Munger Firing Case: Why Bihar Government’s Stance Raises More Questions Than Answers
In Bihar’s Munger town, violent clashes erupted between the police and a group of devotees going for ‘Durga pooja visarjan’ ceremony in October 2020
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court dismissed a Special Leave Petition by the Bihar government against the Patna High Court's order for the payment of Rs 10 Lakh compensation to the family members of 18 year-old Anurag Kumar Poddar. Poddar was killed in a police firing incident in Munger that occurred eight months ago and killed one and left 25 injured. He was reportedly shot in the head.
In Bihar’s Munger town, violent clashes allegedly erupted between the police and a group of devotees going for Durga pooja visarjan ceremony in October 2020.
A person who was part of the committee overseeing the ceremony reportedly said that more than 53 Durga idols were installed in Munger. Out of these, 15 were taken for immersion in the Ganga river at the Deen Dayal Chowk on the night of the clashes (26 October).
Traditionally, the ceremony occurs after three days of Vijayadashami but the police in this case insisted on finishing it before 5 am, 27 October, in the view of the first phase of the Assembly elections in the state.
This led to an altercation between the organisers and the police. The official version is that some “anti-social elements” started pelting stones which left 20 policemen injured. “After this someone from the crowd fired, leading to one death,” Lipi Singh, the superintendent of police in Munger at the time, was quoted as saying.
The police claimed it was compelled to open fire to disperse the mob, which allegedly retaliated with counter firing. Poddar died of a gunshot wound to the head, while seven others also received bullet injuries.
Another police official was quoted as saying that they had recovered three country-made pistols with some live and empty cartridges from the crowd. “Rumours were spread and attempts were made to vitiate the atmosphere after the incident,” he said.
Poddar was allegedly present in the immersion procession near DCM Showroom at Deen Dayal Chowk and peacefully watching the visarjan procession.
After the incident, a large security force, including the personnel from the Bihar Military Police and paramilitary forces were deployed in the affected areas.
Almost immediately, the then District Magistrate (DM) and Superintendent of Police (SP), Rajesh Meena and Lipi Singh, respectively, were transferred on the directive of the Election Commission, as the incident took days before the state assembly elections.
With the video clips of the policemen beating the participants going viral on social media, and the assembly elections, the incident received a lot of attention at the time. The cops were accused of first thrashing and brutally lathi-charging devotees.
However, despite criticism, Nitish Kumar-led Bihar government remained steadfast in denying the responsibility for any mismanagement.
A writ petition was filed in January 2021 on behalf of the deceased's father Amarnath Poddar in Patna High Court.
Poddar’s counsel alleged that the investigation into the death of Anurag was being botched by the administration. He said that this could be gauged from the fact that the pellets recovered from the victim’s body were sent to a forensic science lab for examination almost four months after the incident.
Moreover, the district police started interaction with the Patna office of CISF only three months after the incident. The CISF personnel posted at Deen Dayal Chowk on the day of the incident had claimed that a teenager was killed in the police firing.
In April, the High Court, while hearing the petition, directed that the SP and other police officers associated with the investigation into the incident be transferred. As a result, thirteen police officers posted in Munger were transferred to different districts.
“The district police only swung into action when the high court took cognisance of the matter,” Poddar’s counsel said.
Patna High Court also observed that it would monitor the investigation by CID into the matter, and also ordered the state government to pay Rs 10 lakh compensation to the victim’s father.
The High Court noted:
“..the facts disclosed…an admitted position…son of petitioner…was unarmed in the procession, there is no allegation that he was indulged in any unlawful act, however he has been killed as a result of firing which took place on 26.10.2020. It was certainly an unfortunate incident in which the son of the petitioner has been killed.”
“..whether son of the petitioner died as a result of firing by police or by any miscreants from the mob would not be relevant for the simple reason that in any case the State had failed to protect the life of the son of the petitioner who was a spectator in the procession of Maa Durga Idol Immersion.”
The Court said that it would not disclose the contents of the enquiry report but its “judicial conscience compels it to exercise its extra-ordinary power under Article 226 of the Constitution of India to award a suitable amount of compensation to the petitioner.”
Soon after the incident in October 2020, the hashtag ‘LipiSinghDyer’ started trending on Twitter, comparing the IPS officer with General Reginald Dyer, the man responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Notably, Lipi Singh is the daughter of JD(U) national president and Rajya Sabha MP RP Singh. The association of RP Singh, a former IAS officer, and CM Nitish Kumar goes back to 1996, when the former was introduced to the latter by senior Samajwadi Party leader Beni Prasad Verma.
It is believed that it was Lipi Singh’s father's strong influence in the IPS lobby that helped her get a posting in Bihar. Her husband Subhash Bhagat is an IAS officer. In January, she became the SP in Saharsa, a posting which was dubbed by various media outlets as a “promotion”.
The public perception of the Bihar government took a serious hit over the incident. Social media users said that the reluctance of the government to give measly compensation to the family of a young man who was barely an adult reflected how far it was willing to go to protect the egos of the higher ups.
One social media user commented that the ruling BJP could not make Tablighi Jamaat chief Maulana Saad (who explicitly asked people to defy COVID-19 lockdown) to join the probe even a year after the incident, but was feeling embarrassed for having to pay compensation to Anurag Poddar’s family at Patna High Court’s order.
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