On April 29, survivors of the massacre at Naroda Patiya, where 97 people were killed in the 2002 riots of Gujarat, will gather to discuss their future course of action. On April 20, the Gujarat High Court acquitted former BJP Minister Maya Kodnani, who had been jailed for being the “kingpin of the violence.”
Advocate Shamsad Pathan, who appeared for the victims in the case, admitted that the verdict amounted to a big setback and they would have to decide how to approach the Supreme Court to challenge the verdict.
On February 28, 2002, a mob of around 5,000 people, led by Bajarang Dal leader Babu Bajarangi, gathered at Naroda Patiya and attacked the lower middle-class Muslim hub. The riots that lasted almost the whole day left 97 people dead and many injured. Houses were looted and shrines destroyed. Among the dead were 36 women and 35 children.
Where do victims live?
After the riot, survivors shifted to safe places such as Narol, Juhapur and Vatva. Even after 16 years of the violence, only a handful of families have returned to their original homes, while the rest have settled in other places.
“It’s no use going back there because it only brings us memories of those brutally killed,” said a victim, now settled in Juhapura. He lost three members of his family.
In 2012, Kodnani was sentenced to 28 years in jail for her role in the riots in Naroda Patiya. The riots broke out after the Godhra train carnage, in which 58 kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya lost their lives. It was one of the worst communal flare-ups in the State, in which over 1,000 people were killed.
Why was she acquitted?
At a hearing in the case, the Special Investigation Team (SIT), constituted by the Supreme Court to reinvestigate the most crucial cases of the riots, had told the trial court that a day after the Godhra incident, 11 people had seen Kodnani inciting mobs in the Naroda area, her Assembly constituency in north Ahmedabad. The witnesses told the court that they saw her handing out swords to rioters, and at one point even firing a pistol.
However, after a protracted battle in the High Court during which several judges recused themselves from hearing her appeal, the Division Bench of Justices Harsha Devani and A.S. Supehia, which had reserved its order last August, observed that the witness statements were inconsistent and had failed to prove Kodnani’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
Justices Devani and Supehia said the investigation carried out by the SIT did not “inspire much confidence.”
Of the 32 persons convicted by the trial court, the High Court upheld the conviction of 13 persons, acquitting 18, including the key accused, while one convict died during the appeal pending in the court. The High Court also reduced the quantum of sentence awarded to all convicts to 21 years in jail.
Additionally, the High Court convicted three others, who were among the 29 persons acquitted by the trial court, and their sentences will be announced on May 9. They are Umesh Bharwad, P.J. Rajput and lawyer Rajkumar Chaumal.
In 2003, the Supreme Court stayed the proceedings in nine most crucial cases, including the Naroda Patiya case, on a petition filed by the National Human Rights Commission and Citizens for Justice and Peace, an NGO. In 2008, the court constituted a SIT, headed by former CBI Director R.K. Raghavan, to reinvestigate these nine cases, and special courts were set up to conduct fast-track trials under the monitoring of the Supreme Court.
What lies ahead?
Working with Jan Sangharsh Manch, an outfit set up by the late advocate Mukul Sinha to fight for justice for the victims of the riots, Mr. Pathan is bringing survivors, witnesses and others together to chalk out a strategy for their legal battle in the Supreme Court.
(Adapted from The Hindu)