By Koustav Bhattacharya
India, which has a long standing history of confluence of cultures and schools of thoughts, unfortunately has faced the vice of communal violence in fits and starts. One of the worst such incidents of communal violence in recent times was the Godhra Riots of 2002.
The principle and immediate cause of the same can be attributed to the Godhra Train Burning Incident of 2002. In the instant article, the socio political condition prevailing the incident would be discussed upon. Furthermore, the legal aspect of the entire dispute would be taken into account, ranging from the Trial and the ultimate outcome of the court proceedings.
The preceding socio political of the Country had been stifled with communal tension and violence since the past decade. The incident of the demolition of the Babri Masjid Demolition has spiked violent riots all across the country. This was further coupled on with the fact that there were subsequent serial bomb blasts in Mumbai, 1993, which notoriously came to be known as ‘Black Friday’.
In the light of this scenario, there had been a ceremony helmed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad in February 2002, known as Purnahuti Maha Yagna. Thousands of Kar Sevaks had travelled to Ayhodhya for the same and they were returning on 27 February, 2002. Around 1700 were onboard at the Sabarmati Express, which was bound for Ahmedabad. It reached Godhra at around 8 am in the morning, 4 hours behind its scheduled time.
The train was stopped at the platform by pulling the chain from inside, that too, on account of multiple times, as revealed by the testimony of the driver. The train was soon after attacked by a mob of 2,000 people, mostly belonging to the Muslim Community.
Investigation Reports state that soon after, alongwith stone pelting, there were attempts to decimate the train. As a result of which, four boggies were lit up. Several subsequent reports reveal that there had been presence of petrol soaked bags since the advent, indicative of dismissing the accident theory. 59 people demised in this horrifying incident, which included 27 women and 10 children. Furthermore, minimum, 48 people were severely injured owing to the burn.
Soon after, the station was retrieved and evacuated by the help of the Police Forces, and subsequent investigations took place. The subsequent investigations into the said matter had been an arduous and complicated journey. It also led to multiple controversies by the legal fraternity, human rights activists and political scientists across the country.
Let us examine the various findings of the investigation reports.
1. Police Investigation Report- The Police arrested around 51 people on the spot of the incident and within a couple of days of the incident on charges of arson, looting and rioting. Soon after, the investigations indicated big names such as the leader of a Muslim radical group Harkat-ul Jehad-e-Islami, and trace was established as deep as the Pakistani and UAE gang leaders. From the preliminary report of the of the Gujarat Police, the matter was transferred onto the Anti Terrorist Squad.
The chargesheet had been prepared and it was a very elaborate one, running over 500 pages. It accused 69 people, under various heads of rioting, arson, mischief, culpable homicide amounting to murder, attempt to murder, and criminal conspiracy. A few others were charged with the charges of decimating and scrounging the train. More people were charged under the cause of Obstructing the Justice by preventing the Police Vans and Fire Engines to reach the spot.
Moreover, 11 more people were named in the Charge sheet under Sec 34 of IPC, on the grounds on joining the mob. Initially, 107 people were charged, many of whom passed away during the course of the trial itself. The Report further contained the Forensic Report, which stated that the fire had been caused due to presence of inflammable on the train coaches from outside. Also, it had stated that the fire is most likely to be initiated
2. Nanavati Mehta Commission- It was appointed by the Gujarat Government under the Direction of the Gujarat High Court. It was appointed in the year, and was destined to be in operation for a period of 3 years. However, it took more than 6 years to complete its report and submitted the same on 2009. But, the report was hailed as one a preliminary report and only ‘Report-I’ under the said category.
Furthermore, after due extensions till 2014, it could submit the report on June 2014. Over the course of its tenure, it did examine upto 40,000 documentary evidences and examined around 1,000 witnesses.
It did held that the fire was a result of a long drawn conspiracy being plotted by the leaders of a few extremist Islamic groups, spearheaded by the Muslims of the Signal Final Area. There were around 140 litres of petrol soaked bags being kept beforehand in the station and the same had been utilized to stage the entire act.
3. Banerjee Investigation- The Central Government, did form a committee to oversee and investigate the matter in 2004. In the year 2005, the committee did submit its report which described the fire as that being an accidental fire, caused due to internal accidents.
