This was the first verdict on a case involving Gujarat's post-Godhra carnage. Predictably, a court in Vadodara today acquitted all the 21 accused in the Best Bakery carnage, because there was "lack of evidence". In a case in which at least 12 - if not 14 - people were burnt alive. A case that had been singled out by the NHRC for a CBI probe.
It was perhaps too much to expect justice. Not many did - call it cynicism, or a heavy dose of "realism" that we have been subjected to in the recent past. A premonitory sign was available on May 17 when the main complainant, Zaheera Habibullah Sheikh, along with her family members, was escorted to the fast-track court by Madhubhai Babubhai Shrivastav, the BJP MLA from Waghodiya.
Zaheera Sheikh, the key witness, had gone on to retract her statement that had led to the arrest of 21 accused from the Hanuman Tekri area. She had become a "hostile witness". She deposed that she hadn’t seen anything or known anything about the incident. She was not the only one in the 44 days of trial in this "fast-track" court. Out of 120 witnesses named, 73 deposed and 41, including Zaheera Sheikh, and her entire surviving family, refused to identify the accused or identified them as their "actual saviours".
The fate of the case was sealed. One more cold statistic in the long-list of high-profile cases where the killers get away with murders because witnesses to the crime "turn hostile". It is a moot question whether they are intimidated or paid-off or whether they are persuaded or coerced to "buy" peace with their "magnanimity".
"The dead won't come back," goes the reasoning. "Vengeance never got any body anything. It is past. Take care of the present, the future. Of the community." A "peace" that leaves an impotent rage, a simmering discontent, an anger barely suppressed that pervades the air.
Zaheera Shaikh was not present in the jam-packed fast-court, nor her relatives, when the judge, HU Mahida delivered his judgement: "It's not safe to convict the accused. There's not an iota of evidence for that."
The 24-page judgement, after calling the massacre a "blot on the cultural city of Vadodara", goes on to say: "It was proved beyond doubt that a violent mob had attacked the bakery and killed 12 persons and was also involved in arson and loot. However, there was no legally acceptable evidence to prove that any of the accused presented before the court had committed the crime".
"It seems the police fabricated the statements and got them signed from the injured," it adds. But one just needs to look at the rest of the judgement to get an idea of the role played by the prosecution: "Even though the doctors deposed that the injured had clearly narrated the details of [the] incident to them, the prosecution has submitted before the court that the injured were not in a position to do so. This is unacceptable to [the] court."
Where is Zaheera? It is not known. She has not been seen since her appearance in court on May 17. There are reports that according to her younger brother, Nafibullah Sheikh, known as Raju, Zaheera has married and is now in Delhi. The surviving members are off-press, but no answers are forthcoming as to why they turned hostile in court.
Why did the BJP MLA Madhubhai Babubhai Shrivastav accompany the Sheikh family on May 17? Oh, only because Zaheera had received threats and needed protection. From whom exactly? We do not know. And, of course, he doesn't know anything about her. He has been a regular at the court since the trial began.
Reports say he was been seen cautioning the acquitted accused and their relatives not to speak to the media or to celebrate, after the judgement. So there were no bursting of crackers or any victorious processions. Justice had been done, was the most they would say.
The Best Bakery Case
Whether 12 or 14 died still remains unclear. In the 16th month after the gruesome carnage Two persons - 45-year old Kausar Shah Mohammed Sheikh and 18-year old worker Arshad alias Lula Haroon Sheikh - both uncles of Zaheera - are still technically on the "missing" list. Apparently, the charred remains found in the bakery's oven were not adequate for a DNA test by the Forensic Science Laboratory and as a result it could not be "proved" that the charred remains belonged to these two. As a result no compensation has been paid to their survivors.
The wife and two daughters of one of these two, Zaheera’s sister Sabira, three Hindu and two Muslim workers, along with the wife and two daughters of one of the latter comprised the other 12 who were burnt alive.
But wasn't it known as one of the best documented cases? One that had even got the NHRC to demand a CBI probe? Hadn't the witnesses publicly recounted the carnage and named the culprits who attacked them? Hadn't they deposed before the Citizen's Commission headed by Justice VR Krishna Iyer? Hadn't they filed affidavits before the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the government? Hadn't Vadodara's deputy commissioner Bhagyesh Jha been publicly pulled up by JM Lyngdoh for deliberately misleading the CEC on details of this case? Hasn't the judgement itself questioned the role of the prosecution?
The concerned witnesses may have turned hostile - and what their reasons for that were is a moot question - but what is more important is the larger message this case once again underlines: crime goes unpunished. Murderers get away with impunity. And only the state is empowered to file a revision petition.
Any guesses as to what the state would do? Appoint a high-powered committee to go into the recommendations made by yet another committee to reform the criminal justice system, perhaps?
Why do we, then, wonder when terrorists get anointed, however perversely, as 'heroes' and 'martyrs'?