This week marked a significant turn of events for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The Supreme Court bench hearing Bilkis Bano's plea against the early release of the convicts responsible for the gruesome gang-rape and murders made a monumental declaration early in the week. The Court highlighted the critical difference between a massacre and a murder, emphasizing that comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges. However, as the week came to a close, a special court in Gujarat delivered a shocking verdict. The court acquitted all 67 accused in the Naroda Gam case, which came as a traumatic blow for the victims' relatives. The families have had to endure a long and arduous 13-year-long trial seeking justice for the tragic loss of their loved ones.
The Judge Shubhada Krishnakant Baxi acquitted the accused of various serious offenses including murder (Section 302), attempt to murder (Section 307), unlawful assembly (Section 143), rioting (Section 147), rioting armed with deadly weapons (Section 148 ), criminal conspiracy (Section 120(B)), and provocation for riots (Section 153), amongst others. The acquitted individuals in the Naroda Gam Massacre case include former minister Maya Kodnani, ex-Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Jaydeep Patel, among others.
Although the case initially charged 86 individuals, with 18 abated and one discharged during the course of the trial, the Thursday verdict ended the trial for the remaining 67 accused who were acquitted of all charges.
The Gujarat riots that took place in 2002 gave rise to a total of 9 cases, including Bilkis Banu, Naroda Gam, Naroda Patiya, Sardarpura, Gulberg Society, Godhra carnage, Ode Village, Dipda Darwaza, and Best Bakery. With the pronouncement of sentences in all other cases, Naroda Gam was the final unresolved matter.
The Naroda Gam Massacre
In 2002, following the incineration of the Sabarmati Express train in Godhra station with kar sevaks onboard, several riots ensued in the region of Gujarat, with the Naroda Gam massacre being among them. A day after the train burning, on 28 February, a severe onslaught of violence and arson was inflicted upon Naroda, Ahmedabad. 11 members of Muslim community lost their lives, including four women, and the incident was later deemed the Naroda Gam massacre. The police apprehended the former minister, Maya Kodnani, and an additional 85 individuals for their suspected involvement in the violence. The 2002 Gujarat riots, encompassing a total of nine cases, underwent scrutiny and were prosecuted in a special court by the SIT. The Naroda Gam massacre incident was also included in these cases. Notably, the BJP leader, now Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, also appeared before the court in 2017, on behalf of the defense.
What happened in Naroda ?
In opposition to the Sabarmati train burning incident, Hindu organizations had called for a bandh (shutdown) in the area, prompting police to keep a watchful eye on the situation. However, people were still wandering around in small groups, and those who had opened shops were instructed to close them. Suddenly, stoning began, and the situation quickly deteriorated. Within a few hours, Naroda Gam was engulfed in flames. Violence, arson, and destruction continued to escalate, and by the time the police had managed to take control of the situation, there were dead bodies strewn about the streets and alleys following violent clashes. Many people were injured as well. During the time of these riots, Babu Bajrangi (Babu Bhai Patel), a key leader of Bajrang Dal, was a prominent figure.
In an effort to curb the violent clashes and quell the simmering tensions in Naroda Gam, a curfew was instituted. The people of Naroda Gam clamored for the police to press charges against the 86 individuals suspected of inciting violence and causing mayhem. A specially tasked investigative team was assembled to investigate this case. At that time, Maya Kodnani, a minister in the Gujarat government, was accused of provoking people, with her name appearing in the FIR as well. After several days of the curfew, Naroda Gam gradually returned to normalcy.
Trial began in 2010
After conducting a lengthy investigation, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) filed chargesheets against 86 individuals, including Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi. In 2010, the trial for this case commenced. Following a Supreme Court directive, a specialized SIT court was established, and more than 187 witnesses were called to testify. The defense, in turn, presented 57 witnesses to support their case.
The trial for the Naroda Gam massacre case extended for 13 years, during which six judges presided over the proceedings. Initially, a judge from the Gujarat High Court was appointed, and several others retired during the course of the trial. In September 2017, Amit Shah appeared in court and came to Maya Kodnani's defense. In her defense, Kodnani cited that she was present in the legislative assembly when the massacre occurred, and after that, she was at the Sola Civil Hospital. Subsequently, the prosecution presented journalist Ashish Khetan's sting operation as evidence.
Kodnani, who previously served as the Women and Child Development Minister in the Cabinet of then-Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, was convicted in the 2012 Naroda Patiya case and received a 28-year prison sentence. However, in 2018, the Gujarat High Court overturned her conviction and acquitted her of all charges.
Supreme Court grills Gujarat govt over early release of Bilkis Bano gang rape convicts
The Gujarat government was questioned by the Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 18, regarding its decision to grant early release to 11 men convicted of the gangrape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of 14 of her family members during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The bench, led by Justice K M Joseph and including Justice B V Nagarathna, questioned the basis of the government's decision and whether appropriate consideration was given. Justice Joseph further noted that the atrocity of the crime committed cannot be compared to standard murder cases.
" The way the crime was committed was horrendous… A pregnant woman was gangraped and several people were killed. You cannot compare the victim’s case with standard Section 302 (murder) cases. Will you compare apples and oranges?” Justice Joseph said, adding “unequals cannot be treated equally”.
The Union government's concurrence with the decision was not taken as sufficient grounds for the state government to not apply individual discretion and follow the law.
The Laxmanpur Bathe Massacre
It is worth noting that the recent acquittal of all accused in the Naroda Gam case is reminiscent of the 1997 Laxmanpur Bathe massacre in Bihar. In both cases, there were allegations of complicity on the part of the state government, which resulted in a lack of proper investigation and justice for the victims' families.
The Laxmanpur Bathe massacre in Arwal district, Bihar, in December 1997, resulted in the alleged killing of 58 scheduled caste people by members of the Ranvir Sena as retaliation for the Bara massacre in which 37 upper castes were killed.
In 2008, charges were made against 46 Ranvir Sena men.In April 2010, the Additional District and Sessions Judge Vijai Prakash Mishra of the Patna Civil Court sentenced 16 men to death and 10 to life imprisonment for the massacre, describing the killings as a "stigma on civil society and rarest of rare cases of brutality."
However, in 2013, they were acquitted by Patna High Court due to a lack of evidence.
This verdict resulted in protests by the CPI (ML) party in central Bihar.
These incidences underline the flaws in the country's justice system and the need to ensure that justice is served to all victims of communal violence, regardless of their religion or caste.
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