In a way, the verdict
vindicated the investigations by the Gujarat police before the SIT
stepped in, as only two of the accused arrested later by the team
under ex-CBI director R K Raghavan were convicted among the total 31
who face life imprisonment.
In March 2008, the SC,
unhappy with the shoddy probe in the riots cases, had directed that
an SIT including police officers from outside Gujarat, be formed to
probe 10 of the cases, including the Godhra carnage case. Reacting
to the judgment, Raghavan told The Indian Express: “The judgment is
quite satisfying; conviction of 31 persons is quite a satisfactory
judgement. We will study it in detail if an appeal is required after
we receive the copy of the order.”
On the night of March
1, 2002, 33 people were burnt alive in a small room where they had
taken shelter from the angry mob. Judge Srivastava pronounced the
sentence today after honourably discharging 11 of the accused and
acquitting 31 with the benefit of doubt.
The riots in Sardarpura
village in Vijapur taluka of Mehsana district had taken place on the
intervening night of February 28 and March 1, 2002, when a
1,500-strong mob had attacked residents of ‘Sheikhvaas’, a
minority-dominated area, who mostly lived in huts. After the mob
attacked the locality, the men had herded the women, children and
elders into the sole concrete house belonging to one Mehmood Sheikh.
The rioting mob, however, had locked this house from outside and
poured inflammable material and set it on fire. Twenty-eight people
had died on the spot, while the rest succumbed to injuries
subsequently. Of the dead, 17 were women and 11 children.
In all, 76 accused were
arrested, of which two died during pendency of trial while one was a
juvenile against whom trial is on in a juvenile court. In 2002, this
was one of the major riot cases where all the 55 accused originally
arrested by the police were let out on bail.
Public prosecutor SC
Shah argued for maximum quantum of punishment on grounds that most
of the victims were children. This was countered by defence lawyer B
C Barot who said that this was “reaction to an action” echoing Chief
Minister Narendra Modi’s comment invoking Newton’s third law in 2002
soon after the riots.
The other defence
lawyer, H M Dhruv, argued that there was no conspiracy and the
incident was a consequence of unlawful assembly and said that the
prosecution had not assigned any specific role to the accused. Dhruv
said, “They are illiterate farmers and were influenced by
The victims’ lawyer
tried to argue in favour of conspiracy saying that VHP leader Haresh
Bhatt had come to Sardarpura some 20 days before the Godhra incident
and made provocative speeches and distributed tridents. They also
said that three days before the Godhra attack, the then state
minister Naran Lallu Patel had held a meeting here and provoked the
Patels. SIT has recorded statements of Bhatt and Patel, but did not
find much substance in these allegations.
The accused listened to
the verdict in stoic silence, some of those convicted, even went out
of court smiling.
Present in the
courtroom were Additional DGP Ashish Bhatia, DIGs K Venkateshwar and
YC Modi from the SIT.
Apart from the
sentence, the 31 convicts will have to pay a fine of Rs 21,700 each
of which five will pay Rs 23,700 each. They will also have to shell
out Rs 50,000 each as compensation for the victims which will be
distributed equally among the survivors.
The judgment also gives a clean chit to Teesta Setalvad of Citizens
for Justice and Peace on charges of tutoring witnesses. Judge
Srivastava says about Setalvad, “Her motive was not wrong. She
helped victims face questions in court. A person who is not
conversant with the case cannot tutor witnesses”.