The judgement by a court into the Naroda Gam massacre case of 2002 Gujarat riots has come as a shock to the victims and those assisting them in their fight for justice. The court acquitted all 67 accused in the case related to the killing of 11 people on February 28, 2002. The violence took place during a bandh call given by Hindu right wing groups in the wake of the Godhra train burning incident where 59 Kar Sewaks were charred to death.

Those exonerated include former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani, former Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) general secretary Jaydeep Patel and Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi.

The judgement has more importantly brought into focus the most important point of the majority of accused in most of the cases of communal riots getting acquitted. In majority of the cases it has been also the high profile prime accused that have been declared not guilty even as helpless victims continue to wait for evasive justice.

If one just considers the Naroda Gam case, the judgement came after a long gap of 21 years after the massacre and what is the result ? All the accused were acquitted in a two line judgement pronounced before them.

The victims have run from pillar to post all these years including the 14-year long trial. They have re-lived their ordeal again and again as they narrated what they had to go through whether it was at the time of getting a First Information Report (FIR) lodged or before the Justice G.T. Nanavati and Justice K.G. Shah Commission where the latter was replaced by Justice Akshay Mehta or before the trial court.

Then there is the all important question of where lies the lacuna that leads to such large scale acquittals in the important cases of these kinds. Is it the failure of the investigating agency that is unable to collect and connect the chain of evidence available? Is it the prosecution at fault that fails to lead the evidence before the court?

In this context Shamshad Pathan who was the advocate for the victims in Naroda Gam case and has also been associated with other cases pertaining to the anti Muslim pogrom of 2002 raised a pertinent question. “Are we ready to make officials accountable? A faulty investigation leads to lack of evidence. The victims are deprived of justice and innocents suffer. Why shouldn't there be action against them? Instead we have laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act where things stand the other way round.”

Responding to the Naroda Gam verdict, he said, “It is not our defeat. It is the defeat of the Gujarat government. It is their responsibility to get justice for the people. Once we get the detailed judgement, we will study it minutely and then write to the Special Investigation Team (SIT) that had probed the case and the Gujarat government to file an appeal in the High Court. And if their appeal is not powerful enough, we will appeal at our level.”

In fact activists and lawyers were expecting solid convictions in the Naroda Gam case on the lines of the Naroda Patiya case where 32 persons were given life imprisonment by the trial court. These included Kodnani and Bajrangi. While Kodnani was later acquitted by the Gujarat High Court, Bajrangi’s conviction was upheld. It needs to be recalled that 97 people had been killed in Naroda Patiya during the 2002 violence.

But the Naroda Gam case has gone the way of the case pertaining to the killing of three British citizens and their driver near Prantij in north Gujarat. Of the nine cases probed by the SIT on the orders of the Supreme Court, these are the only two cases that have seen zero conviction at the trial court level.

The other cases probed by the SIT include Ode 1 where 23 people were killed, Ode 2 where three people were killed, Sardarpura where 33 people were massacred, Dipda Darwaza that saw 11 killings, Godhra where 59 were charred and Gulbarga Society where 69 were massacred.

According to reports 534 accused were tried in these cases in trial courts and there were 172 convictions. Of these 142 were given life imprisonment. In the Naroda Gam case 187 people were examined by the prosecution while the defence had brought 58 witnesses including the union home minister Amit Shah. He had supported Kodnani’s claim that she was at Sola Civil Hospital where the post mortem of the Godhra train burning victims was on at the time when Naroda Gam killings took place. This claim is disputed by the victims who had named Kodnani.

“This was a fit case for conviction because no witnesses turned hostile; there was both direct and scientific evidence. In addition there was the ‘extra judicial confession’ in the shape of the sting operation carried out by journalist Ashish Khaitan, the veracity of whose tapes were upheld and confirmed by the forensic science laboratories at Gandhinagar and Jaipur,” said Pathan.

“Someone has to be held responsible. The judgement needs to be examined. If there is a lacuna in investigation, it is the SIT that is responsible. If it is a failure to lead evidence in the court it is the prosecution. After all no one can deny that the murders did not take place. And if they did take place those responsible for them need to be punished. And those responsible for ensuring this have to deliver at their end.

“In criminal trials things need to be proven beyond doubt. Identification of accused in cases of mob violence is an issue. In addition to this the Supreme Court has called for seeing corroborative evidence,” explained advocate Amrish Patel who has been dealing with cases of 2002 riots.

Meanwhile, Imtiaz Qureshi who is one of the survivors and witnesses in the Naroda Gam case told The Citizen, “we waited and struggled for 21 long years in the hope for justice. Fighting a legal battle, even for a couple of years, is not an easy task. We do not have any personal enmity with the accused. We just told the court what we saw. Yet everyone was acquitted. What does this show? There is no justice for a common man.”

Sharif Malek, another witness minced no words when he said, “After a day-long wait on the day we were fasting last week, we came to know that all the accused were acquitted. Did those 11 people kill themselves at that time? Did the people torch their own houses? Such judgements shake the people’s faith in the system. We have fought for 21 years. We will fight for another 21 years if need be to get justice.”

Social activist Prasad Chacko said that such judgements point towards the sad state of affairs. “People are very anxious. They are waiting to see how things play out in important cases before the Supreme Court like the convicts in Bilkis Bano case having been released or the case pertaining to same sex marriages. There is already an effort being made at political level to erase what happened in 2002 in Gujarat from the public memory. It is all as if nothing happened,” said Chacko.