The premises of Rampur’s criminal court are as crowded as the main market. On a cold December morning, it buzzes with hundreds of visitors, outnumbered only by lawyers and their assistants. One of the busiest places in an otherwise sleepy town in Uttar Pradesh, the old court building, with its dilapidated offices, rows of judges’ and lawyers’ chambers, retains the imprint of the architecture of its erstwhile nawabs. And here, crime, as a business, seems to be booming.
Zaheer Ahmad’s desk is in the middle of a vast hall where he sits with about 50 other lawyers, waiting for fresh disputes. A much sought-after criminal lawyer in Rampur, he exudes a trademark warmth and hospitality that the old world city still thrives on. “Let’s begin with the popular lemon tea of our court premises,” he says, instructing his assistant Munshi Mahavir to order a round for the six men gathered at his desk. Ahmad has been practising in Rampur since 1998, and handles 15-20 cases everyday. From ‘soft’ ones like fraud, land grabbing, and matrimonial disputes to heinous ones like rape, dacoity, attempts at murder and conspiracies.
As a defence lawyer, Ahmad has learnt to keep his morals aside when representing clients. “Instinct or emotion have no value in law. What matters is consistency in the [narrative] versions of the involved parties. My job is to give the best legal service to the clients,” he adds. To do so, his daily work involves close examination of documents of the case, trying to find discrepancies in FIRs (First Information Reports), medical reports, witness versions, post mortems and reports by police and the investigating officer. “It’s like finding a ray of hope, to find evidence that my client has been falsely implicated.” If you’re the accused party, Zaheer Ahmad is the man to hire as your lawyer.
Ahmad has been involved as a lawyer in several cases regarding murder in Rampur. Most of them, he feels, were planned and driven by lingering issues such as property disputes, marital discord, love gone wrong, and old enmities. A few are honour killings or instances of revenge for harassing someone’s sister. The more dramatic instances of hiring a shooter/criminal for killing an enemy is a thing of the past. “The new trend is to hire a driver to eliminate people in road accidents, a crime that surprisingly carries a maximum punishment of just two years” he says. He adds that it’s filed as death by negligence (IPC 304 A) and is a bailable offence. “It should be made non-bailable at the earliest.”
While we talk, a man in a grey shirt arrives at his desk and shows Ahmad a document. “We want to confess,” he says. Ahmad puts on his silver-rimmed glasses, reads through the document, and replies sternly, “The confession needs to be filed by every defendant separately. Have you ever heard of a mass confession?” Reprimanded, the man departs.
Ahmad proceeds to explain the prevalence of ‘halala’ and the misuse of the rape law in property disputes. “It’s becoming very common. Somebody filed an FIR against their neighbour, slapping IPC 376 (rape) and the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act) on them. The investigation concluded it was done to put pressure on them in a property dispute case.”
Nadeem Ansari* brings his case to Ahmad’s attention. He was cheated by a financial firm, charged with missing a deadline for a loan of Rs 2 lakh that he used to buy a car. “I returned the full installments in 2012, and got the notice three years later. The penalty was as much as the amount I borrowed!” says an exasperated Ansari. He says he’s willing to opt for a settlement with the firm because he can’t waste his peace of mind on such a small case. “What else can I do?”
Ahmad tells us that many private financial firms in Rampur dupe lenders using small, technical errors. The victims of this ‘legal’ fraud are usually those who don’t read the fine print while accepting the loan. “All conditions are set by the lenders. They even forge people’s signatures and misuse the cheques submitted to them,” says Ahmad. According to him, similar things happen to poverty-stricken farmers when they take a loan from local baniyas or lenders.
The conversation between Ansari and Ahmad lead us to ask the latter about Rampur’s infamous land mafia. Being an old city, there aren’t proper municipal records for many areas, providing a golden opportunity for loan sharks. “They unlawfully possess the ancestral land of someone who lives abroad by doing new construction and selling that house to a third party,” says Ahmad, explaining that such scenarios lead to a disputes in court. “In most cases, the legal heirs agree to settle with whatever money the other party offers. Bhaagte bhoot ki to langot hi kaafi hai (the loincloth of a running ghost is sometimes enough ).”
Another common tactic amongst the land mafia is to sell a piece of land to multiple people and then hope for some carelessness on the part of the buyer to verify the deal at tehsil (local revenue office) . “They sell a piece of agricultural land to someone. After checking the khatoni and barsala (land registry systems), the buyers find that the lands has been already sold before. Those who don’t check these registries won’t even discover that they’ve been duped.” After taking money from several people, the original owner registers it under his own name, leading to a long court dispute. “Like everywhere else, it also ends in out of court settlements, and the buyers get a part of their money back.”
In other cases, these property disputes end in bloodshed. Ahmad narrates one such case without divulging the names of the parties. “So, X died and left his property to his wife and minor daughter, who would inherit it as an adult. Before her eighteenth birthday, she is murdered by her [paternal] uncles, who wanted to usurp the property. After the death of her daughter, the mother, instead of getting intimidated by threats to her life, gave it to her own brothers [the dead girl’s maternal uncles].”
We asked Ahmad if he could put us in touch with the woman, his client. “You’re mistaken. I didn’t represent her. I was hired by the ones trying to usurp her land.”
Follow Zeyad Masroor Khan on Twitter.