Ahmedabad, Gujarat: On February 28, 2002, Gujarat saw communal violence that claimed close to 2,000 lives and reportedly left more than two lakh Muslims internally displaced. In Ahmedabad, areas that were worst hit by the riots were Naroda Patiya, Gulberg Society and Naroda Gam.
In Naroda Gam, one Hindu and 11 Muslims were killed during a bandh called to protest the Godhra train burning incident that left 58 kar sevaks dead. Fifteen years on, the case is still sub judice, under a special designated SIT court. Among the accused in the case are Bajrang Dal member Harish Rohera, Babu Bajrangi, Maya Kodnani – the then women and child development minister in the Narendra Modi-led state government – and the then Vishwa Hindu Parishad president Jaydeep Patel.
During the course of the proceedings, 82 witnesses have testified. For these 82 people, most of whom are victims of the riots as well, the ordeal did not end on February 28, 2002. They have been threatened, stigmatised and ghettoised over the years, and have endured the apathy of the state government.
Yet these victims – for whom relief and rehabilitation remain a dream – turned into witnesses and stood up to narrate their tale in the hope of justice. However, after years of legal battle, they remain in a state of despair.
With the court giving permission to Kodnani to call 14 witnesses for her defence, including Amit Shah, and 35 other witnesses for others accused, the victims of Naroda Gam have lost all hope. As a last resort, they have decided to sit on a dharna in front of the high court of Gujarat.
Sharif Malek, one of the victims of Naroda Gam who was also among the witnesses, wrote two letters to the chief justice of the Gujarat high court on April 18 and April 25 seeking his intervention in the case and asking that he replace the judge of the special court with an “impartial” one. The copies of the letter were sent to the National Human Rights Commission, the special investigation team (SIT) set up to investigate the case and to the public prosecutor of the designated SIT court.
Malek was 20 years old when the riots broke out in Naroda Gam, where he lived with his family. His house was looted and burnt down, and his relatives were killed on February 28, 2002.
“Recently, in April, the judge has allowed Maya Kodnani to summon Amit Shah and 13 others as witnesses. The judge has also allowed 35 more witnesses for other accused including Babu Bajrangi. We [riot victims and their families] feel that proceedings are being delayed deliberately,” Malek said.
“Fearing the miscarriage of justice, I had demanded in my letters that special Judge P.B. Desai be replaced and the case be heard outside this state. Special Judge P.B. Desai refused to believe that it was a criminal conspiracy in the Gulberg Society case. The same may happen with the case of Naroda Gam too. Besides, Judge Desai is related to the senior advocate H.M. Dhruv who had appeared as a counsel for SIT and later appeared for accused Maya Kodnani. Dhruv’s junior advocate Amit Patel appears for Maya Kodnani in the Naroda Gam case currently,” Malek added.
Kodnani had moved the court in March requesting that summons be issued to 14 witnesses including Shah as her defence witness. On April 12, special designated court of Judge Desai granted Kodnani the same. The court also allowed 45 witnesses to be summoned as defence witnesses for the other accused.
Contradictory defence witness statements
Following this, on May 1, one Vasram Gangaram Patel, a resident of Derol Kampa of Sabarkantha district, was produced as the first defence witness for one of the key accused – Bajrangi. Identifying Bajrangi as ‘Babubhai’, Patel stated that his nephew Bhimji Karsan Patel was one of the kar sevaks who died in the Godhra train carnage on February 27, 2002. He was advised by people of his community to seek help from Bajrangi to secure custody of his nephew’s body.
Patel further stated that upon being contacted, Bajrangi came to civil hospital at Sola in Ahmedabad to help him and after securing the body, they set off for Derol Kampa – 140 km from Ahmedabad. Patel testified that Bajrangi was with him till 2 pm on February 28, 2002.
However, in the next hearing on May 11, Patel gave a statement that Bajrangi was in Khedbrahma town of Sabarkantha district the whole day on February 28, 2002. Patel – deposed before the SIT court – said that on that day Bajrangi had come to his village of Derol Kampa along with some other villagers who had returned with the body of a person who had been killed in the Godhra train carnage. Patel further stated that Bajrangi had developed chest pain during the funeral procession and had to be admitted to Dr Manibhai Patel’s hospital in Khedbrahma.
Delays in proceedings
“After so many years the court has decided to hear witnesses who are not residents of Naroda Gam. Where were these witnesses all these years?” questioned advocate Shamshad Pathan, who is one of the lawyers assisting in the case in a sessions court in Ahmedabad.
“The case began in 2010. In seven years the case has taken many turns. If the case today stands at this juncture where it seems victims will not have justice, one cannot help but question the entire system. In all these years, the defence counsel has taken its own time that has added to the delays in the case too. The defence counsel took more than a year to cross examine P.L. Mal, the police officer who was the investigating officer for SIT in the case. The transcript of the cross examination is about 1,400 pages long and it shows that a lot of time was wasted in asking irrelevant questions,” Pathan stated.
