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Friday, 11 November 2011

A Good Judgment

From TOI

Given the impunity generally enjoyed by perpetrators of communal violence, the imposition of life sentence on 31 rioters for burning alive 33 Muslim victims in Sardarpura in the 2002 Gujarat riots is a milestone in India's history. If the signal goes out that those responsible for heinous communal massacres do not enjoy immunity from prosecution, that in itself will have a salutary effect in curbing their incidence. It's safe to say that with a few verdicts like this the country will have made a dent in controlling communal riots, and therefore dramatically improved its record of upholding human rights.

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.

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