Debating India

GUJARAT

Two steps backward

Dionne BUNSHA

Wednesday 7 January 2004, by BUNSHA*Dionne

The Gujarat High Court’s acquittal of the accused in the Best Bakery case demolishes the victims’ hopes of justice.

SHE may have braved the odds in her quest for justice. Yet the odds seem to be against her still. Zahira Sheikh, the main witness to the Best Bakery murders in Vadodara, attracted national attention when she admitted to turning hostile in the Sessions Court under threat from Madhu Shrivastav, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator in Gujarat. After the `fast track’ Sessions Court acquitted 21 accused in the Best Bakery case, Zahira stirred up a storm by demanding a re-trial.

She filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court asking for justice outside Gujarat. Her family did not feel it would get a fair trial in Gujarat. Embarrassed, the Gujarat government acted quickly. It appealed against the Sessions Court judgment in the Gujarat High Court.

But on December 26, the High Court also let the accused off the hook. The hearings lasted just six days. A Division Bench comprising Justices B.J. Sethna and J.R. Vora dismissed the appeal and two applications that sought to produce more evidence. The court did not give any reasons for the acquittal. It said the reasons would be given after the court vacations.

While hearing the appeal, the High Court did not even accept as additional evidence affidavits filed by Zahira and three other witnesses in the Supreme Court explaining that they had turned hostile in Court because their lives were under threat. In other words, it chose to ignore the fact that the witnesses faced threat. After the Sessions Court acquitted the accused, Zahira and other witnesses publicly said that their testimonies in court were incorrect. Yet, the High Court relied on these testimonies while considering the case.

Zahira and her family have been living in hiding for five months. They had to flee Gujarat. It is still not safe for them to go back home.

On March 1, 2002, a mob attacked Best Bakery owned by Zahira’s family. Fourteen people were burnt alive, including two family members of Zahira. Zahira witnessed the mob reduce their lives to ashes from the terrace of her home, situated above the bakery. Later, she described the attack in her police complaint. Zahira was vociferous in demanding justice. She petitioned the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) when it visited Gujarat soon after the communal violence. But as the trial approached, the pressure on her family increased. They allegedly received threats and offers for compromises from local politicians, Madhu Shrivastav and his cousin Chandrakant alias Bhattu Shrivastav, a Congress(I) councillor. "Our neighbour, Lal Mohammed, kept telling my family: `Don’t let her testify. With one testimony your life can be saved or it can be finished’," Zahira told Frontline in an interview (Frontline, August 1, 2003)

Apparently, Lal Mohammed was acting as a conduit for the Shrivastavs. Finally, Zahira Sheikh’s family caved in. They went back on their statements in court. However, after the Sessions court acquitted the accused, Zahira created a stir by saying that she lied in court under pressure from political thugs. She demanded a re-trial outside Gujarat. "The area we lived in is Madhu Shrivastav’s area. He is the man who threatened us. He can do anything to us. I want the case to be re-opened. But I don’t want to fight it in Gujarat. I am ready to fight it anywhere else in India," she said.

Overnight, Zahira became an icon of the Gujarat communal violence. Reacting to the media stir, the NHRC took up her case and four other cases. It filed an appeal in the Supreme Court asking that these cases be tried outside the State. The Gujarat government scuttled any move for the Best Bakery re-trial by appealing against the Sessions Court verdict. In the other four cases, the Supreme Court took serious note of the State’s investigation and prosecution lapses.

The most publicised case of the Gujarat communal violence in 2002, the Best Bakery case immediately brought into the public eye the injustices against riot victims in Gujarat. Right from filing a police complaint to getting justice, it is a struggle to be heard, to be acknowledged by a negligent administration. Just recently, a riot victim managed to get his first information report registered with the police - 657 days after the incident. Yakubhai had witnessed 18 murders on February 28, 2002. But until December 17, 2003, the police refused to record his statement. At the Kalol police station in Panchmahals, central Gujarat, they asked him to remove the names of the accused and produce the remains of the dead before agreeing to register his testimony. Since the bodies were not found, they were considered `missing persons’. The police even asked the penniless Yakub to produce Rs.4.5 lakhs in collateral for each dead member - just in case they turn up alive in the future. (Frontline, August 29, 2003).

When the mob attacked Muslims in his village Delol, Yakub and his neighbours fled into the fields. At Futevad Talaav eight of them were caught, slashed with swords, doused with petrol and set ablaze. Yakub hid in the fields and could see his father, his mother, his brother, his sister, his niece, and his nephew all being killed.

The survivors walked for two hours till they reached the Goma river. Here the mob tracked them down. Ten were killed. Yasmin, a 13-year-old girl, was stripped and gang raped. Ejaz saw them slash his mother’s neck. They piled ten bodies, set them ablaze, made Ejaz walk around the pyre and finally threw him in the fire as well. But for almost two years, there has been no record of this gory massacre. Finally, when officials in Kalol police station were transferred, Yakub was able to get his complaint registered. Whether he will ever get justice is another question.

For Zahira, Yakub and thousands of other riot victims, it is one step forward and then two steps back in their long journey to justice. They confront an establishment that does not acknowledge their rights. The odds are against them. They are barely struggling to survive. But they are still fighting.

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