Judge was opposed to issuing death sentence, which she said was against "human dignity"

The special fast track court in Ahmedabad on Friday sentenced all 31 convicts in the Naroda-Patiya massacre case to life imprisonment for varying periods. The former Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party MLA in Gujarat, Mayaben Kodnani, was ordered to serve 28 years in jail.

Another high-profile convict, the former State president of the Bajrang Dal, Babu Bajrangi, considered the most brutal during the attack on Muslims in the Naroda-Patiya locality here, has been ordered to spend the remaining part of his life in prison — till his natural death — while seven others, including Suresh Chhara, whose wife is a Muslim, have been sentenced to 31 years.

The remaining 22 convicts will serve a jail term of 24 years. No one was given the death sentence. The court did not pronounce punishment for one convict who is alleged to be “absconding”.

It is perhaps for the first time that sentences pronounced under various Sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Bombay Police Act would not run concurrently for any of the 31 convicts.

Pronouncing the quantum of punishment, special court judge Jyotsna Yagnik, who on Wednesday held 32 persons guilty and acquitted 29 others, said all the 31 convicts would serve 10 years in jail under IPC Section 326 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means), after which their sentences of life imprisonment of varying periods would begin. Dr. Kodnani, a practising gynaecologist who also runs a hospital, has been sentenced to 18 years of life imprisonment — effectively 28 years in jail.

Seven others, including Suresh Chhara, have been sentenced to 21 years of imprisonment — effectively 31 years in total. The remaining 22 convicts got the normal life sentence of 14 years but after serving 10 years under Section 326 of the IPC.

The judge was particularly severe on Dr. Kodnani, who, she said, had failed to perform her duty as MLA. “As a representative of the people, Dr. Kodnani was expected to serve the people and try to stop the riots. Instead, she has been found to be involved in plotting and planning the conspiracy along with Babu Bajrangi to attack the Muslims in Naroda-Patiya,” Ms. Yagnik observed. Dr. Kodnani was elected to the Assembly three times from Naroda. At the time of the 2002 riots, she was a sitting MLA. She was Minister of State for Women and Child Welfare after her victory in the 2007 Assembly elections, a post she held till she was obliged to resign after having been arrested in connection with the Naroda-Patiya massacre by the Supreme-Court-appointed Special Investigation Team in 2009.

The court said Dr. Kodnani was the “kingpin of entire riots in the Naroda-Patiya area. “She led the mob and incited them to violence. She abetted and supported the violent mob,” the court observed.

The first ruling party legislator and perhaps first woman to be convicted in the 2002 communal riots, Dr. Kodnani, once considered to be a close associate of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, broke down on hearing the sentence.

Ms. Yagnik refused to show any leniency to Dr. Kodnani, who claimed herself to be a “victim of politics” after she was convicted on Wednesday. The judge observed that neither during the trial nor in her earlier statements had she had mentioned that she was a victim of politics. The sudden unsubstantiated claim after the conviction could not be taken into account for leniency in punishment, the judge said.

The judge also observed that there were instances of rape and gang rape of the hapless Muslim women during the riots on February 28, 2002 were established beyond doubt but said she was not sentencing anyone for the crime because it was not possible to pinpoint the identity of the culprits. However, Ms. Yagnik identified one survivor of the gang rape and ordered the State government to pay her a compensation of Rs. 5 lakh at the earliest. Describing the communal violence as “cancer in society,” Ms. Yagnik said exemplary punishments needed to be inflicted on the perpetrators of such crimes so that they would never be repeated in future. Rejecting defence theory that the communal violence at Naroda-Patiya was a reaction to the Godhra train carnage, Ms. Yagnik said the 2002 communal riots were a “black spot on the democratic structure of India.”

“This was a pre-planned conspiracy and it cannot be mitigated by just saying that it was a reaction to the Godhra train burning incident,” the judge observed. “Nobody can be allowed to take the law into their own hands because India is a country that upholds the rule of law.”

On the Naroda-Patiya violence, Ms. Yagnik said, “acts of communal violence are brutal, inhuman and shameful. Naroda-Patiya was a clear incident of human rights violation as 97 people were killed brutally within a day — who included hapless women, children and aged persons. The climax of this inhuman and brutal act of violence was reflected in the murder of an infant who was barely 20 days old.”

Despite the seriousness of the crime, the judge was opposed to issuing the death sentence to any convict, which she felt was against “human dignity.” Noting that many countries had abolished the death penalty and a global campaign was on to restrict the sentence to extreme cases, Ms. Yagnik observed the “death penalty brings justice to the victims and it is desirable to reduce the crime in society, but the court cannot overlook the global trend prevalent in the recent years”.

Even as the victims’ advocate, Shamshad Pathan, said they would approach the High Court against the acquittal of 29 persons, and the defence lawyers said they would challenge the special court’s verdict, the judgment and the quantum of punishment brought smiles on the faces of many of the survivors, as their decade-long wait for justice came to an end.

“Our real Id is today,” Fatima Bano, one of the eyewitnesses of the gruesome massacre, said. She said she would have preferred much stricter punishment for the convicted and rued the acquittal of 29, who in her opinion were also guilty, but said even what was awarded was satisfying enough.

“We waited for justice for 10 long years but today our departed beloveds will finally be in peace,” she said. She and other victims said the way they had been living for 10 years with the nightmarish experience and without their loved ones, “the families of the convicted will now start realising what it is to live without your near and dear ones.”

In contrast, the families of the convicts were in total anguish. Many of the family members waiting outside the court room were heard shouting anti-Modi slogans alleging that the government had let them down in their hour of need.

Father Cedric Prakash, director, NGO Prashant, which was co-ordinating with the Mumbai-based Citizens for Justice and Peace in helping the riot victims, said the judgment was a “step in the right direction” and should come as a “severe warning to several more high-profile politicians and others who still stand accused in the courts of law on various charges committed during those bloody days of 2002.”