On Thursday, April 20th, 67 accused including Maya Kodnani, Babu Bajrangi, and Jaideep Patel, were acquitted in the 21-year-old Naroda Gam massacre case by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) court in Gujarat’s capital Ahmedabad. The acquittal of the Naroda Gam massacre accused has added a new dimension to the current political situation in the country.
On February 28th 2002, a Hindutva-incensed mob set ablaze houses of Muslims in the Muslim Mohalla in the Kumbhar Vas area of Ahmedabad’s Naroda Gam. Eleven Muslims were reportedly killed in the pogrom.
Members of the Hindutva militant organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing Bajrang Dal were accused in the case. This massacre’s first information report (FIR) was registered at the Naroda Gam Police Station.
While chargesheets were filed against 86 people according to the FIR, including a former member of the legislative assembly (MLA) and minister Kodnani of Gujarat’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bajrangi of the Bajrang Dal and Patel of the VHP, the case against 18 was abated and one was acquitted during the trial.
The SIT court continued the trial of the rest 67 accused in a fast-track manner, despite taking a long time to deliver a verdict. Out of the 67 accused, 65 were present in the courtroom when the verdict was delivered on Thursday.
At 5.30pm on Thursday, when these 67 Naroda Gam massacre accused were acquitted by the special judge of the SIT court, Subhada Baxi, they and their supporters outside chanted “Jai Shri Ram” and “Bharat Mata ki Jay” to welcome the verdict.
Gaurang Vyas, the public prosecutor in the case, told the press that the Gujarat government’s law department will read the verdict and decide whether to appeal in the high court.
The acquittal of the Naroda Gam massacre accused has stirred a new political controversy that could rekindle the question of the independence of the country’s judiciary.
Opposition parties, without directly naming the judiciary, have been alleging that the ruling BJP’s influence over the judiciary has expanded under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule, which has been reflected in several recent verdicts.
Many anti-BJP parties, without naming the judiciary, allege that contradictory verdicts often come in similar cases depending on the type of people involved in them.
Former BJP minister and MLA Kodnani was also accused in the Naroda Patiya massacre case earlier. The Naroda Gam and Naroda Patiya massacres took place on the same day –February 28th 2002.
In the Naroda Patiya massacre, 97 Muslims—men, women and children—were officially butchered, although unofficially hundreds were killed that day by Hindutva militants.
Kodnani and Bajrangi were convicted by a trial court in the Naroda Patiya massacre case in 2012. However, in April 2018, the Gujarat High Court acquitted Kodnani in the Naroda Patiya massacre case, but it upheld Bajrangi’s conviction.
At the hearing of that case, former BJP president and current Union Home Minister Amit Shah testified on behalf of Kodnani in 2017, saying that he had seen the MLA and former minister in the state assembly on the day of the incident.
After Kodnani’s acquittal in the Naroda Gam massacre, there are no more existing cases against her. In her book “Gujarat Files”, journalist Rana Ayyub has written about Kodnani’s alleged confession regarding her role in the massacres.
Ayyub, a journalist disdained by the BJP-ruled dispensation, alleged that Kodnani confessed during a sting operation and revealed her role in the massacres to her.
However, such unverified information was not considered evidence in the court during Kodnani’s trials. The BJP’s opponents allege that under the saffron party, the state government remained reluctant to prosecute Kodnani for the crime and provided her with a judicial leeway by building a weak case against her.
The BBC, a British mainstream media outlet, recently released a two-part documentary a few months ago where it criticised Modi’s role—as the appointed chief minister of Gujarat—during the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom.
The documentary revived the charges that the Indian Opposition has been raising for a long time but to no avail. The BBC documentary was banned in India, and the government unleashed a series of vitriolic attacks on the critics of the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom.
While the acquittal of the Naroda Gam massacre accused has created a stir, on the other hand, former Congress party president Rahul Gandhi and member of the Parliament (MP) has lost his parliamentary seat after being convicted in a 2019 defamation case by a lower court in Gujarat. His appeal against that verdict was rejected by a session court as well.
As a result, it paved the way for Gandhi’s imprisonment for two years and emboldened the BJP, which can now intimidate any Indian opposition politician, by threatening them with a court case in Gujarat.
Earlier, India’s apex court had dismissed a case filed by Zakia Jafri, widow of former Congress party MP Ehsan Jafri, who was killed by Hindutva terrorists in the 2002 Gulberg Society massacre during the Gujarat pogrom.
While rejecting the plea, the Supreme Court‘s bench criticised the role played by human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, raising suspicion about her role. The apex court noted in its verdict, “…the antecedents of Ms. Teesta Setalvad need to be reckoned and also because she has been vindictively persecuting this lis for her ulterior design by exploiting the emotions and sentiments of appellant – Zakia Ahsan Jafri, the
real victim of the circumstances. (sic)”
The apex court’s critical remarks against Setalvad helped Gujarat’s BJP government to launch a police crackdown and arrest her. The BJP government didn’t stop at this. It released from jail 11 convicted of gang-raping a Muslim woman named Bilkis Bano and killing several members of her family–including children.
Just as the executive has shown signs of failure—and allegedly has its implicit support—in curbing the current trend of intense religious polarisation in India, there are also allegations that people from oppressed minority communities are not getting any help when they approach the judiciary.
At present BJP and other Hindutva organisations are benefiting from the system and due to the failure of the anti-communal forces to build a resistance movement, the struggle for the basic demands of the people is taking a backseat, which is ultimately undermining the interests of the common people. It’s to be seen how the acquittal of the Naroda Gam massacre accused will provide political mileage to the BJP and further isolate the Opposition in the political arena.
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