“Initially, during their investigation, the SIT was reluctant to name Jaydeep Patel and Babu Bajrangi. Even though Babu Bajrangi’s name had appeared amongst the five accused in the FIR (CR No. 98/02) filed under Naroda police station and the complainant was N.T. Vala, then assistant police inspector. Later when Babu Bajrangi moved his anticipatory bail, the SIT was again reluctant to forward bail cancellation application. It was after advocate Mukul Sinha [who had represented and appeared for the case] reached the SIT office in Gandhinagar that they gave in to the pressure. However, Bajrangi moved for regular bail later. Despite a bail cancellation application being moved with Imtiyaz Kureshi, a victim and witness a part of it, Bajrangi was granted bail. Since then Babu Bajrangi has been granted bail 14 times and Maya Kodnani is out on bail since 2014,” he added.
Intimidation of witnesses
Kureshi had lost his house and the small printing unit he owned during the 2002 riots. Since then, he has moved with his family to live in relief camp of Shah-e-Alam area of the city and then to a relief camp in the Citizen Nagar area near Pirana dumping garbage mounds. He is one of the witnesses of the case who testified against 17 accused.
“Back in 2002, I went to the Naroda police station three times to register a complaint but nobody took my complaint. Later, when the case was transferred to the Detection of Crime Branch, Ahmedabad, we were called and asked to sign one form and nobody took my statement. It was only in the year 2008 that advocate Mukul Sinha took me to the SIT office in Gandhinagar where my statement was recorded for the first time. It took six years to record a statement,” Kureshi said.
“It was in the year 2009 when the threats started coming in from different corners. One day one doctor Prahlad Parmar came in to the printing press that I had set up again. He knew every detail about me and that scared me. He identified himself as a close friend of ex IPS officer D.G. Vanzara and showed me the letter Vanzara had written to him from jail. He first lured me with Rs 50,000 and asked me take back my statement. When I refused he went on to threaten me stating he knows people in higher echelons in the government and that the result of this non-compliance would be harmful for me. I filed a complaint in Meghaninagar police station and the SIT was informed about the same. But in eight years neither has he been arrested nor summoned to the court. On every date of the hearing of the case I visit the court and am given a next date,” the 44-year-old said .
The ordeal was not limited to threats alone, some of the witnesses were jailed and later found not guilty of the crime and acquitted. The story of Abid Hussainbhai Pathan is one such case.
“My house was just opposite the Naroda police station, about 100 meters away. When the mob attacked, I first made sure my family ran away from the backside of the basti. By the time I could run, it was too late so I climbed up on a terrace of building that used to be a bank then. From the terrace I witnessed the madness and the excavator that was run over my house and then burnt down. In all these years nobody cared to give me any compensation for the house I lost. For years I have lived in relief camps with family. Those were scary times. After days passed we realised we need to begin to earn again. When men would step out, the families would wait in anticipation till they came back alive and safe. My three-year-old daughter stopped speaking and my five-year-old son would not let me step out. ‘Papa bahar mat jao, kaat dalege (Father don’t go out, they will cut you),’ he would say,” said Pathan, who works as a driver where ever he gets a job between Gujarat and Rajasthan.
“In 2003 I was accused in the murder of one Ghanshyam Patel, the only Hindu killed during riots in Naroda Gam. Eleven others were accused in the case. The session court in Ahmedabad acquitted all of us in 2009 but the ordeal mentally broke down most of us,” 52-year-old Pathan said with a sigh.
“When the mob attacked on the ill-fated day, some families took refuge in the house of Allauddin Bhurabhai. To save the families, Allauddin Bhurabhai and his father attacked the mob that resulted into death of Ghanshyam Patel. Later, whenever any riot victim would go to Naroda police station to file a complaint, the police personnel would keep a gun on the table and tell us to say whatever we had to but be cautioned lest the murder charge of Ghanshyam Patel was put on any of us,” claimed Malek.
The witnesses who testified against Bajrangi, Kodnani and Jaydeep Patel are under police protection. “The police protection mean nothing. One constable would stand at the residence of the witnesses. The constables are frequently replaced and they don’t stand steady the whole day,” said Shamshad.
Many witnesses have died and many are still scared and agreed to share their tale but anonymously.
Abdul Karim had kidney ailment for many years. Post riots he died due to the lack of treatment in one of relief camps in Shah-e-Alam area. Ayyub Khan died of tuberculosis.
One victim who also turned witness was suspended from the job of a conductor in Ahmedabad Municipal Transport Service without giving any reason. Ever since he has been unable to find a steady job. Another victim turned witness, who was named as one of the accused in the murder of Ghanshyam, had to serve more than five years in jail. He is a street vendor today and earns about Rs 150-Rs 200 a day.
“We began our lives from scratch however we could. We have even tried to forget. After all this years if the accused walk free, does it mean lives of a few doesn’t matter?” a victim asks.
Call location analysis for calls from Kodnani, Bajrangi and Patel was done by Nirjhari Sinha, who then worked at the space science department of the Physical Research Laboratory. The data was obtained from the Nanavati Commission by ex IPS officer Rahul Sharma. Sinha analysed the data on behalf of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, a human rights organisation. Her analysis was then submitted to the SIT.
“Will the court choose to believe the new witnesses or call records?” asked Shamshad.
There are questions galore that the victims of the Naroda Gam want to ask, but there is no one to answer them. Fifteen years on, their voices are lost in anonymity and the state and justice system have failed them yet again.