In an ironic coincidence on 16 May 2014, alongside the electoral verdict, the Supreme Court too delivered its verdict on Akshardham Temple Terror Attack case (of Gujarat, September 2002), acquitting all the six accused including three who were sentenced to death by a lower court, and slamming the Gujarat Police for framing innocents.
Acquitting all the six convicts, the judgment said: “We intend to express our anguish about the incompetence with which the investigating agencies conducted the investigation of the case of such a grievous nature, involving the integrity and security of the nation.”
“Instead of booking the real culprits responsible for taking so many precious lives, police caught innocent people and got imposed the grievous charges against them which resulted in their conviction and subsequent sentencing,”
The Supreme Court in its judgement categorically slammed the then Gujarat home minister – today, Prime Minister of India – for “non-application of mind” and failure to verify the criteria for granting sanction to prosecute the 6 under POTA.
The verdict says, “We intend to take note of the perversity in conducting this case at various stages, right from the investigation level to the granting of sanction by the state government to prosecute the accused persons under POTA, the conviction and awarding of sentence to the accused persons by the Special Court (POTA) and confirmation of the same by the High Court. We, being the apex court cannot afford to sit with folded hands when such gross violation of fundamental rights and basic human rights of the citizens of this country were presented before us.”
The verdict notes that for a year after the Akshardham attack, “the ATS was shooting in the dark for about a year without any result. No trace of the people associated with this heinous attack on the Akshardham temple could be found by the police.” The verdict notes that “Then on the morning of 28.03.2003, the case is transferred to Crime Branch, Ahmedabad. This was followed by D.G. Vanzara giving instructions to the then-ACP G.S. Singhal (PW-126) about one Ashfaq Bhavnagri (PW-50). PW-126 was thereafter made in charge of the case on the same evening at 6:30 p.m. and the statement of PW-50 was recorded at 8 p.m., i.e within one and a half hours.” On 29.08.2003, 5 of the accused were arrested, and the next day, POTA was invoked.
The apex court commented on how these dates give rise to suspicions of framing: “This shrouds our minds with suspicion as to why such a vital witness- D.G. Vanzara, who discovered the link to the accused persons, was not examined by the Special Court (POTA). The courts below accepted the facts and evidence produced by the police without being suspicious about the extreme coincidences with which the chain of events unfolded itself immediately that is, within 24 hours of the case being transferred to the Crime Branch, Ahmedabad. …We are reminded of the legendary lines of Justice Vivian Bose in the case of Kashmira Singh’s case (supra) wherein he cautioned that: ‘The murder was a particularly cruel and revolting one and for that reason it will be necessary to examine the evidence with more than ordinary care lest the shocking nature of the crime induce an instinctive reaction against the dispassionate judicial scrutiny of the facts and law.’ The courts below have not examined the evidence with ‘more than ordinary care’.”
The court concluded that the confessional statements of the accused were invalid in law, and that there was no evidence of their having participated in any conspiracy. Categorically holding them to be innocent, the court ordered their release without a stain on their character.
One of those wrongly convicted, Mohammed Saleem, said after his release that the Gujarat Police had given him the “choice” of being implicated in the Godhra train burning, Haren Pandya murder and Akshardham terror! He was sentenced to life under POTA for involvement in the Akshardham case, before being freed by the Supreme Court. Another, Qayyum, was quoted by a newspaper as saying, “The police tortured and forced me to write the letters. They claimed the letters were found from the pockets of the fidayeen killed during the attack. But the Supreme Court noticed that the letters were clean, not torn, or soiled/stained with blood or soil — which was highly unnatural and improbable as the terrorists’ bodies were covered with blood and mud, and their clothes had multiple tears and holes due to the bullets.” All six were proved innocent after 11 years. Two of those who have been exonerated in the Akshardham case today, have already served the term of their sentence. They have already been punished for a crime of which they are totally innocent.
Who Will Compensate for the Lost Years, Ruined Lives?
Let us not forget, post-Godhra and post-Gujarat pogrom of 2002, a grand narrative unfolded in Gujarat and went on unabated till 2006: there was Akshardham temple terror attack (24 September 2002, 25 dead, 77 injured) and a series of “encounters” of the alleged “Islamist terrorists” out to kill Modi and his men. These encounters include that of Samir Khan Pathan (2002), Sadiq Jamal (2003), Ishrat Jahan (2004), Sohrabuddin Sheikh (2005), and Tulsiram Prajapati case (2006). All the incidents had more than one similarity: a common narrative of ‘terrorists targeting Modi’, all under the same set of police officers and political leaders, all involving the killing of ‘conspirators’ who allegedly belonged to terrorist outfits like LeT or Jaish, and all, now, carrying the taint of fake encounters. Politically, each episode went to build up Modi’s image as a ‘Hindu nationalist’ hero being targeted by so-called ‘Muslim terrorists’.
Many of the top cops involved in these acts are behind bars today. One common actor among them, DIG D. G. Vanzara, languishing in Sabarmati Central jail since 2007, in an explosive letter in September 2013, explicitly charged: “Gujarat CID/Union CBI had arrested me and my officers in different encounter cases, holding us responsible for carrying out alleged fake encounters. If that is true, then the CBI investigation officers of all the four encounter cases of Sohrabuddin, Tulsiram, Sadiq Jamal and Ishrat Jahan have to arrest the policy formulators also as we, being field officers, have simply implemented the conscious policy of this government, which was inspiring, guiding and monitoring our actions from very close quarters… I’m of the firm opinion that the place of this government, instead of being in Gandhinangar, should either be at Taloja Central Prison in Navi Mumbai or at Sabarmati Central Prison in Ahmedabad.”
In January 2012, a Supreme Court Bench, acting on petitions filed before it since 2007, appointed a Monitoring Authority to probe 22 cases of fake encounter deaths in Gujarat from 2003 to 2006. And a week before the 2014 verdict, another Supreme Court verdict rebuffed the Gujarat Government’s plea seeking uniform guidelines for dealing with cases of encounter killings. The highest Court dismissed the pleas saying that there cannot be such an advisory in a federal structure.
Would the Prime Minister today, who touts his ‘Gujarat model’ on every occasion, take responsibility for this terrible miscarriage of justice on his watch as Chief Minister? Will he apologise for the framing, torture, forced confessions of innocents, and failure to prosecute the real culprits? Will he offer any compensation and public apology to the innocents? Will he take steps to ensure that FIRs are filed against the cops implicated in framing the innocents in the Akshardham case, and punishment ensured?
The habit of framing innocents, however, is not exclusive to the Gujarat police. Police all over the country routinely use torture as a substitute for investigation. And in terror cases, the media and public opinion also tends to give police a licence to torture and frame innocents, with communal prejudice and the enormity of the crime serving to silence or stigmatise any questioning voices. It is high time that the terror laws like UAPA and NIA Act that legalise the violation of rights and create space for torture, are scrapped.