An Ahmedabad court’s verdict convicting 24 people, 11 of them for murder , in the 2002 Gulberg Society massacre once again highlights the perennial problem of delayed justice in India.
There were 66 accused in the incident that had left 69 people including former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri dead during one of the worst communal violence in the country.
Like other Gujarat riots cases, this case often dominated front pages of newspapers and prime time TV news bulletins with political parties attempting to take mileage out of it. To take 14 years to decide a case that was under constant public scrutiny is a clear cut case of delayed justice. Much of this delay was due to a stay on trial by the Supreme Court that took seven years to decide whether to hand over the Gujarat riots cases to the CBI.
Despite this unjustifiable delay, the Gujarat riots cases are perhaps among the better handled cases by the Indian judiciary which has mostly failed to deliver timely justice to riot victims. A former Gujarat minister – Maya Kodnani -- was convicted and sentenced to 28 year in jail in connection with the massacre of 97 people at the Naroda Patiya village during the riots.
Cases relating to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, in which more than 3,000 people were killed, are still hanging fire in Delhi courts while the alleged perpetrators roam free. The CBI’s flip-flop on key accused only made things worse for the victims who continue to wait for justice.
Twenty-eight years after 350 people were killed in the 1987 Hashimpura (Meerut) riots allegedly by Provincial Armed Constabulary personnel of Uttar Pradesh, a Delhi court acquitted all the accused in March 2015. The appeal against the acquittal is hanging fire in the Delhi high court.
Cases relating to the 1989 Bhagalpur riots that claimed 1,000 lives could see the light of the day only after 18 years. The Srikrishna Commission report on the 1993 Bombay riots with a death toll of 1,800 is yet to be implemented.
Out of close to 200 cases registered in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, four have already resulted in acquittals while trial in on in 175 cases. Some are said to be still under investigation.
The only exception was a June 2010 verdict by an Odisha court that sentenced BJP MLA Manoj Pradhan to seven years’ rigorous imprisonment for his involvement in the 2008 Kandhamal riots case. It was the first major communal riots case in which the verdict came in just two years, thanks to the state’s decision to hand it over to a fast track court.
Former chief justice of India KG Balakrishnan said: “It’s a sad situation. Delay in criminal cases affects the prosecution. It affects the accused. But there are several contributory factors. Sometimes the parties themselves are responsible for it.
“Due to inordinate delay in deciding criminal cases jails are getting overcrowded. In India 63 per cent of the jail inmates are undertrials. Jails are meant for convicts and not undertrials. Courts, prosecution and accused - all are responsible.”
Asked how the situation can be remedied, justice Balakrishnan - a former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission - said: “Courts should not give unnecessary adjournments. They should be strict and alive to the demands of justice. “
There is a pattern in the way riot cases are handled by state governments, irrespective of the ideology of the party in power. Attempts to bury it begin almost immediately with the setting up of a commission of inquiry, which would take years, and the government tries to use it as an excuse for not taking any action against the culprits, knowing the criminal probe was independent of it.
The fact that communal riot cases involving deaths of thousands of innocent people are not decided for decades speaks volumes about our judicial system. Courts that often take suo motu cognizance of media reports and issue directions to bureaucrats and police officers on not so important issues, never find it appropriate to intervene in riot cases to ensure speedy justice.
Who knows it better that the learned judges of the Supreme Court and high courts that inordinate delay in deciding a criminal case can be fatal to justice. In the process, people lose faith in the system.
But the problem can be overcome by handing over riots cases to special investigation teams (SITs) and fast track courts for probe and trial. Riots case trials should be conducted on a day-to-day basis. After all, even the accused has a fundamental right to speedy trial.
Delay in delivering justice to riot victims only erodes people’s faith in the judiciary and benefits the criminals who often get benefit of doubt; in so many years, many of the witnesses may die and evidence destroyed.
Both the convicts and victims in the Gulberg Society case have said they will challenge the verdict in higher courts. It is likely to take many more years before the case reaches its logical conclusion. It’s time to act fast.