HC acquits all accused in Hangarahalli bonded labour case

January 13, 2017 12:09 am | Updated 07:34 am IST - Bengaluru:

The Karnataka High Court has acquitted a stone crushing unit proprietor and three others accused in the Hangarahalli ‘bonded labour’ case that had hit the headlines in 2000 after Raitha Sangha leaders along with representatives of the media raided the unit in Mandya district.

The court said that the prosecution had “failed to establish its case beyond reasonable doubt” and that the sessions court in Mandya had committed “serious and glaring errors” in its order convicting the accused under the provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976.

Justice Anand Byrareddy passed the order while acquitting Puttaswamy Gowda, proprietor of Chamundeswari Stone Crushing Industry, his son Arun Kumar, and Mahalinga and Shivaiah, both associated with Yogesh Industries, which had links with Mr. Gowda’s unit.

The case was registered on June 22, 2000 on a complaint by Raitha Sangha leader K.S. Nanje Gowda.

Noting that 42 of the 82 witnesses had turned hostile, the High Court said the trial court had relied upon the “inconsistent statements” of three witnesses (victim-labourers), as the trial court judge in his order had observed, “I am of the opinion that these witnesses, being poor persons working in a quarry, were put under pressure by both sides. From the way in which they have given answers in court, it looks as if they obliged not only the accused but also the Raitha Sangha activists.”

While many of the labourers and their family members had stated before the trial court that they were made to put on shackles on their legs while being seen working for three days for the shoot of a Tamil film, three labourers in their initial examination had not supported the prosecution. However, they partly supported the prosecution during the second examination.

The High Court observed that the inconsistencies make the statements “unreliable and unworthy of credence in the absence of special circumstance” and that “no conviction can be based on the evidence of such witnesses”. Justice Byrareddy also said the trial court had committed a serious error in convicting the appellants under Section 16, 18 and 20 of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act as no charges were framed for offences punishable under these provisions. He said the prosecution had failed to establish beyond reasonable doubt that there was a “bonded debt” and extraction of “bonded labour.”

Complaint’s credibility

On the credibility of the complaint, the High Court said, “One other circumstance that is apparent is that PW-1 [Nanje Gowda of Raitha Sangha] was a political leader and he having proceeded to the quarry with his supporters, reporters and photographers would appear to be a well-orchestrated plan to gain maximum publicity. The evidence on record also indicates that accused no.1 [Puttaswamy Gowda] was a supporter of the JD(S), against whose candidate the candidate of the party to which PW-1 belonged to had lost an election.” This would have been motive enough for the Raitha Sangha leader to frame the accused, the court observed.

The judge also referred to the evidence of the witnesses being treated to food in a hotel and offered other freebies, including house sites, to tender evidence against the accused, and said these issues were “clearly glossed over by the trial court”.

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