The Gujarat High Court, while commuting to life imprisonment the death sentences awarded to 11 convicts in the Godhra train burning incident that triggered riots across the state in 2002, cited “two circumstances not justifying capital punishment” — “overcrowdedness” of coach S-6 of Sabarmati Express, and the fact that “more than 100 people could escape” from the other side of the coach suggested that while “the accused had the intention to cause death and maximum damage, they did not intend to enhance the number of casualties”.
Fifty nine people, mostly kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, died when coach S6 of Sabarmati Express was set on fire at Godhra on the morning of February 27, 2002.
The order delivered Monday by the bench of Justices Anant S Dave and G R Udhwani, uploaded Tuesday on the High Court website, stated: “…it appears that overcrowdedness in the coach contributed to the enhancement of number of casualties which, in our judgment, might have been far far low in absence of the coach being overcrowded with double the official capacity of the passengers and the luggage. Furthermore, though the accused had ignited the coach on its onside, about more than 100 people could escape to the offside suggesting that the accused had the intention to cause death and maximum damage, they did not intend to enhance the number of casualties.”
Noting that while considering the award of death sentence “a duty is cast upon the court to deliberate on various facets of sentence and to immunize itself to avoid branding imposition of death sentence as ‘judge-centric’ or ‘blood thirsty,’ the court is required to closely scrutinize the evidence with an endeavour to find out the evidence justifying death penalty”, the bench said that “qualitative analysis of the entire evidence, though sufficient enough to sustain conviction, do not justify awarding sentence of death”.
It said the testimony of witnesses were “natural, free from any influence or tutoring, trustworthy and inspiring confidence and therefore reliable and to be believed”.
The bench was critical of state failure to maintain law and order. Noting “there was a mass declaration of a vow by members of public to perform kar seva at the highly disputed Ayodhya site”, it said: “Constitutional obligation to maintain law and order obligated the State to ensure safety of the persons who ventured to go to Ayodhya for Aahuti, etc. Furthermore, Signal Faliya, Godhra is highly sensitive communal riots prone zone to the knowledge of the State.”
“In the above factual scenario, the Government ought to have apprehended the trouble at least in sensitive areas like Signal Faliya wherefrom the train was scheduled to pass. Evidence on record do not indicate any dedicated efforts of maintaining law and order at sensitive place like Signal Faliya, except few constables/RPF personnels loitering here and there before the incident in question. It is the case of the State that as many as 59 persons were roasted alive and many more were injured during the incident in question. This argument itself admits the failure on the part of the State to maintain law and order.”
The bench also held the Railway authorities “equally negligent”. In their order, the judges said: “Indian Railways, particularly, North, Central and Western Zones and authorities incharge thereof were fully aware about overcrowded trains running through the territories under their control for which no measures were taken to ensure safety of the passengers or to provide alternatives. We are, therefore, of the view that not only the State Government, but the Ministry of Railways, Union of India, are equally negligent in performing the duties for providing safety to the passengers travelling in the trains. That compensation can neither be peanuts for the victim nor a bounty. It must be just, fair and reasonable.