“I haven’t lost hope in Judiciary, but my faith has diminished”
-Colin Gonsalves, Senior Advocate (In an interview with Live Law)
In the midst of riots, on February 28, 2002, in Sardarpura Village of Mehsana district in Gujarat, 33 Muslims, mostly women and children took shelter in a house in the Sheikh locality, trying to escape from the Hindu fanatic crowd. The mob, however, surrounded the house, locked them inside a room and all of them were electrocuted to death.
18 years later, on Tuesday (28th January) Supreme Court passed its judgment on the case. The seventeen convicts were granted bail on the condition that they will not enter the state and will shift to neighboring Madhya Pradesh. The convicts were also asked to undertake spiritual and social services.
Here is all you need to know about the case:
On February 28, 2002, in Sardarpura Village of Mehsana district in Gujarat, 33 Muslims, mostly women and children took shelter in the house of Ibrahim Sheikh in the Sheikh Vaas lane, trying to escape from the Hindu fanatic crowd. The mob, however, surrounded the house, locked them inside a room and burnt them alive. All 33, including 22 women were charred to death.
Following this on March 3rd, 2002, a First Information Report (FIR) was filed in Vipapur police station by Sheikh Ibrahim Raghubhai, which named 55 people. Like most of the 2002 riot cases, the investigation was unsatisfactory and biased.
A New Hope For Justice
Sardarpura case suffered major jurisdictional challenges as the State police which was investigating the case were themselves accused of organizing the massacre. The attempt of the state government to take up the case was continually challenged by civil liberty groups.
In 2003, Citizens for Justice and Peace and the National Human Rights Commission filed a plea in the Supreme Court seeking to shift the case outside Gujarat to ensure a fair trial. In 2008, the Supreme Court constituted a Special Investigation Team headed by Dr R K Raghavan to reinvestigate nine massacre cases during the 2002 riots, including the one in Sardarpura.
The special investigating team completed its investigation within a year. With 21 fresh arrests, the count of accused rose to 73. Taking into consideration the efficiency of SIT, the court had asked it to continue until the trial is completed, and also asked them to do further inquiry if required. The involvement of SIT gave a renewed hope for justice for those affected in the riots.
Black Coats, Bleak Justice
In its final report to the court, the SIT team headed by Raghavan gave Modi a clean chit saying there was not sufficient ground for any action under the law.
“But taking an overall view of this statement and his subsequent appeals for peace, it is difficult to opine that Shri Modi’s intention was to provoke Hindu feelings against the Muslim community,” Raghavan had said in the report prepared by investigation officer in the case A K Malhotra.
Step by step, in the trials the accused were also given bail. After the first set of hearing in 2011, the trial court (Mehsana District Court) acquitted 42 accused while convicted 31 for murder and other charges. Two of the accused died during the trial. The 31 were given life imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 50,000.
Though the SIT approached Gujarat High Court challenging the judgment, the HC also upheld the decision of the lower court. The court also said that prosecution is coming up with conspiracy theories.
In addition to this, in 2016, the High Court also acquitted 14 more accused and convicted 17 of them.
Riot, Social Service, and Spirituality
In the latest hearing, on Tuesday the Supreme Court granted bails to the rest of Seventeen. Those accused of burning alive 33 Muslims will now have to do “community and spiritual services.”
The bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde divided the convicts into groups of two and have directed the Madhya Pradesh administration to find them work. One group will stay in Indore and the other in Jabalpur, said the three judges. The convicts will have to do six hours of community service daily.
There is an organized official attempt to trigger an environment of fear and insecurity among Indian Muslims. In between, with such judgments, the prospects for convincing the justices of the divisive strategies of the state seem bleak. If the people lose faith in the judiciary, particularly, the Supreme Court, there is nothing much to look forward to, in a democracy.