FOR NEARLY 11 years, his life revolved around one single case. His daughters had to go to school and then college accompanied by a policeman. He couldn’t ever take leave for a holiday. Justice Pramod Kode, who presided over the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) court from March 1996 to 2007, hearing India’s longest running major trial, cannot forget any detail of the case, not even after his retirement in February 2015.
“The atmosphere in the city was very volatile,” says Justice (retd) Kode, stressing that he was always acutely aware that the trial had to be conducted in a manner that the faith of the accused in the legal system was never dented. As many as 123 accused persons were on trial, of whom 23 were acquitted, leading to a conviction of 100. The court examined a total of 684 witnesses during the course of the trial.
The trial of Abu Salem and six others was separated because they had been arrested later. Justice (retd) Kode says he did not closely follow the later developments in the case. “The case was already at a very belated stage when these other accused were brought in. I had recorded that evidence already recorded would be binding on these accused also. If I had not separated the matter, the case would have been prolonged till today,” he says. Recalling the atmosphere in the city when the trial began, Justice Kode says it was “horrifying” as speculations continued of similar incidents recurring.
“Due to the pressure and magnitude of this case, I had no time to think about any other matter. I couldn’t afford to take leave for even a day excepting when I fractured my hand,” he says.
The pronouncement of his judgment itself took months. “Each accused had to be called into the box. They were told what they were guilty of. Thereafter, recording of each accused’s statement would take place, which would take 15 minutes to an hour, after which both sides would be heard,” he recalls.
The pronouncement began in May 2007. “The first order was of acquittal. The process went on till August 2007,” adds Justice Kode.
He remembers vividly how many broke down upon hearing the pronouncement, including actor Sanjay Dutt. “In the case of actor Sanjay Dutt, I observed that everything was not lost for he had his entire life in front of him,” says Justice Kode. Many others, including a government official and a police officer, broke down. “The police officer was a sub-inspector accused of taking a bribe to allow landing of the arms and ammunition. He got life imprisonment,” he recalls.
The trial was also tough on his family. “Both my daughters went to school and college accompanied by a police officer,” says the retired judge.
Asked if the trial could have been expedited in any way, he concedes that it may have been too much work for a single courtroom, but nothing more could realistically have been done to fast-track the case. But in 1999, the court switched from recording evidence on a typewriter to a computer. That actually sped things up, the judge recalls.