However, the formation of the committee was itself declared unconstitutional by the Gujarat High Court, and thus its’ report holds no substantial value.
These were the main contents as extracted in the Investigation and Committee Reports of the case.
The trial began as early as March, 2002. Initially POTA had been invoked against all the accused. But, there was a subsequent tussle between the Central Government and the State Government so as to under which laws the people were to be tried.
Subsequently, the Supreme Court did put a stay order on the trial on November, 2003. After the POTA was revoked, the trial did resume substantially, and ultimately charges were formed under Sections 147, 148, 149, 337, 338, 334, 153-A, 302 and 307 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘the IPC’ for short), under Section 141, 151 and 152 of the Indian Railway Act, under Sections 3 and 4 of the Prevention of Damages to Public Properties Act.
In 2008, realizing that the trial had been delayed beyond reasonable period of time and the vicitms’ interests were getting compromised, the Court appointed the Special fast track court in order to wrap up the trial regarding to the train burning incident.
It is one of the first Criminal trial cases in recent history to have a SIT as a nodal agency to supervise the trial. Under the establishment of the Special Courts, the SIT had been given the power to determine the veracity of the chargesheet and the witness statements.
Further, the protection of the witnesses and the regulation of the Bail Applications were also being regulated by the SIT. The accused were placed in isolation, and the Special Fast Track Court began its hearing since 2009. Finally, the verdict was pronounced in 22nd February, 2011.
The Trial Court convicted 31 people and acquitted 63 others. The convictions were based on the murder and conspiracy provisions of Sections 302 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code respectively and under Sections 149, 307, 323, 324, 325, 326, 332, 395, 397, and 436 of the Code. Out of the 31 convicted, 11 were awarded death sentence, as it was proved that they were the ones who met at a meeting convened on the night before the incident and they went inside the coaches to spread petrol on the same and ignite it.
The other 20 were awarded life imprisonment, as they were considered instrumental in causing the fire but were not considered a part of the conspiracy team. The other 63 named in the Charge sheet were let go due to lack of evidence.
The appeals were filed by both the parties in the instant matter. The Convicted appealed under Section 374(2) and Section 379 of the CrPC. Similarly, the State Government filed an appeal under Section 378 of the CrPC, challenging the decision of theh acquittal of the 63 involved and asking for death sentence of the other 20 convicts as well.
Gujarat High Court verdict
The High Court pronounced its verdict on October 2017, and accepted the report of the SIT regarding the trial process and the report of the Nanavati Mehta Commission. It accepted that there was a pre planned conspiracy but provided life imprisonment to all the convicted owing to the uniform degree of the common intention.
Further, the other 63 were also acquitted in the High Court due to lack of evidence. Moreover, in order to address the concerns of the victims, the state government and the railways were obligated to pay 10 lakh each compensation to the families of the 59 victims.
1. Subservient Judicial Trial- It has to be construed that in the present case, the Court had a secondary role to play in the matter, and the most of the findings and facts to be tried were done by the SIT and the commission. These are not healthy signs for the judiciary of a nation, and must be tackled at the onset.
2. Tussle between Central and State Government- Multiple conflicts arose during the duration of the investigation, regarding appointment of committees and moreover, which is not at all to be desired of in a federation.
3. Trial by Media- There had been numerous speculations and theories as propounded by the media during the investigation, which more often than not proves to be detrimental to a free and fair trial.
4. Lack of speedy justice- The trial did take up much more considerable time than what people had envisioned for, and the same had resulted in non-quantifiable losses for the accused and the victim alike.
5. Lack of consideration for victim redressal- The committee and the Government were more interested in finding out the people or the group of people belonging to a particular community being held responsible for the said act. In the meanwhile, no proper compensation scheme was provided, and they faced multiple examination and summons and a frugal amount of compensation was provided at the end.
6. Unnecessary politicization of the issue- Unnecessary religious and political angles were inserted into the case, thus distracting the focus more finding facts based on merits of the case.
The Godhra train burning case has been a dark chapter of Indian democracy. The resolution of it all, though forecasts a ray of light, but it also exposed many vulnerabilities of the system. It is to be hoped that the same is realized and adequate measures are taken to address the shortcomings, and prevent such incidents in the near future.
Further, a proper neutral fact finding and trial mechanism should be formulated, which takes into account the expeditious time factor but also takes into the victim compensation scheme.