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Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2006, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
Stolen oxen case drags on for 33 years
By Amarnath Tewary
Ara, Bihar

Surajnath Yadav was 13 years old when he was charged with stealing oxen. Pics: Prashant Ravi

For the past 33 years, Surajnath Yadav, a farmer in the Indian state of Bihar, has been going to the local court as an accused in a case involving the theft of a pair of oxen in his village.

Forty-six-year-old Yadav is the only survivor of five villagers accused of stealing a pair of oxen from a house in Nawada Ben village on 19 June 1973.

He was 13 years old then. Today, he is the father of four children.

The maximum punishment for Yadav's crime is three years in prison.

The other accused - Ramdeo Yadav, Suresh Yadav, Sabha Yadav and Gopal Singh - are all dead.

So are the oxen. So is the investigating officer, Yashwant Singh, the complainant, Ramvriskha Yadav and his son, Vishwanath Yadav.

All this in a state which has a new policy of fast trials - last week a district court completed the trial of a rape case in five hours flat, sending the accused to prison for five years.

'Too old'

Every three months, Surajnath Yadav treks 20km from his village to the district headquarters spending 50-100 rupees($1.11 to $2) on travel and lawyer's fees.

"I have been making the rounds of the courts for my entire life. What to do? First I had to go to the courts weekly, then monthly, and now I have to appear once every three months," Yadav says.

"You can imagine how much money I have already spent on the case and still the final judgement eludes me."

Surajnath Yadav
Surajnath Yadav says he is fed up with the justice system
The court case against the surviving accused continues even though the stolen oxen were recovered seven months after the theft.

In 1997, a judge hearing the case, Arvind Azad, ordered it to be closed: "It has become too old and the prosecution did not have any evidence to present in the court."

But the brother of the complainant, Vishwanath Yadav, appealed against the closure in a higher district court.

The appeal is still pending in the higher court. Vishwanath has since died, but his younger brother, Suresh Yadav, a milkman, continues to pursue the case.

Surajnath Yadav's lawyer Rajesh Kumar Jain says his client's case is possibly the oldest in the district court.

"It is a strange case, perhaps the oldest one here. The case should be dropped by the court immediately, in view of the higher courts asking for speedy trials in trivial cases," he says.

Theft of oxen is a common crime in agrarian central Bihar- a pair of these farm animals cost around 25,000 rupees ($555) today, five times their worth in 1973.

In August four people suspected of stealing oxen were lynched by villagers in the Balbatra area.

"Oxen are essential for tilling our land, and their prices have also shot up. So there are regular thefts of oxen in our area," says villager Surendra Yadav.

Oxen in Ara, Bihar
Theft of oxen is common in central Bihar
Surajnath is fed up with the delays in his case.

"This is the way the judicial system works for poor people like me," he says.

The chief justice of the high court in Bihar's capital, Patna, Justice JN Bhatt says long delays in settling cases leads to disillusionment with the judicial system.

The conviction rate in this lawless, dirt-poor state is as low as 6 to 7%, lawyers say.

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