Booking the Bourgeoisie:
The Niyogi Murder Trial

C.N. Subramaniam

Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi, the popular trade union leader of Chattisgarh, was murdered in his sleep on the night of 27th September 1991. After preliminary investigation by the police of Madhya Pradesh state, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMMS) and the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) whose leader Niyogi had been have charged that the leading industrialists of Bhilai, Moolchand Shah, Chandrakant Shah, Naveen Shah of the Simplex and allied group of industries and other industrialists like Kedia of Kedia Distilleries were behind the murder. Chandrakant Shah was arrested but he escaped from police custody from a hospital. After 2 years the person alleged to have committed the murder was apprehended in Uttar Pradesh. The CBI charge-sheeted Moolchand Shah, Naveen Shah and Chandrakant Shah, a few of their henchmen and the hired assassin, Paltan Mallah. Initially the trial was held in camera for fear of the sentiments of the workers. Under sustained pressure from the workers and legal action by the union the trial was made public and thereafter was attended by a large number of workers in every sitting.

The trial court after examining all witnesses and hearing all the arguments convicted Moolchand Shah, Chandrakant Shah, Naveen Shah, besides Gyan Prakash Mishra, Avdhesh Rai Abhai Singh and Paltan Mallah. Paltan Mallah who actually committed the murder was sentenced to death while the others who conspired and masterminded the crime were given life sentences and fined.

This was the first time in history that a conspiracy by capitalists to kill a trade union leader was established in a court of law and the capitalists were convicted. As such it marks a milestone in the working class history, especially in the legal aspects of the labour movement.

As was to be expected the convicted appealed in the High Court. Here again in a departure from convention K.G. Kannabiran - a leading civil right activist lawyer with known sympathies for the workers' and peasants' movements was commissioned by the CBI to argue the prosecution's case. After going through the arguments the High Court set aside the judgement of the lower court in toto for want of sufficient evidence.

The matter is now with the Supreme Court.

In the following pages we will examine the case in greater detail and discuss some of the issues it throws for the working class movement.

The Importance of the Niyogi Murder Trial

Niyogi was not the first or the last trade unionist to be murdered. His murder was in fact followed by the murder of another popular unionist of Bombay, Dr. Datta Samant. Subsequently another labour leader of Madhya Pradesh, from Maihar, was killed. While it does not take much investigative skill to come to the surmise that the affected capitalists engineer the murders it is seldom or never possible to actually 'prove it beyond reasonable doubt' in court as per bourgeois laws. Such conspiracies are hatched in secrecy, by word of mouth and the act of conspiring is usually far removed from the act of crime both in time and place. Further the professional killers who are hired for the purpose seldom know of or meet those who ultimately finance them. As such it is next to impossible to prove the role of the capitalists' 'beyond reasonable doubt'. This has effectively enabled capitalists to get away with using individual terror to remove active labour leaders or intimidate them. At best it is the hired assassin who is nabbed and punished and never the mastermind behind the crime.

In other words the present legal framework is highly inadequate to book and punish capitalists indulging in terror tactics and the physical liquidation of labour leaders. It is therefore necessary to break new ground without at the same time compromising the principle of the democratic rights of the accused persons. It is in this context that the Niyogi murder trial assumes great importance.

At the trial court the prosecution marshalled much evidence to support its case though as we shall see it did leave a few stones unturned in the case. The credit for breaking new ground really goes to the judge Sh. T.K. Jha who creatively interpreted the law in the difficult situation. We must also recognise the important role played by thousands who attended the trial sessions and effectively conveyed to the judge what the jury of the working people thought of the case. Their presence added considerable weight to the prosecution's case.

The Prosecution's Case

The prosecution built its case against the accused capitalists on the following basis:

(I.) The struggle under Niyogi's leadership of the workers of the factories owned by the capitalists had caused serious loss to them and therefore they had a motive in seeing him dead. (II.) They had adopted extra-legal terror tactics to combat the growing power of the union - and the murder was a logical follow-up. (III.) They had closely monitored the movements of Niyogi with an intent to attack him. (IV.) Shortly before his death Niyogi had gathered information that his life was in serious danger from them and he had said so to a journalist of national standing and also recorded his apprehension in a tape-recorded message to his comrades. (V.) The alleged hired assassin had implicated them in his extra-judicial confessions. (VI.) The behaviour of the accused -absconding and escaping from custody indicated their involvement in the crime.

We shall take each of these points by quoting extensively from the judgement of the trial court.

I. The judgement says,

'When deceased Niyogi came to Bhilai in 1990 and began agitation of workers there the Simplex Group had been most affected. The largest number of members of CMM had been dismissed by the Simplex Group. Civil suits were filed on behalf of Simplex Industry in which it was stated that due to the strike of Shankar Guha Niyogi this industry was having lakhs of rupees of loss...

'The accused Moolchand Shah was not even prepared to accept the demand letter of CMM...

'This accused had not gone to the meetings called by the Assistant Labour Commissioner for the resolution of the labour problem.' (Para 498-500).

