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July 17, 2003

Bombay Times From: Anil Dharker


The Best Bakery case is not the worst one in the annals of the judicial system in India. It is, in fact, not even an unusual case. Think about the details for a moment: During the height of the Gujarat violence a very large mob attacked the Best Bakery in Vadodara. It was the only Muslim enterprise in a colony dominated by Hindus. Fourteen people were burnt alive by the mob, but some escaped and became potential witnesses. Among them were Zaheera Shaikh, daughter of the owner of the bakery and her mother, Sehrunissa. They saw the action, and not only that, they were also able to identify many of the rioters. Zaheera, who is now 19, deposed before Justice Verma of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in March last year. In November, she also spoke up before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal. (This was a People’s Commission set up by a body of which I am a part, the Citizens for Justice and Peace). But when the case came up for hearing in the additional sessions court on May 17 this year, she and her mother both retracted their statements. What happened in the six months between November and May is what happens to too many witnesses in India: they are threatened with death or cajoled into taking money for a “better and peaceful future” (there is the implied menace in that enticement too). In this case, the mother and daughter were threatened with death several times. The last straw was their court appearance. Here, in our so-called temple of justice was a hostile crowd making threatening gestures, a state prosecutor who should have discussed strategy with his star witnesses but whom they had never seen before!. As if this wasn’t enough, outside the court a huge posse of goons waited menacingly. Which one of us, if we were poor and defenceless, had seen our family butchered before our eyes, had seen the police connive with the rioters and the administration instigate them, would have had the courage to speak the truth? It says something about the government of Gujarat and the perceived dispensation of justice there, that both mother and daughter, once given safe haven in Maharashtra, are more than willing to speak out. The pattern that we see here isn’t exactly new. It’s just that in Gujarat, it’s reached its ultimate expression. To start with, the police do not record FIRs (Citizens for Justice and Peace had to intervene in hundreds of cases); if police investigations are conducted at all, they are cursory; so cursory that they can easily be thrown out in court; a completely disinterest (or competent public prosecutor is chosen; a “convenient” magistrate or judge is found… The crowning glory is that the government there has appointed as Chief Prosecutor the very lawyer who admits to be a VHP member, and who helped hundreds and hundreds of rioters get bail! He will now be responsible for their prosecution! If ever justice was to be made into a joke, this is it. This pattern of “justice” has ensured that no one has been punished in some of our country’s worst cases of violence. The anti-Sikh riots of Delhi in 1984, the anti-Muslim riots of 1993 in Mumbai are two glaring examples. In the Gujarat violence, the record in the worst cases is: Godhra (where 59 Hindus died, 126 accused are behind bars under POTA, while 62 are absconding), Naroda-Ptaliya (89 Muslims killed, 54 arrested but 51 out on bail, 14 absconding), Gulbarg Society (42 Muslims killed, 28 accused arrested of which 21 out on bail, 23 absconding) and Sardarpura (38 Muslims killed, 32 arrested, all out on bail). If you can see any ray of hope in all this, you must be the world’s greatest optimist. The rest of us will pull out our hair in desperation, but carry on nevertheless. Our system offers us no other choice.








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