OF the nearly 2,000 cases lodged after the Gujarat 2002 riots, this was the only one where all were acquitted because nobody testified against each other. Between the incidents 14 years ago and the March 12 acquittal of 118 in Nadiad, including Hindus and Muslims, lie a temple, peace efforts and mutual recognition that putting the past behind was the only way forward.
Additional Sessions Judge N T Solanki acquitted the 107 surviving accused (11 died during the course of the trial) due to “lack of evidence” as none of them or even the 35 police witnesses testified against anyone.
While the riots happened in four Nadiad areas, two predominantly Hindu and two Muslim, on February 28, 2002, a single FIR was filed with all the accused (84 Hindus, 34 Muslims), booked on charges of “assisting each other” in abetting the riots. Several shops were burnt in the violence that day while two people were killed. In their testimonies, all the accused and 35 police witnesses said they “didn’t know” the people who indulged in arson that day.
The killings are being tried separately, and locals attribute the deaths to police firing.
Majid Pathan, the lawyer for the Muslim accused, says, “It was a strange case as the accused belonging to both communities were clubbed in one FIR and 35 police witnesses belonging to both communities were named as testifying against the accused.”
After the verdict on March 12, this year, the accused distributed pedas, celebrating their “united victory” at a tea shop on the court premises, where they hung out during the trial. Public Prosecutor Paresh Dhora admitted that all the accused “arrived and left” together for most hearings.
A day after the acquittal, Shehzad Kapadia, 36, is back at his S K Weigh Bridge shop in Amdavadi Darwaza area. In the riots at Nadiad’s Qabrastan Chowk, Mill Road, Kanipura and Amdavadi Darwaza Bahar, the family’s scrap godown was burnt. His father was saved by his Hindu Marwari friends. Yet, says Kapadia, he was listed as accused no. 33.
He was in jail for 22 days before he got bail. “I appeared in the sessions court at least 224 times,” says Shehzad. Many of the other accused were his childhood friends, he adds.
Among them was Amit Patel, an Independent municipal councillor at the time of the riots who later joined the BJP. He featured as accused no. 61. Says Amit, “I was part of a peace committee in 2002 to ensure the communal fires did not engulf our city. But I was made an accused… Police lodged one FIR for incidents that it claims occurred in four different parts of the city. Until today, I don’t know what incident I was booked for.”
He believes the case against him was “political vendetta”. Now he focuses on his business of electric cables while his wife, Deepal, has become a municipal councillor.
Accused no. 62 Jagrut Shah, a practitioner of alternative medicine, continues to run his clinic across the road from the riot-affected Muslim-colony Paradise Society, like he did in 2002. Hindus and Muslims are almost in equal number in the area, and in most lanes their homes share boundary walls.
At Shah’s clinic, several burqa-clad women await their turn. “I have put behind me whatever happened,” says Shah, adding that on most days he gets so many patients that there is no time to take a break. “As you can see, many are Muslims.”
Another accused, paan vendor Yakub Adam Maniya, then 36, was jailed for nine days and had to appear in court 200 times. A reticent Yakub says, “I am just glad it is over. A paan vendor can’t afford to miss a single day of work. Not to mention the tag of being an accused in a crime I dreaded falling prey to. I don’t recognise anyone I saw that day — vandalising shops and setting properties on fire, as authorities expressed helplessness. Later, many others like me were rounded up. I could not have deposed against anyone.”
Former Congress councillor Mohammed Sharif Gaffur Motana’s auto-parts showroom was reduced to ashes while his nephew was among the two killed. He says the police helped the actual accused flee. “Those who got caught were locals.”
“What option did the accused have than to reach a settlement?” Motana adds. “Who wants their life to be scarred by testifying in a case that has not even been investigated? I was lucky to be able to rebuild my property. There are so many who could not even prove that their properties were lost in arson.”
Prosecutor Dhora denied that people had been wrongly accused. “In statements before the police, witnesses testified against the accused. The accused too confessed their involvement. But during deposition, the witnesses turned hostile as did the accused.”
He said it was up to the government to decide whether it wanted to challenge the acquittals in a higher court.
Explaining how they reached a “settlement”, lawyers of Hindu and Muslim accused say they convinced them to together fight the case.
Says advocate Shabbir Pirzada, who represented the Muslim accused, “We knew there was no merit in the case without testimonies of witnesses and accused. We had to ensure that the accused and witnesses did not buckle under pressure in court. Regular Peace Committee meetings with leaders of both communities and intervention of the Santram temple helped reach a consensus.”
Adds advocate Pathan, “The biggest task was to ensure that all the 118 accused turned up in court for each hearing. Even if one was absent, everyone had to return after adjournment. Initially, it was troublesome, but then all of them, being daily-wage workers and businessmen, realised (the cost of) missing a day’s work due to court adjournment.”
Besides, he says, the lawyers explained that deposing against someone would mean that someone would depose against them.
The accused also give credit to Santram Temple. At the height of the tension, its head priest, the late Narayandas Maharaj, issued an appeal to his followers, both Hindus and Muslims, to keep peace. It was that appeal, say the accused, that ensured that Nadiad largely saw just episodes of arson.
Ashish Dave, a volunteer with the temple, says, “The belief of the people ensured Nadiad did not witness any bloodshed. Even during curfew, police did not prohibit devotees visiting the temple.” According to Dave, the core ideology of the temple, which was set up in 1872, is humanity and not religion.
Eventually, advocate Narendra Brahmbhatt says, it came down to the fact that the two communities have to co-exist. “We grew up in areas where homes of Hindus and Muslims are stacked together. We have to coexist for many reasons, there was no point in dragging the case.”
Amit Patel agrees, “We are all businessmen, who have families to take care of. None of us wanted to go through the grind of the legal system.”
Yakub concedes the acquittal doesn’t mean that the two communities are at peace with the other. However, as he adds, “We do visit each other’s homes and share our joys and sorrows… With this verdict, we can think of it (2002) as a closed chapter.”
With inputs from Kashmira Pattni