Although described in some quarters as a shocker, the Allahabad High Court’s acquittal of Moninder Singh Pandher is hardly surprising. When a special court in Ghaziabad sentenced in February the businessman and his domestic help Surinder Koli to death in one of the most gruesome Nithari killings cases, the verdict was greeted with a reflexive endorsement, even displays of public celebration. Lost in this unthinking eruption of joy was a simple question — was there enough evidence to establish Pandher’s guilt? The Central Bureau of Investigation, which probed the killings after the cases were transferred to it from the Uttar Pradesh police, was fairly clear on this question. Resisting public pressure and in the face of acute media scepticism, it did not chargesheet Pandher in the case, which relates to the murder and rape of 14-year-old Rimpa Haldar. The businessman was summoned as an accused by the special court, using its powers under Section 319 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the court eventually passed a judgment that seemed influenced more by public sentiment than by the dispassionate requirement of the law. In acquitting Pandher of murder and rape, the Division Bench of the Allahabad High Court has drawn attention to obvious facts (for example, Pandher was not even present in the country when Haldar was killed) and refrained from extravagant hypotheses (such as the special court’s contention that his “hedonistic lifestyle” created the environment for Koli to commit murder).
What does the High Court ruling mean for the other Nithari cases? The Bench has made it clear that it will not affect decisions, at the trial court level, in other Nithari cases, of which Pandher is a co-accused in five. But it would be hard to ignore the reasoning of the High Court, which took into account facts such as Koli’s confession, which did not implicate Pandher at all. Or for that matter, the cell phone records in the possession of the CBI, which indicate that Pandher was not present in his Noida residence when 16 of the gruesome murders took place. Few crimes in this county have been marked by such inhumanity as the Nithari killings, a story of abduction, rape, murder, and necrophilia. That news of the killings was greeted with gross public revulsion and subject to acute media scrutiny is understandable. But the demands of criminal law require that cases be dealt with objectively and that guilt is determined not on the basis of public sentiment or inspired leaks but on the basis of proof beyond reasonable doubt. This applies to horrific Nithari killings as well.