29 June, 2003
This was the the first verdict
on a case involving Gujarat's post-Godhra carnage. Predictably, a court
in Vadodara acquitted all the 21 accused in the Best Bakery carnage,
because there was "lack of evidence". In a case in which at
least 12, - if not 14 - people were burnt alive. A case that had been
singled out by the NHRC for a CBI probe.
It was perhaps too much to
expect justice. Not many did - call it cynicism, or a heavy dose of
"realism" that we have been subjected to in the recent past.
A premonitory sign was available on May 17 when the main complainant,
Zaheera Habibullah Sheikh, along with her family members, was escorted
to the fast-track court by Madhubhai Babubhai Shrivastav, the BJP MLA
Zaheera Sheikh, the key witness,
had gone on to retract her statement that had led to the arrest of 21
accused from the Hanuman Tekri area. She had become a "hostile
witness". She deposed that she hadnt seen anything or known
anything about the incident. She was not the only one in the 44 days
of trial in this "fast-track" court. Out of 120 witnesses
named, 73 deposed and 41, including Zaheera Sheikh, and her entire surviving
family, refused to identify the accused or identified them as their
The fate of the case was
sealed. One more cold statistic in the long-list of high-profile cases
where the killers get away with murders because witnesses to the crime
"turn hostile". It is a moot question whether they are intimidated
or paid-off or whether they are persuaded or coerced to "buy"
peace with their "magnanimity".
"The dead won't come
back," goes the reasoning. "Vengeance never got any body anything.
It is past. Take care of the present, the future. Of the community."
A "peace" that leaves an impotent rage, a simmering discontent,
an anger barely suppressed that pervades the air.
Zaheera Shaikh was not present
in the jam-packed fast-court, nor her relatives, when the judge, HU
Mahida delivered his judgement: "It's not safe to convict the accused.
There's not an iota of evidence for that."
The 24-page judgement, after
calling the massacre a "blot on the cultural city of Vadodara",
goes on to say: "It was proved beyond doubt that a violent mob
had attacked the bakery and killed 12 persons and was also involved
in arson and loot. However, there was no legally acceptable evidence
to prove that any of the accused presented before the court had committed
"It seems the police
fabricated the statements and got them signed from the injured,"
it adds. But one just needs to look at the rest of the judgement to
get an idea of the role played by the prosecution: "Even though
the doctors deposed that the injured had clearly narrated the details
of [the] incident to them, the prosecution has submitted before the
court that the injured were not in a position to do so. This is unacceptable
to [the] court."
Where is Zaheera? It is not
known. She has not been seen since her appearance in court on May 17.
There are reports that according to her younger brother, Nafibullah
Sheikh, known as Raju, Zaheera has married and is now in Delhi. The
surviving members are off-press, but no answers are forthcoming as to
why they turned hostile in court.
Why did the BJP MLA Madhubhai
Babubhai Shrivastav accompany the Sheikh family on May 17? Oh, only
because Zaheera had received threats and needed protection. From whom
exactly? We do not know. And, of course, he doesn't know anything about
her. He has been a regular at the court since the trial began.
Reports say he was been seen cautioning the acquitted accused and their
relatives not to speak to the media or to celebrate, after the judgement.
So there were no bursting of crackers or any victorious processions.
Justice had been done, was the most they would say.
The Best Bakery Case
Whether 12 or 14 died still
remains unclear. In the 16th month after the gruesome carnage Two persons
- 45-year old Kausar Shah Mohammed Sheikh and 18-year old worker Arshad
alias Lula Haroon Sheikh - both uncles of Zaheera - are still technically
on the "missing" list. Apparently, the charred remains found
in the bakery's oven were not adequate for a DNA test by the Forensic
Science Laboratory and as a result it could not be "proved"
that the charred remains belonged to these two. As a result no compensation
has been paid to their survivors.
The wife and two daughters
of one of these two, Zaheeras sister Sabira, three Hindu and two
Muslim workers, along with the wife and two daughters of one of the
latter comprised the other 12 who were burnt alive.
But wasn't it known as one
of the best documented cases? One that had even got the NHRC to demand
a CBI probe? Hadn't the witnesses publicly recounted the carnage and
named the culprits who attacked them? Hadn't they deposed before the
Citizen's Commission headed by Justice VR Krishna Iyer? Hadn't they
filed affidavits before the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the government?
Hadn't Vadodara's deputy commissioner Bhagyesh Jha publicly criticised
for deliberately misleading the CEC on details of this case? Hasn't
the judgement itself questioned the role of the prosecution?
The concerned witnesses may
have turned hostile - and what their reasons for that were is a moot
question - but what is more important is the larger message this case
once again underlines: crime goes unpunished. Murderers get away with
impunity. And only the state is empowered to file a revision petition.
Any guesses as to what the
state would do? Appoint a high-powered committee to go into the recommendations
made by yet another committee to reform the criminal justice system,
Why do we, then, wonder when
terrorists get anointed, however perversely, as 'heroes' and 'martyrs'?