'This agitation by Niyogi had become as unbearable to the Simplex group as the scorching midday sun in summer and ultimately they got the accused Paltan who by murdering Niyogi .. proved to be a source of solace.' (Para 9).

The judgement established the fact that Niyogi and CMM were trying to regularise the employment of the workers and to ensure a 'living wage' for them and to win for them the freedom to organize. It is these that the Simplex Group was most disturbed about and fought tooth and nail to resist. Further, knowing that any serious participation in tripartite negotiations leading to resolution of the issue would legitimise and strengthen the union the Shahs avoided such negotiations as far as possible.

Instead they sought to intimidate the workers through extra-legal means. To quote the judgement again, 'during the movement the industrialists started sponsoring murderous attacks on the workers of CMM.' (Para 6).

The prosecution sought to establish though somewhat tenuously that the Shahs were behind the attacks on several union leaders like Umashankar Rai and had planned attacks on others like Bharat Bhushan Pandey.

Moolchand Shah had with him the addresses of Umashankar Rai and Bharat Bhushan Pandey, who had been attacked or had formally expressed apprehension of an attack to the police.

An important evidence in the case was a confidential note found at Moolchand Shah's place on how to combat Niyogi and the CMM. It outlines several strategies to be followed simultaneously in order to discredit Niyogi personally, foster rival unions, implicate union leaders in false cases and demoralisation of union members. However it does not mention any plan to kill Niyogi and takes care not to outline any openly extra-legal measures. Nevertheless when one reads the document in conjunction with the actual conduct of the capitalists it is clear that they were keen to achieve the objectives through a combination of legal and extra-legal measures. The note even if it does not reveal any criminal intent is clear in setting out the objective of decimating the trade union movement led by Niyogi.

The prosecution further tried to establish the fact that the industrialists were keenly following the movements of the union leaders especially Niyogi. A piece of paper containing the registration number of the car used by Niyogi was found with the accused industrialist. While this in itself may be innocuous seen along with the other developments this assumes some significance. The industrialists were certainly trying to keep track of Niyogi's movements.

The most crucial evidence produced by the prosecution was the apprehension repeatedly expressed by Niyogi during the last week of his life and even a few hours before he was murdered.

The judgement of the trial court reads, 'In the afternoon of 27-9-91 Niyogi had told the journalist N.K. Singh (of India Today - CNS) that the industrialists of Bhilai have organised a private army and used their goondas to crush the worker's movement. He had also said that the Shahs of Simplex wanted to get him killed.' He had expressed similar apprehension to Rajendra Sail a few hours before his murder.

Niyogi had also recorded a message during these days for his comrades in case he was killed. He said, 'I know these people are after my life. I know it well that .... they shall kill me. Yet I know that by killing me no one can finish our movement.' Thereafter he specifically names, 'the people of Simplex' especially Moolchand Shah, Prabhnath Mishra, a friend of Shantilal Jain, Kedia. 'My belief is that Moolchand Shah and Kedia .. only are at this time behind all the conspiracies... And therefore I am getting my-heart felt feelings taped because perhaps very soon something is going to happen.' The prosecution wanted this statement to be treated as the dying declaration of Niyogi.

This was no empty demagogy or a generalised fear as Niyogi elsewhere had pointed out that the industrialists were preparing for a major violent offensive and he was sure of an impending attack. He had noted in his diary the information that Gyan Prakash had received 5 lakhs from Simplex to purchase firearms and hire some goondas from Siwan district. In this connection he mentions the names of Chandrakant Shah, Awadhesh and others. A few weeks before the attack he had met the President of India and expressed his apprehensions. He repeated it to N.K. Singh twice during the interview on the day of his death and had been warning his close associates too. All this clearly indicates that he had definite information that these named industrialists were planning to liquidate him and other leaders of CMM. These statements of Niyogi were also accepted by the trial court as implicating the industrialists.

The clinching evidence against the industrialists was the non-judicial confession made by the alleged assassin Paltan Mallah to his relatives. While he was in hiding after the murder of Niyogi he had told his relatives that he had murdered Niyogi for money and that the Shah brothers- Moolchand, Navin and Chandrakant were behind this. Paltan Mallah had fled from Bhilai and was on the run in Uttar Pradesh and Nepal for 2 years after the crime. He was apprehended on some other charges and it became known that he was wanted in the Niyogi case. The country-made firearm with which he had killed Niyogi and the motorcycle he had used in the act were recovered from the homes of his relatives. Some of his relatives deposed that he had confessed his crime to them and requested them to protect him from the police. In the court Paltan stoutly denied that the arms were recovered from him and that he had made any confessional statement to his relatives. The trial court rejected his pleas in this regard.

The prosecution also cited two more grounds for implicating Chandrakant Shah. Firstly it was firmly established that at the height of the labour movement he had gone along with Gyan Prakash, Avdesh Rai, and Abhay Singh to Nepal. The motive seems to have been to purchase arms illegally to combat the movement. Niyogi was eventually killed with a country-made firearm but nevertheless the Nepal visit was a part of the attempt at illegal stockpiling of arms for an attack on the union activists. Secondly Chandrakant Shah shortly after the murder of Niyogi once the suspicion of the police turned on one of his accomplices fled Bhilai in his vehicle and travelled from town to town and stayed in hotels under false names. He also abandoned his vehicle with blood stains to give the impression that the police had killed him. All this was taken to confirm his criminal intent at dodging investigations.

