Questioning the way justice system works in the country, a Delhi High Court judge asked whether the “judicial apparatus” is “equipped” to deal with communal crimes like the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Noting that the riots are “indeed a dark chapter” in the history of independent India, the HC upheld the conviction of 70 people, sentenced to five-year imprisonment by a trial court for rioting, burning houses and violation of curfew in Trilokpuri.
“That the criminal justice administration may falter or crumble, or lose its potency, is no longer a distant doomsday scenario. It appears to have arrived and stares us in the face. The question as to whether the guilt of the appellants for complicity in rioting and mischief by fire was correctly concluded or not has come up for determination 34 years after the crimes were committed, and 22 years after the trial court had rendered its decision. The whole exercise is completely academic,” Justice R K Gauba observed.
In his order, Justice Gauba dismissed the appeals of the convicts who had challenged an August 27, 1996 judgment of a Sessions Court which had convicted 89 people. The trial court, in its August 1996 judgment, had acquitted five of the 94 accused who had been put to trial. Out of 89, 16 died since then, as per 2015 data in court records, while three are absconding. The court asked the convicts to surrender forthwith to serve their remaining prison terms.
The HC said the trial court order “conspicuously lacks clarity” on why no case for a graver offence, like murder, was made out, given that a large number of persons died in the violence “committed by the rioters”. Justice Gauba noted that of all the bodies recovered after the rioting, 22 remain unidentified and it was likely that no prosecution was initiated against anyone with respect to these deaths. “In the foregoing facts and circumstances, this court directs the Commissioner of Police, Delhi to have the material, and the evidence, in above nature, re-examined by an appropriate agency for such further action,” the HC said.
The court said for those who suffered personal loss in the form of killings of their “near and dear ones, or destruction of their homes”, there can possibly “never be a closure”. The court added that it was “more concerned” with enforcement of criminal law for crimes that are committed in the name of protests, and take an “ugly shape” of communal riots. Justice Gauba observed that a sense of neutrality in investigative and prosecution process has to be injected and explored.
The court concluded that even after 34 years, victims still await justice and closure. “Is this what we call a potent and effective criminal justice system? Is our judicial apparatus at all equipped to deal with the crimes of such magnitude? Do we have lessons to be learnt from this sordid experiment in the name of criminal law process? It is indeed a matter of lament that there has been no meaningful thought spared till date to usher in reforms in the judicial process to effectively deal with cases of communal riots which are engineered, more often than not, by those who have clout or influence,” the court said.