Citizens for Justice and Peace


08, May 2017


Justice is the real victim
Friday November 12 2004 18:45 IST

John Dayal

Zaheera Sheikh
Perhaps this was the closest we came in independent India to genetic
modification by the Supreme Court in the criminal justice system, and
predictably a price is being extracted, in many scarred reputations, in
the retaliation by powerful entities fighting back all efforts to make
them answerable to civilised society, and to Civil Society. Two years and
eight months after Gujarat erupted in flames of hate, the guilty in the
news are no longer Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who rules merrily as if
nothing ever did happen. Nor does guilt seem to roost with the police
which a hundred witnesses, among them a late minister and several officers
had admitted to have been ordered to look the other way till a politically
desired ratio of Muslim dead to Hindu victims had been established.

Above all, the focus has shifted from a morally corrupt and putrid
judicial hierarchy in the state of Gujarat, from the junior magistracy to
its High Court, which shamelessly fought on the side of the murderer and
the rapist, and hounded the humane and the helpful from among the brave
few of the State, and the outsiders who came in as volunteers of NGOs from
Mumbai and New Delhi.

One of these was Teesta Setalvad, grand daughter of a former Attorney
General of India, but better known for her monitoring and publishing the
tapes of wireless messages that police officers of Mumbai sent to each
other in the 1992-93 communal riots of Mumbai, the tapes clearly exposing
the vicious anti-Muslim bias of the system. Teesta, and her monthly
magazine Communalism Combat, which she co-edits with husband Javed Anand,
have since then been carrying on an unceasing campaign against
communalism, and against state patronage to one or the other side.

Many of us have been involved in the post-Godhra Gujarat, working in
peace-making and medical relief, rehabilitation and advocacy. Teesta and
some other NGOs have taken on the more onerous task of challenging lapses
in the criminal justice system which had erroneously presumed that the
ideology of its political masters was immortal. Part of the NGOs’ exercise
was the collation of accounts of the myriad cases of mass murders and
arson, the tracing of witnesses and giving courage to surviving victims.
Zaheera Sheikh of Baroda, so much in the news in the notorious Best Bakery
Case, is just one of these victims, iconic though she may seem now.
Zaheera had seen the mob gathering in the evening of March 1, 2002 in
Baroda. As she told the media, it was a dance of death that continued all
night. Four children and four women were burnt alive. Five survivors of
the 15 were killed by the waiting mobs, two more chased and killed long
after day break. Zaheera found the police hostile, abusive. For the rest
of the year as she waited for justice, the magistracy, even the Gujarat
High Court seemed against the victims, finding no case against the
accused. The High Court felt “Teesta Setalvad and her colleague Mihir
Desai of the Citizens for Justice and Peace were motivated by petty
benefits and misusing persons such as Zaheera.”

A disgusted and angry Supreme Court expunged those remarks when Teesta and
her group eventually moved the highest court in the land, praying that
which just about everybody mired so deep in the mess, justice could only
be had outside Gujarat, perhaps in Mumbai. Zaheera found the safety of
Mumbai and the receptivity of a new court warm enough to denounce the
Baroda police for duress. Till now, when for reasons that may well remain
a mystery for ever, she suddenly appeared in Vadodara and filed an
affidavit before the Collector seeking police protection and alleging that
she was being forced by Teesta to falsely identify innocent persons as
accused in the re-trial being conducted in a Mumbai court.

Teesta has moved the Supreme Court once again, asking it for a
comprehensive probe into the entire episode. The Supreme Court has so far
not let know its mind on the issue. Elsewhere, the judicial system is
running far behind the clock. Very few have been indicted in the mass
murders of the Sikhs in the violence between October 31 and November 2,
1984 in Delhi and Kanpur following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. One
does not know how many have been brought to justice in the 1992-93 Mumbai
riots, or for that matter to the dozens of well known communal riots that
have scorched India in the last 30 years or so. Many witnesses are now
dead, as indeed many of the perpetrators too. Police personnel, guilty of
conspiracy, at worst, as in Meerut, Mumbai and New Delhi, or indifferent,
as in Moradabad, Aligarh and Bhiwandi, have retired, though the system
remains culpable and on trial.

It brings no credit to the Republic, not when Europe has set up a Court of
Criminal Justice, when the US has comprehensive anti-hate laws and did in
fact trace, arrest try and jail the killer of the Sikh who was murdered in
a hate crime in the wake of 9/11. (The fact that the entire US criminal
justice and police system apologised to the minorities for that one crime
of hate restored confidence in the public as nothing else could.)

Did the government or police of Gujarat buy up Zaheera, or merely coerced
her once again? Did Zaheera turn greedy, presuming that Teesta and her
NGOs were using her to make money, and she deserved her cut? Transparency
is a desirable thing for everyone including NGOs, and many existing laws
including the Foreign Contribution Regulations Act (FCRA) ensure that for
the most NGOs remain on the straight and narrow. But there is something
obscene in the alacrity with which the Chief Minister of Gujarat and his
cohorts in the Sangh Parivar have jumped on this argument, implicating

Much can be written about the vulnerability of witnesses, all witnesses,
in India. It is almost routine for witnesses to turn hostile in court out
of fear of thugs that rule us, in politics and from outside. Witnesses are
shot dead in open court in North India. And often enough the State seems
to enjoy the publicity when it can force a rape victim to marry the rapist
as a just and reasonable solution. But here it goes beyond the issue of
witness safety, or perjury. What is now on trial in Gujarat and the
Supreme Court of India, is the role of Civil Society as a last ditch
interventionist in restoring sanity in a system that goes berserk
seemingly at will and on random pretext of caste, gender or religious
bigotry. A State that has already withdrawn form much of the social sector
and sometimes gives the appearance of also withdrawing from the law and
order and criminal justice sector. It is no joke that most Delhi
residential areas fortify themselves behind military cortina wire and hire
private security guards rather than leave this vital task to the police.

In this fragile system, some semblance of equilibrium and popular trust
has been created by the healthy relationship between Civil Society groups
and a receptive and nurturing Supreme Court. The PIL and the Writ in
Supreme Court by NGOs has calmed palpitating hearts, and restored
confidence in the Rule of Law.

We cannot but suspect a conspiracy of powerful forces that have forced
Zaheera, victim if ever there was, to renege on her own testimonies and to
betray the Supreme Court more than she injures the work of Teesta in many
other similar cases of Gujarat 2002.

Justice will be victim if the conspiracy goes unchallenged and undefeated.




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