13, Jun 2017
In September 2003 the then chief justice of India, VN Khare, had sharply chastised the Gujarat government for not only its failure to protect lives and property but its open collusion in the subversion of the justice process and had subpoenaed evidence in the now famous Best Bakery case. The indignities heaped on the Gujarat state apparatus included the cross-examination in open court of the two most senior civil servants in Gujarat at the time – its chief secretary, PK Lahiri, and director general of police, K. Chakravarti. The judge’s remarks were occasioned by the state’s abysmal failure to offer cogent explanations for the hasty completion of the Best Bakery trial (in a matter of a few weeks!) and the failure to protect evidence or to ensure that all witnesses had appeared for the prosecution, which led to speedy acquittals. It was possibly the first time ever in the history of independent India that the higher judiciary had spoken, and spoken sharply, in a case of mass communal violence. (The apex court then decided to monitor the government’s appeal in the case and subsequently, in an indictment of the Gujarat high court which had dismissed the appeal, ordered retrial and transfer of the case to Mumbai, Maharashtra.)
Two months after these remarks, the first ever conviction in a 2002 carnage case occurred in Nadiad in Kheda district. On November 24, 2003 Judge CK Rane sentenced 12 persons to life imprisonment and three to two years’ rigorous imprisonment. Forty-eight persons were acquitted. The crime: the brutal massacre of 14 Muslims at Ghodasar and Jinger villages in Kheda on March 3, 2002. Six years later, six convicts had jumped parole and the Gujarat state apparatus claimed inability to track them down. About a year earlier, in October 2002, two other carnage cases, Pandharwada, where about 25 Muslims were killed (the unofficial figure is higher), and Kidiad, where 61 Muslims had been chased and burnt alive in two tempos, saw complete acquittals. In both cases, senior elected representatives and functionaries of the ruling dispensation were accused; in both cases, the story behind the acquittals was similar to that in the Best Bakery fast track trial in Vadodara in May 2003 – witnesses had been made to turn hostile.
In February 2006 the Best Bakery retrial judgement of Judge AM Thipsay finally convicted nine persons (if the Gujarat police are to be believed, seven of the accused are still absconding!). On October 30, 2007 eight persons who were accused of rape and murder in Eral, Panchmahal, were sentenced for life while 29 were acquitted. They were part of a mob that had brutalised, raped and then killed seven Muslims. In January 2008, in the Bilkees Bano case, also transferred to Mumbai, Judge UD Salvi sentenced 11 to life imprisonment. The case involved the brutal gang rape of Bilkees and the slaughter of her three-year-old daughter Saleha, during an incident in which 14 Muslims had been massacred. Though a constable was convicted for destruction of evidence, government functionaries, including doctors, escaped the arm of the law and senior policemen who had orchestrated the subversion of the case were let off by the court.
It is in this overall context that the November 9, 2011 verdict in the Sardarpura massacre case – which convicted 31 persons, all of them landed Patels responsible for assaulting defenceless agricultural labourers who had toiled in their fields for generations – must be viewed and assessed. Communalism Combat brings its readers edited excerpts of the judgement as this month’s cover story. This is the highest number of convictions ever recorded in a case of targeted communal violence in independent India. It is a tribute to the grit and courage of the 33 survivor witnesses, displaced from their homes, who testified in court, identified the accused despite threats and inducements and ensured that justice was delivered. That the case was one among those monitored by the Supreme Court, whose directives had ensured effective witness protection, enabled the impossible to happen. That the judge cleared Citizens for Justice and Peace and its secretary of malicious and motivated charges of tutoring witnesses was another landmark. None of this would have been possible without the energetic and committed CJP team, especially its lawyers in Gujarat. Advocates Yusuf Shaikh, Aslam Baig and Sameer Mansuri assiduously participated in an onerous process.
Some points for reflection: Even in simple cases wherein a group of persons acting with one mind have assembled to commit a set of crimes, the charge of conspiracy holds. Why then were the charges of conspiracy under Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code dropped?
Remember that Gujarat 2002 was about 300 ghastly incidents in 19 of the state’s 25 districts. Evidence was led through witnesses who testified about significant preparations by politicians and leaders of the Bajrang Dal who enjoyed state patronage and protection. Witnesses also sought to lead evidence on Tehelka magazine’s courageous sting ‘Operation Kalank’ which revealed specific and relevant aspects concerning arms and ammunition being brought into Mehsana (the district in which Sardarpura is located) prior to Godhra, February 27, 2002. At witnesses’ insistence, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) did record the statement of Tehelka’s correspondent Ashish Khetan but they did not call him as a witness. Why? Though former director general of police RB Sreekumar’s affidavits, with annexed reports of the State Intelligence Bureau, corroborated some of this evidence, the SIT was reluctant to probe this aspect further.
Sharp and aggressive in its approach to the Godhra train burning tragedy, the SIT and its prosecutor had not only bought the Gujarat police’s shaky and shady version of conspiracy but had argued for the death penalty, which was imposed on 11 of the 31 accused. In the Sardarpura case, witnesses, being opposed to retributive justice, did not argue for the death penalty at all.
And thus a niggling question remains: do we view the incidents of Godhra and post-Godhra as qualitatively and quantitatively different kinds of crimes? This is a tough one, which the Indian system would do well to answer.