Scars of Sardarpura A look back at the massacre and the road to justice

26, Feb 2022 | CJP Team

The Sardarpura massacre, where a total of 33 people, all hailing from the minority community were killed in shockingly inhuman ways, was one of the nine cases related to the Gujarat riots that was investigated by the Supreme Court appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT). Here’s a look at the massacre and its aftermath, particularly the trial and convictions in the case, as well as the curious terms of bail set for the convicts.

Sardarpura is in the Mehsana district of Gujarat. The Muslim community in the area comprised lived in three areas dominated by Pathans, Sheikhs and Memons respectively. The Hindu community in the area comprised members of the Patel (Patidar) community.

On the night of March 1, 2002, a mob of nearly 1,000 people surrounded the area and attacked properties and establishments owned by the minority community. The attack lasted between 9:30 P.M and 2:30 A.M. During this time three cabins located at the entrance of Sheikh mohalla and a house owned by one Mehmudmiya were appeared to have borne the brunt of the wrath of the rampaging mob.

CJP has been fighting for justice alongside the survivors of the Gujarat 2002 carnage for 20 years. The legal battle has moved back and forth between the trial courts and the Supreme Court. We have taken up, in all, as many 68 cases from the Magistrate Court upwards to the Supreme Court, and ensured 172 convictions at the first stage, with 124 being to life imprisonment. Though some of these have been overturned in appeal, CJP’s unique legal journey has pioneered criminal justice reform whether it is the right of Survivors/Victims to participate in criminal trials or Witness Protection. CJP is committed to continuing its quest for exemplary justice, so that the healing process can begin. To support us, please Donate Now.

On the 20th anniversary of the Gujarat carnage, we are coming together to reflect on this struggle for justice. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/cjpindia

When communal violence broke out, a few families took shelter in a building in Sheikh Vaas, a building in the Sheikh dominated neighbourhood. Petrol and kerosene were poured on and inside the building, a live wire was also thrown inside. Here 33 people, mostly women and children, trapped in the building where they were seeking shelter, were killed by electrocution and burning. 24 others sustained injuries. Though two policemen were deployed to patrol and protect the area, they were not present when the mob attacked the only pucca building where people from the minority community were taking shelter.

A total of 55 persons were accused in the case as per the chargesheet filed on July 27, 2002, and after submission of the charge sheet, a criminal case was committed to the sessions court vide sessions case No. 275/2002 and it was pending for framing of charges. The sheer inhumanity of the act drew the attention of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Many survivors and witnesses also spoke to the Concerned Citizens Tribunal comprising Justice VR Krishna Iyer, Justice PB Sawant, Justice Hosbet Suresh and other eminent jurists. Some excerpts of what they told the Tribunal may be read here.

Legal journey of the Sardarpura case

The trial was stayed by the Supreme Court of India in transfer petition (criminal No. 194-202 of 2003 and 323-329 of 2003 with criminal misc petition No. 6970-6948 of 2003 and 407-410 of 2003 on 21.11.2003) in writ petition (criminal No. 109/03 and TP No. 194/03, 202/03, 326/03, 329/03) filed by the NHRC in the Supreme Court of India. On March 26, 2008, the SC formed the SIT and the Sardarpura massacre was one of the nine cases they were tasked with investigating.

However, the SIT appears to have faltered significantly in conducting this investigation. For example, the mobile phone records of police officials who were supposed to be present at the spot to prevent escalation of violence, and who failed to do their duty, were never examined. It was also not examined why several distress calls to local police stations did not get any response. Additionally the SIT failed to examine key procedural lapses like absence of Panchnamas or how bodies of victims were removed from the scene of crime without proper records being made.

On May 20, 2009, SC Shrivastava was appointed judge in the case. SC Shah continued as the Public Prosecutor. The SIT first added eight and then 12 more accused to the case in two subsequent chargesheets after the original one that had named 55 people. The total number of accused now stood at 75.

33 eyewitnesses gave testimony in the case including Shaikh Mustafamiya Rasulmiya who lost his wife and son in the attack on Mahmudmiya’s building, and Sabirhusen Kadarmiya Shaikh who testified to the use of electrocution as a method of killing people. Some witness testimonies as published in Communalism Combat’s December 2011 edition may be read here.

