“Pub culture is against our traditions and that's why we have opposed it and attacked it … Pub culture, club or bar culture is leading the youth of our nation astray, taking them down the wrong path. Yesterday's judgement is an answer to those who welcomed pub culture and opposed me.”
Dressed in a saffron kurta, Pramod Muthalik, leader of Sri Ram Sene, looks straight into the camera as he answers questions on his acquittal, along with 30 others, in the infamous Mangaluru Pub Attack case.
On January 24, 2009, a group of men barged into a pub called Amnesia in Mangaluru and began assaulting the women inside. The attack was caught on camera and beamed to millions of televisions across India, shocking the country.
The men could clearly be seen slapping the women inside, dragging them out by their hair, branding them ‘whore’ and ‘prostitute’ as they beat them up, kicked them – all in broad daylight. Two of the women were badly injured in the attack.
The Sri Ram Sene took credit for the attack and Pramod Muthalik, who claimed he wasn’t in the city during the time of the attack, was produced before the 2nd JMFC court in Mangaluru.
However, nine long years later, the court acquitted him and the others for want of evidence.
Speaking to the media outside the court after the judgement was read out, Muthalik is far from remorseful.
“For nine years, the Sri Ram Sene was defamed. Now, the truth has emerged victorious. The court has delivered justice,” he says. “We went to the pub to make people understand that this is wrong, but violence erupted there. That was wrong. Our intention was not to hit. Our intention was to make the youth, who are being led astray, to understand the need to protect our culture and traditions.”
Safety of witnesses
Even though there is video evidence and millions watched the attack on their television screens, how did the case collapse in court?
To begin with, many of the women refused to come forward and testify against the Sri Ram Sene, fearing for their lives and safety.
The judgement clearly states that the investigating officers could not even cite them as witnesses in the chargesheet.
“The women customers are the victims and they are the best witnesses in this case. If the investigating officer examined them, the real truth would come out. Non-securing of the victim women is fatal to the prosecution and it creates the doubt in the mind of this court about the involvement of the accused persons as alleged by the prosecution,” adds the judgement.
According to Sudipto Mondal, a senior journalist who was reporting from Mangaluru at that time, most of the women in the pub that day came from elite families. The case grabbed the kind of attention it did because it featured an upscale pub, which drew crowds from the upper classes of society. Dakshina Kannada had witnessed several moral policing attacks in the months prior to the Mangaluru Pub Attack, but none of them grabbed eyeballs the way this did.
“The women in this particular case have the privilege to being protected from certain kinds of things. They didn’t want to get involved in the case. They exist outside the law and the law is not required to protect them; their privilege ensures that they are protected,” he adds.
His thoughts are echoed by Asha Nayak, who defended Pramod Muthalik in court. "In fact, all of the victims were from Mangaluru, they belonged to the rich, politically well-connected and influential families. They had all the means at their disposal to pursue the case to a logical end. But not one of them turned up before the court either as complainant or as witness," she says. “In this case, in fact, the suo-motu complaint was lodged by the jurisdictional Bunder police station and not any victim.”
There are other concerns too, such as the safety of the witnesses and the idea that testifying in court could potentially bring harm to the witnesses and their families.
Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court advocate, says:
“When there is evidence, in a cognizable offence of molestation, the police can register an FIR. But to establish that the offence was in fact committed, it can sometimes be difficult for the prosecution to be strong without the complainant, which is why prosecution needs to make sure that complainants are protected and feel safe to testify.”
Several countries across the world have a Witness Protection Program in place, specifically to ensure witnesses feel safe enough to depose and can’t be threatened by the defence. India does not have such a programme in place. There are many reasons for this – among them are the lack of bandwidth, money and staff to ensure proper implementation.
But what about the videos shot by mediapersons outside Amnesia? The videos that were beamed to millions of homes across the country, unfolding the horrors of that day?
The prosecution couldn’t even produce the videos in court, for the people who shot them refused to come forward as witnesses.
According to Sudipto, journalists were complicit in the case. “I know that many of them were called in advance and had lined up their cameras, knowing fully well that they had a story on their hands that would grab national attention. So any possibility of them coming forward and participating in the prosecution is out of question," he says.
Moreover, even if they had come forward, the videos would then undergo forensic analysis to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they had indeed been shot by the witness, and they had not been tampered with in any way.
“Video evidence needs to be proven by the person who took the video and also must be submitted to forensics to prove that the video has not been tampered with. It can take between six months to a year for this,” says Karuna.
Here, the judgement says, “In order to prove the involvement of the accused persons, those videos and photographs play a very important role and are the material evidence in this case. In order to prove the same, the investigating officer did not produce the videos and photographs before this court. Non-production of the videos and photographs is fatal to the prosecution case.”
According to Asha, “As far as the video clipping is concerned, it is secondary evidence, but to prove your case in court it needs to have a backing of at least one complainant.”
"You can go to a doctor for treatment for yourself and ask for medicine. Can you go to a doctor and say that my friend has a fever or suffered an injury and request medicine? The doctor won’t give a remedy based on hearsay alone. It is the same case here; the video is considered hearsay. Where is the complainant? What can the judiciary do if the aggrieved party doesn’t depose before them? Or the investigating agencies do not produce the cameraman before it as witness?”
"Tomorrow person 'A' can download a violent incident from YouTube that happened somewhere else in the world and accuse that 'B' has done that to 'C'. Should 'B' be punished, just like that? Isn't it common sense that 'C' should be present before the court and corroborate with the evidence?” she asks.
With the evidence falling awfully short, the judgement clearly says that it is impossible to establish the charges levelled against the accused: “Thus, under the above circumstances, I am of the clear opinion that the prosecution has failed to bring home the guilt of accused persons beyond all shadow of doubt. Hence I am of the firm opinion that this is a fit case wherein benefit of doubt can be given to the accused persons.”
The case sparked massive outrage at the time and the verdict even more so. ‘Mangalore Pub Attack’ became a talking point again, nine long years later. People pointed fingers at the judgement, calling it politically motivated and that external pressure led to the acquittal of Pramod Muthalik and his men. Many also spoke of changing laws to permit video evidence as primary evidence.
According to Asha, for people who don’t have knowledge of court proceedings, it’s easier to point fingers and blame the law for Muthalik’s acquittal. But in this case, she says, it was the victims who refused to come forward and their non-cooperation with the law derailed the process.
"Had at least one girl turned up as complainant or witness and then this video was showed, then there would have been a 100% conviction. The injustice the victims had to face would have been converted to justice," she says.
Karuna looks at it differently. “The entire case needs to be strong. At the time the evidence was collected it was the BJP government in power. We've seen that even the Congress government in Karnataka has not been strong while prosecuting fringe groups like the Sri Rama Sene and Bajrang Dal.”
So here we have it, the curious case of the Mangaluru Pub Attack: everyone saw 30 men enter a pub and assault the women inside, yet no one saw 30 men enter a pub and assault the women inside.
With inputs from Prajwal Bhat