A Letter From Madhya Pradesh: At Khargone claims tribunal, 12-year-old on trial in riots case

At her one-room house in Khargone’s Anand Nagar, Surajbai Gangle, 70, talks of the April 10 night when she “hardly got any sleep” as communal clashes over a Ram Navmi procession tore through the town. Finally, she says, she got up from her bed to find two teenagers standing outside her home.

“I asked them what they were doing and the boys asked me to go inside, saying I might get injured in the stone pelting… I thought they were my grandsons. But my daughter-in-law Sunita later told me that they were children of our Muslim neighbours, Kalu Khan and Jabir Khan. She had seen them from behind as they were leaving and recognised them,” she says.

Minutes later, three houses belonging to the Gangles — Surajbai’s, her son Subhash’s and grandson Vickey’s — were attacked in the riots that spilled over to their locality.

This became the basis of separate claims, totalling Rs 13.2 lakh, filed by Surajbai, her son Subhash, and grandson Vickey in the Khargone claims tribunal — the first such under the Madhya Pradesh Prevention and Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Act that came into force in January this year.

While Surajbai’s son Subhash, who works with the fire department, has filed a claim of Rs 4.80 lakh accusing nine people of the Khan family, her grandson Vickey, who works as a driver, has filed claims totalling Rs 5.5 lakh accusing nine members of the Khan family. The Khans live about 250 metres from the Gangles.

But it is Surajbai’s claim that has attracted attention — she has filed claims of Rs 2.90 lakh, accusing eight people of looting her house, including Kalu Khan and his 12-year-old son.

The 34 claims cases, including that of the Gangles, taken up for hearing by a Khargone tribunal, which was set up to recover damages in the wake of the April 10 communal clash, offer a window into the workings of the special court — defined by summary trials and the lack of a criminal investigation process to arrive at culpability.

So far, the tribunal has sent notices to 270 accused and passed orders in six of the 34 cases.

Pointing to the lacunae in the law that allows juveniles to be tried for a civil offence when, according to the IPC, they can only be tried by a juvenile board, Ravindra Chhabra, a senior advocate practising at the Madhya Pradesh High court, said that while a minor can be tried as per the Code of Civil Procedure and a notice can be issued in the child’s name, “after the notice is issued, once it’s established that the defendant is a minor, the court should appoint a guardian or ad litem for the purpose of the litigation”.

Shivkumar Mishra, the retired district court judge who presides over the two-member tribunal bench, however, said, “While filing the claim, it cannot be made mandatory for the claimant to specify the age of the accused as it might not always be possible to look at a person and determine his age.”

Sajid Pathan, who represented the accused in the tribunal, points to another “loophole” — while the FIR lodged by Surajbai in the aftermath of the rioting does not mention Kalu or his son, while deposing before the tribunal, Surajbai stated that she had seen the two, besides others, looting her house.

After the 12-year-old was issued a recovery notice of Rs 2.90 lakh based on Surajbai’s application, Kalu moved the Indore High Court for his son’s name to be dropped from the proceedings of the tribunal. The High Court, however, turned down their plea.

At their one-room house, Kalu’s wife, Ranu, says that when the police came to hand over notices to her family members, they were accompanied by Surajbai’s daughter-in-law Sunita. “I told Sunita that my son and husband have nothing to do with the riots. She then told me, ‘Give us the names of those who did it and we will drop their names’.”

The other cases in the tribunal

Among the cases in which the tribunal has passed orders is the one in which it awarded Rs 50,000 for a burn injury to Sawant Mukesh, a resident of Anand Nagar in Khargone.

Mukesh had demanded a compensation of Rs 1 lakh while accusing his neighbours Iqbal and Nisar of attacking him. He also claimed Rs 10,000 for the damage allegedly done to two doors in his house.

Advocate Rajesh Joshi, who defended Iqbal and Nisar in the tribunal, said, “The claims tribunal was set up to decide on compensation for civil matters and especially damage to personal or public property and not for physical injury. An injury is a criminal case that should be heard in a session court and not the claims tribunal.”

In the case of another applicant, Mukhtiyar Khan, the court had to drop the case against three of the 16 people he accused of damaging his house since they were “non-existing”.

Advocate Sudheer Kulkarni, who is contesting Mukhtiyar’s claim, held the court accountable for sending out notices to people who did not exist. “It’s laughable, but the court does not have the resources to scrutinise the claims before accepting them.”

“All cases related to the riots are now reaching the sessions court and are far from reaching any conclusion, but at the same time tribunal is deciding on the matter within three months, how are they equipped to do it?” said Rajendra Joshi, who is defending some of the Muslim accused in the tribunal.

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