No One Killed Pehlu Khan: How a Shoddy Police Investigation Allowed a Lynch Mob to Get Away with Murder

Social Commentary

No One Killed Pehlu Khan: How a Shoddy Police Investigation Allowed a Lynch Mob to Get Away with Murder

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

It’s been a busy few days for Indian news channels. Thursday was Independence Day, and PM Modi gave his customary address from Delhi’s Red Fort — right on the heels of his much-discussed episode of Man vs Wild with Bear Grylls. The abrogation of Article 370 and the situation on the ground in Kashmir has continued to develop for the past two weeks, and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh today announced that India might revise its “no first strike” nuclear policy. And yet, in the midst of this storm of huge headlines, how did a small district court in Alwar cause a furore that gripped the attention of the nation? 

On Wednesday, the court gave its verdict in the April 2017 Alwar lynching of 55-year-old Pehlu Khan, a cattle farmer who was killed by a mob while transporting his cows from a fair in Jaipur to his village in Haryana. Accompanied by his sons, Khan was in his truck when he was caught by a gang of cow vigilantes who ignored the paperwork he offered, instead dragging him onto the road. They beat the farmer mercilessly and in broad daylight, in a brutal attack that was captured on the camera phones of both the attackers and bystanders. Several other eyewitnesses were also present, including passersby and Khan’s sons. Khan was rushed to hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries. 

Khan’s story didn’t end with his death. The video of the attack spread like wildfire, going viral on social media and forcing the public to reckon with the hate crime against him. Like the horrific 2015 lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri for allegedly consuming beef, the Alwar case came to symbolise an extraordinarily ugly side of rising religious tensions. Over the last few years, increasing reports of lynchings have become a flashpoint in countless debates about law and order and communalism, entering our lexicon as a hot button social issue. The case of Khan, too, seemed to be open-and-shut. So how did the six men accused win an acquittal from the Alwar court? 

The judge in the case cited “benefit of the doubt” — a claim that seems scarcely possible given the mountain of evidence piled up against the accused. Besides a video that showed them in the act of committing the crime, the eyewitness who filmed the incident turned out to be a Delhi constable, who was brought forward to testify and confirm that he had taken the footage. Then, an NDTV sting investigation revealed one of the accused, Vipin Yadav, bragging about his role in beating Khan for one-and-a-half hours. Reporters posing as researchers for the RSS captured Yadav’s confession on video. 

The judge in the case cited “benefit of the doubt” — a claim that seems scarcely possible given the mountain of evidence piled up against the accused.

Little wonder, then, that the judge’s decision to acquit has sparked widespread outrage, leading people to ask, “Who killed Pehlu Khan?” Today, the state government of Rajasthan vowed to launch a fresh probe and appeal to the High Court. Only days ago, Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot announced a new law against mob lynching, under which perpetrators could pay up to 5 lakhs and serve a life term. But the court’s refusal to use their power to convict is only one part of the contentious acquittal. The lion’s share of the blame must lie with the police investigation of the crime. 

The judge’s verdict was based on “serious lacunas” in the police probe. The police failed to complete the required forensic examination of the video, or to validate the owner of the cell phone on which it was recorded. The court therefore refused to allow the video into evidence, scrapping what should have been a key factor in convicting the accused. The NDTV sting video was similarly rejected. Khan’s statement could not be admitted either, as the police had taken it when he was in hospital, and had not obtained a doctor’s certificate to confirm that he was in a fit state to speak. The investigating officer only submitted the statement 16 hours later, in yet another example of the gross negligence that has dogged this case.

It’s not the first time that police incompetence has prevented courts from meting out justice. The infamous, unsolved double murder of 13-year-old Aarushi Talwar and her 45-year-old domestic help Hemraj Banjade was closed in 2017 after a gruelling nine-year investigation could produce no concrete conclusion. Giving their verdict, the court blasted the Noida police and the CBI for shoddy police work, including leaving the crime scene unsecured and misplacing forensic evidence. 

Nor does it seem like a coincidence that the father of a Dalit man who was the victim of an alleged mob lynching in Alwar, died in an apparent suicide yesterday, only one day after the Khan verdict. According to Rattiram Jatav’s family, he took poison after police refused to arrest the accused despite several requests, and was also facing threats to withdraw the complaint. While an investigation into Jatav’s death is still underway, it’s clear that the kind of police negligence we’ve seen in the case of Pehlu Khan is as much a danger to society as any heinous crime.