The trial court after going through all this evidence decided that indeed the industrialists of Bhilai were behind the murder of Niyogi. They were duly awarded life terms and a fine of 10 lakh rupees.

As can be seen from the above, on a number of points the prosecution was on weak grounds. Indeed each piece of evidence seen separately could be seen to be innocuous or doubtful. However given the difficulty in proving such conspiracies and by seeing all the evidences in conjunction with each other the conclusion that the said industrialists conspired to kill Niyogi could not be escaped.

In this the trial court was influenced by the conviction that Niyogi and his union were fighting for the legitimate rights of the workers and the industrialists were trying to deny workers their legitimate dues by hook or crook. 'Thus the industrialists were not prepared to give their workers a place of equality and situation of class struggle was created' (para 353).

It was this conviction strengthened by the presence of workers in the trial proceedings that led the judge to piece together the evidence the way he did.

'Deceased Shankar Guha Niyogi was a labour leader of national stature. He was brutally murdered only because of leading the labour movement in Bhilai.' (Para 595).Further, 'Niyogi had done a lot for the education and health of the children of workers. He had linked his labour movement to Social Reform. The accused ... by murdering Niyogi not only harmed his family but has hurt the human feelings of thousands of workers who form the foundation of our society.' (Para 614).

The High Court Judgement

This is in sharp contrast to the attitude of the High Court which set aside the above judgement. Para 39 of its judgement reads as follows, 'Evidence given by police officers... as well as copies of plaints... only show that Niyogi was creating trouble for the Simplex Group.' 'Accused Moolchand Shah was resisting him in a lawful manner by starting legal proceedings.' (Para 103). There is little wonder that the High Court should arrive at a diametrically opposite conclusion about the case. In this way it outrightly rejected the foundation upon which the trial court's judgement rested.

About the confidential note on combatting Niyogi the high court says, it 'reaffirms that .... rival trade unions be given importance, that the criminal cases pending against Niyogi in different courts be pursued and that the foreign link of Niyogi be traced and published....This too rules out that there was a scheme to physically eliminate him.'The court completely ignores the evidences gathered about the attitude of the management to the legitimate demands of the workers' union.

The High Court further rejected the apprehensions of Niyogi on what clearly appear to be specious grounds. Regarding the diary entry it says, 'evidently this entry contains allegations about some persons hired from Siwan district. It also says that the plot was foiled. It is also significant that accused Paltan has nothing to do with Siwan district and has not been named in this diary.' (Para 106). The important point about the diary entry was not that it was indicating who the assassin was but about the plans of the industrialists to engage in an armed offensive.

Regarding the apprehensions expressed in the tape-recorded message and the interview to NK Singh it says, 'It also names Simplex and Kedia as the persons behind the conspiracy against him. We agree that nothing turns on these documents ... if Niyogi had apprehensions from the Shahs of Simplex, he had also expressed the same fear from other industrialists also...' (para 110-114). In other words the apprehensions of Niyogi that the industrialists of Bhilai especially the Shahs were planning to get him killed were set aside simply on the ground that he had felt that he was under threat from Kedia besides the Shahs.

Similarly the court takes up each piece of evidence gathered examines it in isolation and dismisses it as 'not incriminating'. The High Court also refused to accept the prosecution's plea regarding Paltan Mallah and concluded that he was being framed by the CBI, that the instrument of crime (a country-made pistol) was not recovered from him and that he had not made any confession at all. Likewise it also concluded that his alleged statement implicating the industrialists was concocted by the CBI. It also rejected the evidence of the ballistic expert that the instrument recovered from Paltans' relatives' house was the same as the one with which Niyogi was fired at.

In Conclusion

As we had pointed out earlier the evidence that could be gathered against the industrialists could not be foolproof or absolutely convincing. Yet given the circumstances it did indicate a very strong possibility of the complicity of the named industrialists in the murder of Niyogi. The strength of the prosecution lay in establishing the motive for the crime, the previous build up for criminal assault on the union leaders and Niyogi's consequent apprehension stated and recorded in various ways. It also managed to establish as far as it was possible the evidence for the industrialists' complicity in the crime. This evidence may not have been strong enough but has to be seen in conjunction with the other factors established fairly clearly.

It would seem from the above that given the present frame of criminal law industrialists can get away with murder of union leaders and more with a little care. It is therefore likely to encourage more such acts of violence against the labour movement. It is therefore imperative for the trade union movement across the country to exert pressure on the judiciary to force it to redefine criminal law in regard to violence against trade unionists. To a modest degree this was achieved by the working class of Chattisgarh when the trial court judge in effect accepted the substantial arguments of the CMM. However much more concerted pressure at the national level is necessary to build judicial precedents. Secondly it also demonstrates the need for the trade union movement to build an intelligence network of its own to conduct investigations and build strong cases against the criminal industrialists and their hirelings.

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