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How to lose the war on terror

July 09, 2003

Nothing more accurately sums up the state of justice in India than the recent acquittal of 21 accused in the Best Bakery case. This one had it all: a horrible crime; political lenses through which the crime is viewed from the moment it happens; an administration uninterested in punishing the guilty, or anyone; police investigation characterised by its indifferent shoddiness; witnesses intimidated or tempted to become that quaint court term, 'hostile'; a court left with no choice but to acquit.

Result for the families of 14 murdered Indians: utter injustice.

Complete coverage of the Gujarat riots

Sure, we have editorial writers and columnists wringing their hands over this travesty. We have the National Human Rights Commission and ordinary citizens condemning it. But if it's ordinary natural justice you're searching for in this case -- the kind that says you cannot take the life of another human being, and if you do, you will be punished -- you need search no more. Because justice like that is dead.

I cannot imagine how any Indian can look at this and not be alarmed, outraged, ashamed and nauseated. Yet what is truly astonishing -- though by now, with years of practice, it should not be -- is the number of people who will rise up to explain away this enormous Indian bloodstain, this enormous crime against us all.

You know I refer to the collapse of the case: much the greater crime than the slaughter at the bakery in March 2002.

Indeed, I can already hear long fingernails clicking at keyboards as some among my readers race to tell me that those murdered were only 'taught a lesson.' Or that this was only 'retaliation' against Muslims for the equally gruesome murders of Hindus at Godhra. Or that I -- or Muslims, or pseudo-secularists, or liberals, or really, anyone who finds this acquittal shameful -- haven't condemned Godhra 'enough.' Or we haven't condemned the tragic situation of Kashmiri Pandits 'enough.' Or what about conversions in the Northeast? Or 'please put all your efforts and investiage [sic] from where did you get this D'Souza name?' (verbatim, I swear). Or what about all that cross-border terrorism by Islamic jihadis?

All this to sweep away the disquieting fact that 14 horrible murders have not been and never will be punished. Not that the rationalisations work, not even in the minds that dream them up. Because even those minds know this simple truth: when innocent Indians are murdered, the murderers must face the law.

Or we have no law.

On the evening of March 1, 2002, a few hundred people, enraged by Godhra, surrounded Best Bakery on the outskirts of Baroda. Zaheera Sheikh, the 19-year-old daughter of the late owner of the bakery -- he had died of natural causes in the third week of February -- described to various inquiries and to the police what happened. The mob, she said, had 'swords, bottles, stones, tins of petrol and kerosene.' To start, they looted the bakery. Then they torched a room on the first floor where Zaheera's sister and an uncle were trapped. Through the night, others -- members of her family, bakery employees -- were burned as well; four-year-old cousins who lived next door were first hacked to pieces and then burned. In all, Zaheera lost nine family members that night.

Why did Zaheera Sheikh have to lie?

Reopen Best Bakery case, says witness

A terrorised Zaheera and some relatives took refuge on the terrace of the bakery. The mob spent the night abusing them and trying to get at them. Ironically, they couldn't use a ladder to get to the terrace because 'the walls were too hot.' In the morning, they killed three of the bakery's workers. More irony, because all three were Hindus.

All this, in 'retaliation' for the crime at Godhra two days earlier: a crime nobody at Best Bakery had any connection with. A crime which, speaking of the death of justice, is itself yet to see satisfactory punishment of its perpetrators. (Though note this significant difference between the two: the people who torched 60 in Godhra have been charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The people who torched 14 at Best Bakery did not have that Act applied to them. Why, I leave to your guesswork, which I'm sure is as good as mine).

Zaheera's statement to the police was taken as a FIR in the case. One Lal Mohammed, owner of a timber shop in front of the bakery that the mob also burned down, identified 21 people who were accused and brought to trial. Zaheera's initial statements named some of the same 21 too. The police had 73 witnesses, including Zaheera, who had made statements to the police and were to give evidence in the trial.

Between then and today, 39 of those witnesses, including Zaheera, 'turned hostile.' That is, they recanted their statements. Some said they had not seen the accused. Others said the police had made them sign on blank sheets of paper, which were later filled with some police concoction. Lal Mohammed's hostility was spectacular. He said the 21 he had named were falsely arrested, that they were not part of the mob of March 1st. He even said that some of the 21 actually protected him and his family that night and helped him flee the area.

Zaheera turned hostile in May. The Asian Age (June 29) reports that when it happened, she was accompanied to the court by the local BJP MLA, Madhu Srivastava. Srivastava had earlier 'promised that witnesses would turn hostile in court.' He was prescient: they did. Why, I leave to your guesswork, which I'm still sure is as good as mine.

None of this should be even slightly unfamiliar. Witnesses in cases like this one are notoriously vulnerable to pressures, whether intimidatory or monetary. In cases like this one, charged as they are with fierce political passions, turning hostile is nearly an Indian tradition.

Yes, tradition. Zaheera's turnabout should remind you of Satnami Bai and Darshan Kaur, who filed a case against H K L Bhagat for leading the murder of their husbands during the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. Even though Satnami Bai explicitly identified Bhagat as the man at the head of the mob that attacked her house and burned her husband alive, she later turned hostile. Suddenly, she could not identify Bhagat any more. Darshan Kaur had the possible explanation for Satnami Bai's behaviour: 'I and my children are still getting threats,' she told the court.

So it was with Best Bakery. The judge was left with no option but to acquit. Faced with witness hostility, with what he called 'weak' investigation by the police, with delays by the police that 'gave reason to believe that the FIR had been concocted,' Justice H U Mahida decided that 'as sufficient evidence could not be found, it is not safe to convict the accused' (The Times of India, June 28).

If Zaheera reminds you of Satnami Bai, Justice Mahida's comments might remind you of Justice G P Thareja, who acquitted Santosh Kumar Singh in December 1999. Santosh, son of an inspector general of police, was accused of the 1996 rape and murder of Priyadarshini Mattoo in New Delhi. During his trial, Justice Thareja observed that the prosecution had made a series of seemingly deliberate attempts to weaken its own case: hiding some evidence, fabricating other evidence, not 'following official procedure' and so on. In the face of this subversion, Justice Thareja was left with no option: 'Though I know [Santosh] is the man who committed the crime,' he wrote, 'I acquit him, giving him the benefit of the doubt.'

Justice Mahida, I feel sure, knows today what Justice Thareja meant.

At the end of April 2002, the Indian ministry of external affairs web site carried an 'Update on the Situation in Gujarat.' Under the heading 'The recent events in Gujarat: some factual points' were these lines:

'It is for the police and state machinery to proceed against those who have indulged in the heinous acts at Godhra. In no way does the Government condone mobs on the street taking recourse to revenge as a form of justice.'

Nowhere in these lines, or indeed in the whole site, was there a mention of Best Bakery, or indeed of any killing in Gujarat apart from Godhra and in police firing. Not a mention. But let that pass. Note at least the determination to 'proceed against' the Godhra criminals, even if that 'proceeding' still ambles along over a year later. Note at least the distaste for 'revenge as a form of justice,' the pretext for the Best Bakery crime.

Stand that determination and distaste up against what happened to the Best Bakery trial.

Delhi 1984, the Mattoo murder, Godhra, and now Best Bakery. Throw in the 1992-93 riots and blasts in Bombay, among others. All monuments to a striking reluctance to apply our own Indian laws to the terrorists who torch them as they torch their victims. All this from a country that seeks the sympathy of the world in its 'war' against terror.

We choose not to punish the terrorists in our midst. Fine, so let's be clear: we will never win this 'war' against terror.


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