Published on TEHELKA, by S. ANAND, Feb 02, 2008.
(Gang-raped and left for dead alongside 14 members of her family in Gujarat in 2002, she has won the first-ever conviction in a riot-related rape case. S. ANAND on her journey for justice).
JUSTICE HAS been a fugitive in the Republic of Gujarat, but sometimes it finds refuge in neighbouring Maharashtra. In 2006, the retrial in a Mumbai Special Court of the Best Bakery case — the burning to death of 14 Muslims on March 1, 2002 in Vadodara — involving the much-maligned witness Zaheera Sheikh, resulted in nine of the 17 accused being sentenced to life imprisonment. Now, the Mumbai Sessions Court’s verdict after the in-camera retrial in the Bilkis Bano gang rape and mass murder case reinforces the point. Thirteen of the 20 accused were convicted on charges of criminal conspiracy, rape and murder. Additional Sessions Judge UD Salvi awarded life imprisonment to 11 accused and three years’ jail for the head constable of Limkheda police station for framing a false complaint. One policeman died during the trial. This is also a landmark judgment, as Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover points out: “For the first time in post-independence India, a communal riot-related rape case has seen conviction.
” Sexual violence against women has been used as a key weapon in the many communal riots and pogroms in India. Yet, as feminist legal activist Flavia Agnes says, “The scale and extent of atrocities perpetrated upon Muslim women in Gujarat far exceeds any reported sexual crime during any previous riot in the post-independence period.” According to lawyer Indira Jaisingh, “Women are targeted because they are perceived to be bearers of identity. Such violence was part of the genocide in Rwanda too” …
… The strongest indictment of the Gujarat government’s complicity, of course, came from the SC judgment on April 12, 2004 in the Best Bakery case, when it said, “The justice delivery system was being taken for a ride and literally allowed to be abused, misused and mutilated by subterfuge.” The investigation was “perfunctory and anything but impartial, without any definite object of finding out the truth to book those who were responsible for the crime. The public prosecutor appears to have acted more as a defence counsel… The role of the state government… [suggests] that there was no seriousness… in assailing the trial court’s judgment.” The SC also rapped the Gujarat High Court for failing to provide the necessary corrective justice in the Best Bakery case, saying “the entire approach of the High Court suffered from serious infirmities, its conclusions [were] lopsided”.
The same SC seems to have now turned “apathetic”, as Bhushan puts it. On November 21, 2003, the apex court stayed all proceedings in 14 cases — including the Sabarmati Express burning case at Godhra, and those of Naroda Patiya, Naroda Gaon, Gulbarg Society, Sardarpura village and Ode village — pending a decision on whether they should be tried outside Gujarat. After four years, all these cases — except Best Bakery and the Bilkis case — are in a legal limbo. The facts and figures related to the Gujarat genocide cases tell their own story. Of the 4,252 cases registered, more than 2,107 were closed within months of the carnage without even the issue of a chargesheet to the courts. More than 200 courts in 17 districts passed these completely illegal orders of closure. In around 300 cases, the accused were acquitted after trial in the early months after the carnage. Under pressure from the SC, the state government reopened 1,602 cases, but over 500 cases were again quickly shut. The price of return for Muslims was withdrawal of cases. About the same time, 239 Muslims and one Sikh were booked under POTA on charges of waging war against the country, conspiring to kill BJP leaders, and participating in the ISI’s plans of destabilisation.
This is the path Narendra Modi rode to victory. In his Gujarat, justice shall remain a fugitive. And Bilkis Bano a refugee on the run. (full text).