An Ahmedabad court’s verdict convicting 24 people, 11 of them of murder, in the 2002 Gulberg Society massacre once again highlights the perennial problem of delayed justice in India.
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.
“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,” said KG Balakrishnan, former chief justice of India.
Despite the delay, the Gujarat riots cases are perhaps among the better handled cases by the judiciary. Former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani was sentenced to 28 year in jail in the Naroda Patiya massacre of 97 people during the riots.
Cases relating to the 1984 antiSikh riots, in which more than 3,000 people were killed, are still hanging fire in Delhi courts.
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 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 resulted in acquittals while trial is on in 175 cases.
The only exception was a June, 2010 verdict by an Odisha court that sentenced BJP MLA Manoj Pradhan to seven years’ imprisonment in the 2008 Kandhamal riots case. It was the first major communal riots case to be decided in just two years, thanks to the state’s decision to hand it over to a fast track court.
There is a pattern in the way riot cases are handled by state governments. Attempts to bury it begin almost immediately with the setting up of a commission of inquiry which would take years. The government tries to use it as an excuse for not taking any action against the culprits.
Who knows it better than 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. There are other issues as well. “Due to inordinate delay in deciding criminal cases, jails are getting overcrowded. In India 63% of the jail inmates are undertrials. Jails are meant for convicts and not undertrials,” added Balakrishnan, a former chairman of National Human Rights Commission.
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.