The special trial court in Gujarat has established a principle which will hopefully hold in other cases of mass murder: a mob comprises individuals who commit crimes and are accountable. In giving a life term to 31 people for burning alive 33 Muslims in Sardarpura village in Gujarat during the riots of 2002, it has at least brought some closure to one of the major riot cases — Godhra being the foremost — that was given over to the Special Investigation Team. We have seen that following the riots, investigation processes have rarely been able to come up with specific names of those individuals who carried out the murders, arson or looting. This has led to a situation where after the anti-Sikh riot cases, which left 2,733 people dead, only 25 have so far been convicted. In the Sardarpura violence, a mob of over 500 people surrounded a predominantly Muslim village and attacked the only 'pucca' house there where people had taken shelter. Not content with setting fire to the house, the mob electrocuted some of the victims comprising women and minors.
This verdict is the first step to putting a face to those who commit heinous crimes under guise of being part of a mob. It also does not accept that such violence is part of a spontaneous reaction to an alleged provocation as happened in the case of Godhra that triggered off the fateful riots in which over 1,200 people, mainly Muslims, died in Gujarat. In the case of mob violence, it is extremely difficult to affix culpability or indeed even gather evidence. Much of the evidence has to be based on witnesses who, as we have seen in several riot cases, are intimidated by the perpetrators, or even the State as alleged in the case of Gujarat. There are several unresolved riot cases pending in India: Bhiwandi, Moradabad, Delhi and, of course, Gujarat. The idea that individuals can get away with murder by being part of a mob goes against all our notions of jurisprudence. We have seen the horror of family members of victims of mob violence having to live in proximity with those who have been the aggressors, even murderers.
The Sardarpura verdict is the second major success in the fight for justice in Gujarat, thanks to a vigilant and proactive judiciary. We can only hope that the State takes serious note of this verdict and also initiates moves to try and rehabilitate those who have suffered the loss of the family's breadwinners or loved ones, who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their dignity in the riots which have plagued India over the years. Sardarpura will send out, we are sure, a signal, that no one can take refuge in a mob or profess to a spontaneous rage to commit that most unacceptable of crimes: murder.