunti district court or the Rs 14,000 he borrowed from relatives to meet legal expenses.
The 63-year-old was acquitted in January this year for lack of evidence and now says he is just fortunate to be alive. But in this Jharkhand district, where police last week arrested three men for lynching 40-year-old Kalantus Barla on suspicion of cow slaughter on September 22, Munda is not alone.
A scrutiny of district court records by The Indian Express found that at least 53 people booked on charges of cow slaughter, or intent to slaughter cows under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, in 16 cases have been acquitted since 2018.
While some acquittals came after courts observed that the alleged cow meat seized was not sent to the FSL, in others, witnesses never appeared before court. In two such cases, Bajrang Dal members were witnesses.
Munda was assaulted by cow vigilantes near Jaltanda Bazaar in Khunti in August 2017 and arrested soon after. Two years later, Barla was killed, and two others injured, by a mob in Suari village, barely 8 km from where Munda was attacked.
“I can imagine what happens when a mob attacks… Bajrang Dal members slapped me and handed me to police. I am fortunate to be alive,” he said.
Consider some of the acquittals.
Case: August 23, 2013, at Khunti police station
FIR: Four men accused of cow smuggling.
Verdict – September 27, 2018: Court said no witnesses were presented and noted that it issued summons and warrants and also wrote to SP Khunti but the prosecution neither presented any witness nor proved documentary evidence. Judge Tarun Kumar ruled there was no evidence against the accused.
Case: September 26, 2013, at Torpa police station
FIR: Two men accused of transporting cattle for slaughter
Verdict – January 30, 2019: Court said witnesses gave statements based on hearsay which did not have any evidentiary value. Judge Ravi Prakash Tiwary observed that no witness identified the accused and ruled that the prosecution has not been able to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.
Case: December 9, 2016, at Raniya police station
FIR: A police party accused four men of beating a cow. The police found there was no documentary evidence of the ownership of the cow.
Verdict – April 16, 2019: The judge acquitted all four stating that there was no independent witness to support the case.
Case: August 27, 2017, at Karra police station
FIR: One man accused of slaughtering a cow
Verdict – January 29, 2019: Judge Ravi Prakash Tiwary said no witness saw the accused slaughtering the cow and police did not recover meat cutting knives/equipment. The judge said the meat was not sent to the FSL and that the prosecution has been able to prove the allegations beyond “reasonable doubt”.
Case: August 29, 2017, at Khunti police station
FIR: Four men accused of selling a cow for slaughter
Verdict – February 25, 2019: The court said five witnesses turned hostile and others did not know who was part of the crime and had just signed on papers. The court also said that the seized material had not been presented before it and acquitted the accused, saying witnesses did not know who committed the crime.
Case: September 5, 2017, at Murhu police station
FIR: Two accused of possessing cow meat
Verdict – May 25, 2019: The court said that no witness knew whether it was cow meat or not and that the meat was neither sealed nor sent to the FSL. Observing that no independent witnesses were presented, the court said that it raises doubts on whether the incident actually happened. The court said the prosecution has not been able to prove the allegations beyond reasonable doubt and acquitted both accused.
Asked about the acquittals in 16 cases, DIG (Chotanagpur Range) Amol Homkar Venukant said: “I don’t have the judgments or court records with me so I cannot comment on why the acquittals were happening. Once we analyse the records we will set the next course of action.”
He also said that police have arrested “three main conspirators” accused of killing Barla and raids were on to arrest the fourth suspect.
Amit Kumar, Munda’s lawyer, said: “It is seen that people who are running away are caught by the police, sent to jail. The real accused remains at large and therefore, there is no conviction.”
Another lawyer, Ramesh Jaiswal in Khunti district court, representing other accused in similar cases, said: “I have not seen a single conviction in the last few years because there is no evidence being produced before the court. Witnesses don’t turn up, meat is not sent to the FSL. This way, the cases become weak.”
The acquittal, however, has not brought much relief for Munda. “In jail, my health deteriorated, and I have still not recovered. The doctor has advised treatment as soon as possible. Money is also an issue. We have lost respect in the village. It’s all up to God now,” he said.