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With 24 persons convicted by a special designated court in the Gulberg Society case, the total number of people held guilty in the 2002 Gujarat riots cases has risen to over 140. In a country where communal riots have been frequent but convictions of the perpetrators of violence very few, this is touted as an advancement for the criminal justice system. Cases related to the 1984 anti-Sikh killings in Delhi, the anti-Muslim riots in Hashimpura, Bhagalpur and Mumbai have dragged on for years while convictions have been hard to get. However, these cases date back to a pre-television era when reportage illustrated with black-and-white photographs brought the news of killings into homes. Gujarat 2002 was the first communal riot to be beamed live into the nation’s drawing rooms. Justice for the Gujarat riots victims became a national cause, unlike the riot cases from the 1980s, which retreated from public memory to anonymous police files and court rooms.
But despite the attention, the pursuit of justice in Gujarat has been a tortuous journey for the victims and their families. Like in the past, powerful interests involved in the riots did attempt to subvert the criminal justice system. It took a concerned Supreme Court to step in after frequent acquitals in the riot cases in lower courts. The apex court took serious note of the complaints that investigators and the lower judiciary were collaborating with the riot makers. Unwilling to trust the local police, it constituted a special investigation team (SIT) to further probe some of the cases and, in two instances, ordered fresh trials. Besides the nine cases brought under the SIT, among them the Naroda Patiya massacre where 97 Muslims were killed, and the Gulberg Society case in which 69 Muslims including ex-Congress MP Ahsan Jafri were burnt alive at a housing colony, the court also ordered trials in two cases to be conducted outside the state in a bid to quarantine them from influence by politicians in Gujarat. The apex court’s intervention came as a relief and assurance to the victims, but it was also a strong indictment of the criminal justice system in Gujarat.
Judgements have been delivered in eight of the cases the SIT investigated and many convictions have been secured. Yet, a sense of disappointment, if not outrage, has prevailed among the victims and those who have stood with them. The perception is that only the foot-soldiers have been punished while the masterminds go free. In the Gulberg Society case, 36 of the accused were acquitted and the court threw out charges of conspiracy. Anecdotal evidence and past judicial commissions that probed riots elsewhere have produced evidence in abundance, which revealed that riots are not mere spontaneous acts of violence but often meticulously planned operations carried out by foot-soldiers of political groups or parties. The masterminds remain in the shadows, and, mostly, beyond the reach of law. The Gujarat cases too, unfortunately, do not seem to beat this baneful pattern.