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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 48, November 19, 2011

Asserting the Rule of Law


Monday 21 November 2011, by SC

Last week a special riots court in Gujarat created history by sentencing the maximum number of people to life imprisonment in a single case. The court adjudicating the 2002 riots cases convicted 31 persons, mostly landed Patels, for the carnage at Sardarpura village in north Gujarat on March 1, 2002 that resulted in the killing of 33 people; and subsequently sentenced them to life imprisonment. At the same time 42 of the 73 accused were acquitted by the judge. It was indeed a gruesome incident—a mob torched a house in which terrified Muslims had taken shelter; the 33 killed included five men, 17 women, eight boys and three girls.

Reviewing this verdict, The Times of India pointed out that “given the impunity generally enjoyed by perpatrators of communal violence”, the judgment “is a milestone in India’s history”. It then explained:

If the prejudicial environment created by Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s rule could not much affect the outcome of the Sardarpura case, it is mainly due to the activism displayed by the Apex Court in monitoring the investigation and trial of this and eight other high-profile cases. The special protection given to witnesses by a Central paramilitary force played a crucial role in securing convictions in the Sardarpura case against heavy odds.

The daily’s editorial on November 11, 2011 further underlined:

It would have surely been in the spirit of Modi’s sadbhavna fasts if he had displayed the sagacity to welcome the Sardarpura convictions as a vindication of the rule of law. His silence explains why, even after a decade, the survivors of Sardarpura are unable to return to their homes.

This brings out the enormity of the task at hand to restore social harmony in Modi’s Gujarat which the BJP does not tire in advertising as the ‘most developed State’ in the country. Not only are the human development indicators of the State quite dismal as shown by irrefutable facts and statistics given in these columns sometime back, in the sphere of communal amity its record continues to be horrendous. It is in this backdrop that the Gujarat court judgment is of phenomenal significance.

Meanwhile only yesterday seven of the nine men accused for their role in the 2006 serial bomb blasts at Malegaon (that killed 37 persons and wounded thousands of others who were worshipping in a mosque on the holy day of Shab-e-Barat) were released from prison in Mumbai. These people were arrested and imprisoned soon after the blasts despite claiming to be innocent, with the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad accusing them to be SIMI members who plotted and executed the bomb attacks. But there was a dramatic turnaround late last year when Swami Aseemanand, arrested for his alleged role in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast, reportedly confessed that Hindu extremists were behind the 2006 blasts as well.

Earlier this month a special MCOCA court had granted these seven people bail following the NIA’s decision not to contest their fresh bail petition. Two others were also granted bail but they would have to be in jail as they are also accused in the 7/11 serial train blasts in Mumbai.

However, the question now remains: how to redress the grievance of the released for having been wrongfully detained? These persons have in a statement said: “We were framed in these cases. We want our dignity and five years back.” One suggestion in the media is that just releasing them is not enough; so they should be each paid Rs 5 lakhs per year for wrongful confinement if the police finally concedes that they were indeed innocent.

At the same time in another landmark judicial act, yesterday itself a Mathura sessions court awarded death penalty to eight persons and life sentence to 27 others for an honour killing 20 years ago, the convicted people being members of a village panchayat that pronounced the order of public hanging of a local Jat girl, her lover with whom she had eloped and another friend of theirs for having helped them. Such a deterrent punishment was definitely necessary in view of the rising incidence of such honour killings.

The regional scenario has been marked at present by secret communications between Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and the US Administration to avert yet another possible military takeover in Islamabad while Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for long-term US troop presence in Afghanistan even after the departure of the NATO forces.

And the global scene continues to be punctuated by massive mass protests against corporate greed in the US (the Occupy Wall Street mobilisations that persist defying the tough police actions) even as the aggravation of the debt crisis in Europe engenders mammoth public demonstrations against the anti-austerity measures imposed in a growing number of countries in that continent.

Yet it is the judicial steps taken of late to assert the rule of law in the domestic field that acquire greater prominence. These need to be acclaimed without equivocation as they help to strengthen the foundations of our democratic structure that were laid by Jawaharlal Nehru whose 122nd birth anniversary we observed three days ago.

November 17 S.C.

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