In October 2013, 17-year-old Sabir Ali left his home in Chhagelia village in Kishan Ganj district, Bihar, to look for work in Punjab. Ali and his friend Mohammed Jamal were two of twenty men who were, like many before them, looking for jobs as agricultural labourers. A thriving agricultural economy, Punjab has been host to a large number of migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for several decades now. The two young men soon found employment with Harkishan Singh, a local landowner, near Chhokran village, in the Shahid Bhagat Singh (SBS) Nagar district. They were also allowed to stay inside the tubewells, or “motors” located around Singh’s fields—a common practice for migrant labourers in Punjab.
On the morning of 22 December 2013, at around 10:30 am, Ali and Jamal left on their cycles for the market at Rahon, about four kilometres away. As Ali emerged from the fields through a mudpath that met a link road, he collided with a white Skoda Octavia. He suffered a head injury. Ravinder Singh—a 28-year-old, and at the time of the accident, the sole occupant of the car—drove Ali and Jamal to Raja hospital in Nawanshahr, another village about eight kilometres from the spot. Ali died on the way.
Ali’s case was brought to my attention in August this year by Mayank Aggarwal, a Delhi-based lawyer, who had taken this case up pro bono in February 2014. Aggarwal provided me with copies of the police records. These included two written statements, dated 22 December 2013—the day of the accident—one signed by Jamal, and another by a second eyewitness, Gurcharan Singh, a local land owner who happened to be at his fields along the road at the time of the accident. In his statement, Jamal had identified himself to the police as Ali’s cousin. Both statements stated that the accident was entirely Ali’s fault since he “moved on to... [the] road without looking left and right side [sic].” This account detailed in the statement was repeated throughout the police records, including the investigation and death reports.
A joint statement signed by several witnesses, also dated 22 December 2013, concluded: “Car driver Ravinder Singh has [sic] no mistake and we have neither any doubt in the death of Sabir Alam [sic], nor we wish to initiate action in this regard.” The statement contained 11 signatures, one of which was Jamal’s, and one thumb impression. The other signatures belonged to Harkishan Singh—Jamal and Ali’s employer—Gurcharan Singh, two other migrant workers employed by Harkishan Singh and seven other locals. Three of these locals were from the same village as Ravinder,Kang. No first information report was filed for Ali’s death.
“The police did a basic enquiry and made a report of unnatural sudden death under section 174 of CrPC [Code of Criminal Procedure], since according to them there was no negligence attributable to the driver,” Aggarwal explained to me. Section 174 of the CrPC states that should the police find that a person “has committed suicide, or has been killed by another or by an animal or by machinery or by an accident, or has died under circumstances raising a reasonable suspicion that some other person has committed an offence,” the police officer must inform a magistrate. The officer can then conduct a special inquest in the presence of two witnesses, during which he or she must examine the body and file a report noting the apparent cause of death, wounds, marks on the body, and so on. However, Aggarwal claims that the police did not follow the standard operating procedure for an accident case before concluding that Ali’s death was an “unnatural sudden death.” “Section 174 is attracted when the preliminary enquiry conducted by the police does not even reveal allegations of a cognizable crime under IPC,” he told me. “There is [sic] no MLC (medico-legal case) report and blood-alcohol test of the driver, and we have no details regarding his license or insurance. The police did not even impound the car for mechanical inspection which, is mandatory for all road accident cases.”