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Blindfolded in Best Bakery

September 09, 2003 16:34 IST

The Hindu-hating media and the grandstanding National Human Rights Commission have gone overboard on the Best Bakery verdict holding 21 Hindus as not guilty of torching Muslims. The verdict and Zahira Sheikh's emergence on the front page soon after have so inflamed the NHRC and an NGO that they have belligerently gone to the Supreme Court. But they appear to have done so wearing a big blindfold on certain facts staring in the face of the sane and the sober.

The most glaring -- but cloaked -- fact concerns Zahira Sheikh whom the NHRC and the NGO and the Hindu-hating media have been holding up as their totem. That young woman first filed an FIR with the police against the 21 accused; then she retracted that statement in court and, after the Vadodara special court's 'not guilty' verdict, she went to town -- to Mumbai, proclaiming from the rooftop that she had lied to the court. The last publicly confessed act of hers makes her a criminal according to the statute book.

Section 191 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, says 'Whoever, being legally bound by an oath or by an express provision of law to state the truth or being bound by law to make a declaration upon any subject, makes any statement which is false, and which he either knows to or believes to be false or does not believe to be true, is said to give false evidence.'  Section 193 lays down that punishment for the offence of giving 'false evidence' is imprisonment which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine.

The scope of the above provision in law was amplified in a Supreme Court judgment 44 years ago. An excerpt of it said 'Whenever in a court of law a person binds himself on oath to state the truth he is bound to state the truth and he cannot be heard to say that he should not have gone into the witness box or should not have made an affidavit and, therefore, the submission that any false statement he had made after taking the oath is not covered by words of section 191 is not supportable. Whenever a man makes a statement in court on oath he is bound to state the truth and if he does not, he makes himself liable under the provisions of section 193. A defendant or even a plaintiff is not bound to go into the witness box but if either of them chooses to do so he cannot, after he has taken the oath to make a truthful statement, state anything which is false. Indeed the very sanctity of the oath requires that a person put on earth must state the truth.' (Ranjit Singh versus State of Pepsu, AIR 1959 SC 843.)

The media has hidden above legalities from the public and instead, along with the NHRC as well as an NGO, played up Zahira Sheikh as an innocent Muslim eve much harassed and hounded by the murderous Hindus of Gujarat.

Much has been made of Ms Sheikh's statement that she had received threats from a BJP legislator and others not to tell the truth in court and that the atmosphere in the Vadodara special court as well as in the whole of Gujarat was fiercely hostile to the truth being revealed. The fact of the matter is that there is no record of her having expressed these fears to the public prosecutor or the judge concerned or to the media. Another fact of the matter is that Mumbai is just six hours by train from Vadodara and, therefore, those who had allegedly threatened her in Vadodara could have done so even in Mumbai where she became so loquacious before cameras and correspondents.

Yet another fact of the matter is that none of the Hindu-hating media has cared to delve into the allegation of Ms Sheikh's sister-in-law that Zahira received a mini-fortune to do what she has so effectively done after the verdict was delivered. The final fact of the matter is that apart from Ms Sheikh's mother, none of the 35 or so 'hostile' witnesses in the Best Bakery case have joined the 'crusade' of Zahira and the media and the NGO and the NHRC.

Another conspicuous facet of this bloody bakery business is that, sitting in Delhi, Justice A S Anand, chairman of the NHRC, should have labeled the far away Vadodara court's verdict of acquittal of all the 21 accused as 'miscarriage of justice' even before sending his team to Vadodara to examine the judgment and related documents. As one who sat on the Bench for many years before becoming the nation's Chief Justice, Justice Anand should have known that an outburst against a judicial verdict is liable to the charge of contempt of court.

As it transpired, Justice Anand's uncontrolled anger so clearly brings administration of justice into disrepute that the Gujarat government quickly appointed three public pleaders for the purpose of suing him for contempt of court; these pleaders, in turn, filed an application before the Vadodara judge asking him to move the state's high court to punish the contemner who, they said, had insulted the honour and dignity of the judge, besides undermining the entire judiciary. If that comes about, as it should, it will be judicial history -- a former Chief Justice of the country being hauled in the very halls of justice over which he was once reigned supreme.

But Justice Anand has nevertheless taken his anger right up to the Supreme Court even before an appeal against the Vadodara verdict could be thought out by the Gujarat government. His NHRC petitioned the apex court to order a re-trial of the 21 'not guilty' Best Bakery accused. And the re-trial demanded is one that should be out of Gujarat state!

This demand is another evidence of the NHRC's smouldering rage over the 'no guilty' verdict. It is another evidence of the NHRC's blindfolded approach to the issue. As pointed by M N Buch, Article 20(2) of the Constitution of India prohibits trial for the same offence twice (Edit page article in The Indian Express, Mumbai, August 13, 2003). That Article says 'No person shall be prosecuted and punished for the same offence more than once.' As Constitutional expert S M Bakshi, points out, this Article 20(2) is supplemented by section 26 of the General Clauses Act, 1897, and the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1976, where the second prosecution is excluded. (Page 45, The Constitution of India, S M Bakshi, Fourth Edition, 2000, Universal Publishing Co Pvt Ltd, New Delhi.)

Besides being Constitutionally barred, the NHRC's demand for a re-trial of the Best Bakery case is a demand that is dangerous, nay disastrous, for the already fragile justice deliver system of India.

Imagine the utter chaos and all-round judicial demoralization if this demand is conceded. The precedent would herald an avalanche of similar demands throughout the length and breadth of our vast country throughout the year. The jurisdictional limitations of high courts set out in Article 225 of the Indian Constitution will simply go into a toss. The harassment to the accused, to the witnesses, to the judicial officers and to the lawyers concerned would be unimaginable. So would the cost of travel, board and lodge of all concerned. It would end up being a judicial joust.

A few days from now, the Supreme Court is expected to hear the NHRC's petition. Meanwhile, it seems appropriate, in a morbid sort of way, that the latest cause the NHRC has taken up with bulldog vigour is of those who manually handle night soil.

Arvind Lavakare