The mob that killed 69 people at Gulberg Society during the 2002 Gujarat riots was not “really interested in causing deaths” but turned murderous after ex-MP Ahsan Jafri opened fire at them, concluded a special court on Friday, while sentencing 11 of 24 convicts in the case to life imprisonment for murder.
Elaborating on the court’s conclusion, Special Judge P B Desai stated in his judgment that the mob “was largely involved in stone-throwing and attempting to burn and damage the vehicles, and properties of members of the minority community outside Gulberg society”.
However, citing forensic reports and recovery of cartridges from Jafri’s terrace by Gujarat Police, the court said that “private firing on the part of the deceased Shri Ahsan Jafri, which resulted in some deaths from amongst the members of the mob and injuries… infuriated the mob who saw persons belonging to the majority community falling to the bullets being fired”.
The mob, the judgment stated, “suddenly turned into an ugly mob which indulged in the massacre of so many men, women and children of the minority community”.
The order termed the killings “unfortunate” and the “darkest day in the civil society of Gujarat”, but reiterated that “it was the private firing by Shri Ahsan Jafri that acted as a catalyst and which infuriated the mob to such an extent that the mob went out of control…”
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Police have not yet found any trace of Jafri who was among those killed on February 28, 2002.
In its verdict, the court dismissed victim testimonies that “Jafri was immobile and could not move out of his bungalow, and was done to death when the mob dragged him out of his bungalow”.
The court termed as “selective amnesia” the testimony of eyewitnesses who did not recall the “private firing from Shri Ahsan Jafri’s weapon”.
The court also junked the testimony of the Investigating officer (IO) of the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT), J M Suthar, who defended Jafri’s firing as “self-defence”. It stated that “no less than 15 persons were injured in such private firing, of which one person fatally succumbed to the injuries”.
Apart from the 11 convicted to life terms, one convict was sentenced to ten years in jail, and the remaining 12 given seven years of rigorous imprisonment.
The special judge pronounced the quantum of sentence in a packed courtroom while giving relief to the convicts that their sentencing would run concurrently and not consecutively. In other words, the years spent by the convicts in jail as undertrials would be counted as sentenced served.
Thus, two of the convicts who have been in jail for over 13 years and were granted seven years, Surendra Vakil and Sandip Mehra, would be free.
On the question of separate sentences for offences arising out of the same incident, the court held the defence argument that murder, loot, arson and unlawful assembly, among others, should be treated as part of a single offence. Therefore, it said, awarding consecutive sentencing to the convicts to each offence did not hold ground.
Reacting to the judge’s observations, Tanveer Jafri, son of Ahsan Jafri, told The Indian Express: “Our house was plundered and burnt, so how did they find the weapon? If they did, it was stolen by someone, or it should have been in a burnt condition. Also, have they produced even one witness who has said he saw my father opening fire? This is a very weak judgment and very unfair. That day, I took my mother out of the house, walking over bodies strewn around. The next morning, everything was burnt. All evidence was destroyed and the court has not done anything about this”.
Zakia Jafri, wife of Ahsan Jafri, said her husband was “running from one part of the bungalow to another and could not even get time to drink water. He did not find a gun and how could he fire on the mob with thousands of people? I think those who are behind the killings in Gulberg are putting allegations on my husband so that they can remain safe.”
Gulberg Society was one of the worst-affected Muslim localities in Ahmedabad during the post-Godhra riots where 69 people including Jafri were killed a day after 59 karsevaks were burnt alive at Godhra railway station. This case is one of the nine major riot cases investigated by the SIT, which took over the Gulberg case from Gujarat Police in 2008.
After the judgment, SIT counsel R C Kodekar said, “It is a very inadequate and lenient judgment. We are certainly not happy with it and we are going to challenge it in the high court.”
Defence lawyer Abhay Bhardwaj said: “We are thankful to the honorable judge that he has not accepted the prosecution lawyer’s argument that the Gulberg convicts should be held more responsible than a terrorist. While they asked for capital punishment, the judge has also considered the Gulberg accused worthy of reform.”