Have you ever heard of a trial in a criminal case being conducted through instant messaging app WhatsApp?
Bizzare, but true.
This peculiar case has reached the Supreme Court, which was left wondering as to how this kind of a “joke” was allowed to happen in a court of law in India.
The case, involving a former minister of Jharkhand and his MLA wife, saw the lower court judge in Hazaribagh putting these accused on trial by pronouncing the order framing charges against them through a 'WhatsApp' call.
Former Jharkhand minister Yogendra Sao and his wife Nirmala Devi, who are accused in a rioting case of 2016, were granted bail last year by the top court which had imposed a condition that they shall stay in Bhopal and not enter Jharkhand except for attending the court proceedings.
Both the accused have now told the apex court that the trial judge had on April 19 this year framed charges against them through a 'WhatsApp' call despite their objections to it.
A bench comprising Justices S.A. Bobde and L.N. Rao took serious note of the submissions and said, “What is happening in Jharkhand. This process cannot be allowed, and we cannot allow administration of justice to be brought into disrepute.”
“We are here on the way of trial being conducted through WhatsApp. This can not be done. What kind of a trial is this? Is this a kind of joke?” the bench asked the counsel appearing for Jharkhand.
The bench issued notice to Jharkhand on the plea by both the accused, who have sought transfer of their cases from Hazaribagh to New Delhi, and asked the state to respond to it within two weeks.
Jharkhand's counsel told the top court that Sao has been violating the bail condition and had been out of Bhopal most of the time due to which proceedings in the case were delayed.
To this, the bench observed, “That is a different thing. If you have a problem with violation of bail conditions by the accused, you can file a separate application seeking cancellation of bail. We make it clear that we have no sympathy with those who have violated bail condition.”
Senior advocate Vivek Tankha, appearing for the couple, said that the accused were granted bail on December 15, 2017 by the apex court in the case and they were directed to stay in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh as a bail condition.
“The trial was directed to be conducted through video conferencing from district court in Bhopal and district court in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand,” he said.
Tankha said that video conferencing connectivity was most of the times “very low” in Bhopal and Hazaribagh district courts and the April 19 order was pronounced by the trial judge through 'WhatsApp' call.
The bench asked Tankha as to how many cases were pending against both the accused.
Tankha said that 21 cases were pending against Sao, while nine cases were pending against his wife.
“They are both politicians and have led various protests against land acquisition done by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) in Jharkhand and most of these cases relate to those agitations,” he said.
Tankha said that since both the them were lawmakers at the time of filing of these cases, the trial in these matters should be transferred to the special court in Delhi which is exclusively dealing with cases involving politicians.
Both Devi and Sao were accused in the case relating to violent clashes between villagers and police in 2016 in which four persons were killed. Sao had become a minister in the Hemant Soren government in August 2013.
According to police, Devi had led an agitation against NTPC authorities for their alleged attempt to forcefully evacuate villagers from Barkagaon without giving them due compensation or rehabilitation.