Nobody knows who killed the 11 people during the communal riots in Naroda Gam in Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002. That is because on April 20, Thursday, 21 years after the massacre, all accused, including former Bharatiya Janata Party minister in Gujarat, Maya Kodnani, and former Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi, have been acquitted in Naroda Gam case.
“All the accused have been acquitted. We are waiting for a copy of the judgment,” one of the defence lawyers told the media outside the court, even as the crowds, including relatives of the accused gathered outside the court, welcomed the verdicts with chants of “Jai Shree Ram” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.
There were a total of 86 accused in the case, but 18 of them died in the intervening period. The accused were facing charges under Indian Penal Code Sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 143 (unlawful assembly), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting armed with deadly weapons), 120 (B) (criminal conspiracy), and 153 (provocation for riots), among others. The maximum punishment for these crimes is death.
The court of S.K. Baxi, special judge for Special Investigation Agency (SIT) cases, pronounced the verdict on Thursday.
The prosecution and defence examined 187 and 57 witnesses, respectively, during the trial that started in 2010 and went on for nearly 13 years with six judges successively presiding over the case. Home minister Amit Shah had appeared as a defence witness for Kodnani in 2017.
Kodnani had requested the court to summon him to prove her alibi that she was present in the Gujarat assembly and later at the Sola Civil Hospital and not at Naroda Gam where the massacre took place.
Among the evidence produced by the prosecution is the video of a sting operation carried out by journalist Ashish Khetan as well as call details of Kodnani, Bajrangi and others during the relevant period.
When the trial started, S.H. Vora was the presiding judge. He was elevated to the Gujarat high court. His successors, Jyotsna Yagnik, K.K. Bhatt and P.B. Desai, retired during the trial. Special judge M.K. Dave who came next was transferred.
Kodnani, who was a minister in the Gujarat government, was convicted and sentenced to 28 years in jail in the Naroda Patiya riot case where 97 people were massacred. She was later discharged by the Gujarat High Court.
The massacre at Naroda Gam was one of the nine major 2002 communal riots cases investigated by the SIT and heard by special courts.
The Nanavati findings
The Justice Nanavati Commission that investigated the Gujarat riots noted the statements of witnesses that “there was no police help received by the Muslims and they were simply at the mercy of the miscreants”, and that “police help arrived only in the evening”. However, several police officials deposed before the Commission that they were not able to reach Naroda Gam because they were managing the more serious situation at Naroda Patiya, which was unfolding at the same time.
The Commission observed that “police force at the place was inadequate” and that the police “were not even properly equipped”. It concluded that “it cannot be said that they deliberately allowed the incident to happen.”
With regard to the involvement of political persons in the massacre, the Commission said, “Not only the residents of the locality but even the police present at the place have said that the leaders of VHP, Bajrang Dal, and the BJP actively participated in these incidents and at their instigation, the riots in this area occurred.”
However, the Commission added, “Since the issue with regard to the culpability of the leaders named above is under scrutiny of the judicial forums, it is not proper for this Commission to express any opinion thereon and the Commission, as it is a fact-finding Commission.”