A local court’s verdict in Orissa sentencing BJP MLA Manoj Pradhan to seven years’ rigorous imprisonment for his involvement in the 2008 Kandhamal riots case has come as a pleasant surprise as the response of the Indian state and judiciary to such cases has been very lethargic, to say the least.
This is the first major communal riots case in which the verdict has come in just two years, thanks to the state’s decision to hand it over to a fast track court.
Cases relating to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, in which 3,000 people were killed, are still hanging fire in Delhi courts. About 350 people were killed in the 1987 Hashimpura (Meerut) riots, the case is still pending in a Tis Hazari court. The cases relating to the 1989 Bhagalpur riots that claimed 1,000 lives were decided after 18 years. The Srikrishna Commission report on the 1993 Bombay riots with a death toll of 1,800 is yet to be implemented.
All major cases in the 2002 Gujarat riots are still at the investigation stage, thanks to the Supreme Court that took seven years to decide whether to hand them over to the CBI. 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 can 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.
The Kandhamal verdict shows that all is not lost. The problem can be overcome by handing over riot cases to fast track courts.
“This is a good decision from the point of view of rule of law and Indian secularism. It would work as a stern warning to all rioters” said senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan.
Will governments and the judiciary take steps to fast-track riot cases? An answer in the affirmative can restore people’s faith in the rule of law.