On November 9, 2011, the Mehsana Sessions Court delivered its judgment in the case. 31 people were convicted and handed sentences ranging from simple imprisonment for 15 days to three years, and fines from Rs 500 to Rs 50,000.

Case highlights and key excerpts as recorded in the judgment as published in Communalism Combat’s Dec 2011 edition and may be read here. The entire judgment may be read here.

Role of CJP and Teesta Setalvad

One could say that Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), as a human rights platform, was forged in the fires of Gujarat. Our team of dedicated activists, volunteers and lawyers had been on the ground providing comfort and support to survivors and families of victims. Sardarpura was one of the cases where we offered support to such survivors and families of victims to seek justice.

However, vested interests, to this day, accused CJP, and particularly CJP secretary and human rights defender Teesta Setalvad of “tutoring witnesses” in the case. This allegation is so common that even today, many of the stooges of the regime use similar language whenever the human rights defender is providing relief to survivors of any tragedy even today! In fact, recently similar baseless charges were leveled against Setalvad when the regime found itself unable to refute any of the allegations made in the Zakia Jafri case, where a Special Leave Petition (SLP) moved by Zakia Jafri, widow of slain Congress Member of Parliament Ahsan Jafri (who was brutally killed in the Gulberg massacre), and backed by CJP through Setalvad, was heard by the Supreme Court in November and December 2021.

But it is noteworthy that the Sardarpura judgment actually set the record straight in the matter.  In its order, the court held, “The witnesses have specifically denied that, Teesta Setalvad has told them as to what evidence was to be given in a case. Considering the evidence and fact in this regard when we consider this fact mere discussion about the case would not necessarily indicate tutoring.” The court elaborated, “It is not an accepted proposition that, the witnesses are never to be contacted by any one or spoken to about the matter regarding which they are to depose. A number of things can be told to the witnesses such as not to be nervous, carefully listen to the question put to them, state the facts before the Court without fear, therefore it does not appear any objectionable morally or legally.” Most importantly, the court clarified, “Tutoring a witness is quite different from guiding him as to his behaviour. In the present case, the injured witnesses were in such a state of mind that without the active support of someone they might not have come before the court to give evidence at all. The encouragement and the advice if provided by Citizen for Peace and Justice that cannot be considered as tutoring and simply because of that, we cannot infer that the witnesses are tutored.”

Some key extracts from the judgment dismissing allegation of tutoring may be viewed here:

 

High Court judgment in Sardarpura case

In October 2016, the Gujarat High Court upheld the conviction of 17 of the original 31 people convicted in the case and acquitted 14 people. One of the reasons for this was the procedural lapses by the police that helped some of the convicts get acquitted on mere technicalities. For example, the HC recorded in its judgment, “No test identification parade was carried out during the course of investigation and the witnesses have identified the accused for the first time before the court. It has been contended on behalf of the appellants/accused that the witnesses have identified the accused for the first time before the court and that no test identification parade had been conducted prior thereto and hence, such identification before the court cannot be relied upon.”

It is truly shocking that a procedure as basic as a test identification parade was ignored by the police! Many of the people previously convicted were let off after being given the benefit of doubt. The entire judgment may be read here:

 

Curious terms of bail

In January 2020 though, the Supreme Court granted bail to 14 people convicted in the case. These are 14 people from among the 17 whose conviction was upheld by the Gujarat HC. Three of the convicts passed away during this period. The bail was granted on the condition that the convicts will not enter the state but will shift to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. The convicts were divided into two groups to be relocated to Indore and Jabalpur, as there were fears for their safety in Gujarat.

The Bench headed by then Chief Justice Sharad Bobde also ordered the convicts to undertake social service during the period of their bail, and asked the District Legal Authority in Jabalpur to ensure that the convicts do the social and spiritual work assigned to them. The court further tasked the Madhya Pradesh administration to find the convicts work to earn a livelihood.

The bail order may be read here:

 

Related:

Prelude to the Carnage

Revisiting Godhra: Voices of survivors

On Memory and Surviving

Zakia Jafri and CJP: Still seeking justice for Gujarat 2002 victims and survivors

Gulberg Society: The massacre and its memory

 

 

 

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