A Good JudgmentNov 11, 2011, 12.00AM IST
Thanks to the Supreme Court's tenacity, the country has come a long way from the shame in the Best Bakery case when in 2003 all the 21 accused were acquitted after eyewitnesses turned hostile. If the prejudicial environment created by chief minister Narendra Modi's rule could not much affect the outcome of the Sardarpura case, it is mainly due to the activism displayed by the apex court in monitoring the investigation and trial of this and eight other high-profile cases. The special protection given to witnesses by a central paramilitary force played a crucial role in securing convictions in the Sardarpura case against heavy odds.
Though the Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team (SIT) claimed credit for the breakthrough, it had actually brought to book only two of the 31 convicts and had failed to convince the court that the burning of the victims, largely women and children, had been the result of a conspiracy rather than a spontaneous act, despite the formidable evidence available to it. The judgment comes at a time when the credibility of the SIT has taken a beating, for the manner in which it has been dragging its feet on Zakia Jafri's complaint against Modi and 61 other high-ups. The SIT is under pressure because of the report given by amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran, another appointee of the Supreme Court, stating that the allegation of complicity made against Modi by suspended police officer Sanjiv Bhatt required to be placed before the trial court and tested through cross-examination of all the officers present at the fateful meeting of February 27, 2002.
It would have surely been in the spirit of Modi's sadbhavna fasts if he had displayed the sagacity to welcome the Sardarpura convictions as a vindication of the rule of law. His silence explains why, even after a decade, the survivors of Sardarpura are unable to return to their homes. The struggle for reparation and restitution is far from over. Nevertheless, the Sardarpura judgment is a good beginning.
A milestone verdict
In a historic first, a special court in Gujarat has convicted and awarded life sentences to as many as 31 mostly high caste, landed Patels for burning alive 33 Muslims — the majority of them women and children — of Sardarpura village in Mehsana district. The village was among numerous Muslim habitations targeted across the State by irate Hindu mobs as part of a pogrom ruthlessly executed in the aftermath of the February 27, 2002 Godhra train carnage. The rioters locked the victims in a cramped room and set it on fire, suggesting that they wanted a repeat of the Godhra horror. In handing out exemplary punishment to the murderers, the court has sent out a strong message that perpetrators of communal violence cannot get away lightly and, indeed, that the judgment is a critical step in the reversal of the pattern of administrative and judicial inaction seen in such cases so far. Sardarpura is a legal trendsetter in many ways. It is the first of nine post-Godhra riots cases prosecuted by a Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court, which in another remarkable initiative aimed at securing justice for the pogrom victims, also supervised the setting up of a string of fast-track trial courts.
It cannot be overemphasised that the pogrom-related cases came under the watch of the Supreme Court following complaints that the Gujarat police, itself perceived to be complicit in the riots, was deliberately lethargic in booking and prosecuting the accused. As the highest court in the land observed in an interim order, "the need for early completion of sensitive cases, more particularly in cases involving communal disturbances, cannot be overstated." In the Sardarpura case, during the course of the trial, the SIT twice amplified the list of accused through additional charge sheets, taking the total number to 76. However, in a blow to the families of the victims, the court has acquitted 42 of them. The SIT also failed to prove the charge of conspiracy. But easily the most significant aspect of the case — which ought to have a decisive bearing on how future communal cases are fought — relates to the emphasis laid during the trial on protection of witnesses. The Supreme Court's directive to the SIT to provide tamper-proof cover to witnesses ensured that they were able to testify without fear of reprisals. Its instructions to the trial courts to deal "sternly" with any disturbances that might be created to "terrorise witnesses" strengthened the cause of justice. It is now the turn of the central government — which for some inexplicable reason put on hold the comprehensive architecture laid out by the 17th Law Commission in its report on 'Witness Identity Protection' — to act.III.
No Room for Mob Violence
The special trial court in Gujarat has established a principle which will hopefully hold in other cases of mass murder: a mob comprises individuals who commit crimes and are accountable. In giving a life term to 31 people for burning alive 33 Muslims in Sardarpura village in Gujarat during the riots of 2002, it has at least brought some closure to one of the major riot cases — Godhra being the foremost — that was given over to the Special Investigation Team. We have seen that following the riots, investigation processes have rarely been able to come up with specific names of those individuals who carried out the murders, arson or looting. This has led to a situation where after the anti-Sikh riot cases, which left 2,733 people dead, only 25 have so far been convicted. In the Sardarpura violence, a mob of over 500 people surrounded a predominantly Muslim village and attacked the only 'pucca' house there where people had taken shelter. Not content with setting fire to the house, the mob electrocuted some of the victims comprising women and minors.
This verdict is the first step to putting a face to those who commit heinous crimes under guise of being part of a mob. It also does not accept that such violence is part of a spontaneous reaction to an alleged provocation as happened in the case of Godhra that triggered off the fateful riots in which over 1,200 people, mainly Muslims, died in Gujarat. In the case of mob violence, it is extremely difficult to affix culpability or indeed even gather evidence. Much of the evidence has to be based on witnesses who, as we have seen in several riot cases, are intimidated by the perpetrators, or even the State as alleged in the case of Gujarat. There are several unresolved riot cases pending in India: Bhiwandi, Moradabad, Delhi and, of course, Gujarat. The idea that individuals can get away with murder by being part of a mob goes against all our notions of jurisprudence. We have seen the horror of family members of victims of mob violence having to live in proximity with those who have been the aggressors, even murderers.
The Sardarpura verdict is the second major success in the fight for justice in Gujarat, thanks to a vigilant and proactive judiciary. We can only hope that the State takes serious note of this verdict and also initiates moves to try and rehabilitate those who have suffered the loss of the family's breadwinners or loved ones, who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their dignity in the riots which have plagued India over the years. Sardarpura will send out, we are sure, a signal, that no one can take refuge in a mob or profess to a spontaneous rage to commit that most unacceptable of crimes: murder.