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The Niyogi Trial



The courts’ failure to convict those behind Shankar Guha Niyogi’s murder must be redressed, urges Bharat Dogra

Man of Iron: Niyogi was one of the most well-beloved leaders of working-class India
Photos: Bharat Dogra
The Supreme Court did not alter the High Court judgement much. The assassin got a prison sentence, while the influential persons were let off
Recent judicial decisions to award punishment to high-profile criminals have done much to strengthen public confidence that powerful persons are not above the law and will be held as accountable for violating it as less-influential citizens. Still, the sense remains that such decisions generally relate to crimes in which the upper and middle classes feel themselves affected. The sense of faith in the criminal justice system is considerably less buoyant among India’s workers, especially when, in case after case, not only ordinary workers, but even leaders with a wide following have been attacked or even killed, and the criminals responsible have gone unpunished.

This is certainly the perception among a wide cross-section of workers in Chhattisgarh over the murder of Shankar Guha Niyogi, one of the most well-beloved leaders of working-class India and a legend in his lifetime. Under Niyogi’s leadership, over 8,000 iron-ore miners of Dalli Rajhara in Durg district not only improved their working and living conditions but also participated in a wide range of socially constructive activities, including an anti-liquor campaign, an expanded health programme and the building of a hospital called the Shaheed Hospital, which now has 100 beds. Niyogi also linked the workers’ struggles with peasants’ movements in neighbouring villages, including an inspiring effort for the release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers on the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court.

Niyogi’s work inevitably earned him the hostility of those he challenged; his life came under increasing threat when he moved from Dalli Rajhara to lead the workers of several industrial units in the Bhilai-Raipur industrial belt. He was shot dead in his sleep on September 28, 1991, in a house in the Durg-Bhilai area.

The attack was widely condemned across the country. Amid rising protest, the case was handed over to the CBI. Initial investigations implicated nine persons in the murder, including two industrialists belonging to the Simplex Group.

In June 1997, after a six-year trial in Chhattisgarh’s Durg district, a sessions court handed the death penalty to the hired assassin and awarded life imprisonment to five others, including the two industrialists.

In remembrance: A memorial to Niyogi at Dalli Rajhara
This judgement was widely welcomed, but the convicted persons went on appeal to the High Court. Those who closely followed the case say the evidence mobilised against the accused in the High Court trial was even more impressive than it had previously been. The workers’ movement was therefore taken aback when in June 1998 the High Court delivered a highly controversial judgement in which the accused in the case were exonerated for lack of evidence.

Following this, the CBI and the Madhya Pradesh (later Chhattisgarh) government filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha and Niyogi’s wife, Asha, also filed petitions in the Supreme Court.

However the Supreme Court ruling did not substantially alter the High Court judgement. While the hired assassin was given a prison sentence, the influential persons, including the two industrialists, were let off.

There is a widespread feeling in Chhattisgarh and more generally in working-class circles that the Niyogi case needs to be reopened as the available evidence accepted by the sessions court is quite strong. Moreover, the sessions court examined the evidence in great detail, and its judgement is not one that can be easily brushed aside.

It will be in the interests of protecting the citizenry’s faith in justice if the case were re-opened and all evidence relating to it were examined without fear or favour to ensure that those guilty of planning Shankar Guha Niyogi’s murder — and not just the hired assassin — get exemplary punishment.

Mar 10 , 2007

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