Landmark verdict

The conviction of 31 persons for killing 33 Muslims in Sardarpura, a village in Mehsana district in North Gujarat , during the 2002 communal riots in the state is remarkable for many reasons. Those convicted have been sentenced to life imprisonment. It is the first case in which so many people were convicted for mob violence. Fourteen persons had been convicted in the Bhagalpur communal riots case of 1989, and in Sardarpura, even after the acquittal by the special court of 42 accused, the prosecution was able to secure conviction of as many as 31 persons.

The conviction is also the first one based on investigations conducted by the  Special  Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court to probe nine incidents of communal violence in Gujarat. The court had set up the SIT after the state police had failed to properly investigate the post-Godhra violence against Muslims in various parts of the state and bring the offenders to book.

The conviction is an affirmation of justice for the large number of victims and their families, as much as it is an indictment of the Gujarat police which did not investigate the case seriously. The Sardarpura killings were noted for their brutality and the large number of victims involved. A house in which  terror-stricken Muslims had taken shelter was surrounded by the mob and set fire to.  The court has not accepted  the prosecution’s charge of conspiracy but held that the mob acted on the spur of the moment. There was some evidence of  conscious planning and deliberation before the incident, and the prosecution and others who have been supporting the cause of Gujarat’s riot victims hope to establish the charge in an appeal.

Though the verdict marks a victory for justice and is to be welcomed, it also raises some uncomfortable questions. Even conceding that it is difficult to prove charges against all accused in cases of mob violence, the failure of the prosecution to get as many as 41 persons convicted is disappointing. The verdict is is also a reminder of the fact that the SIT has not been able or willing to act as efficiently in cases involving high-profile suspects as in the Sardarpura case. Those who left the village after the riots are still in rehabilitation camps. The state government has not encouraged them to go back or made any effort at social reconciliation. The wound in Sardarpura may not heal for a long time.

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