After the special court convicted 32 persons in the Naroda-Patiya massacre case on Wednesday, special public prosecutor Akhil Desai demanded the death penalty as it was the “rarest of rare cases.”
He demanded capital punishment for all the 32, including Mayaben Kodnani, a former Minister in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, arguing that many victims were unarmed women and children who were burnt alive. If the court did not agree to the death sentence for all, those who were given the life term should serve their sentence “till their death.”
But defence counsel countered that none of the convicts was habitual offenders; nor did they have any criminal background. He maintained that the mayhem was the result of a surcharged atmosphere stemming from the train carnage.
The police initially arrested 46 people — and after the Supreme Court-appointed SIT took over the probe, 24 more, including Ms. Kodnani, were held. Of the total of 70 arrested, six died before the charges were framed, and one died during the trial, while Mohan Nepali and Tejas Pathak jumped bail and are at large.
After the SIT, led by the former CBI Director, R.K. Raghavan, completed the probe, the trial began in the special fast-track court in August 2009, and charges were framed against 62, including Ms. Kodnani, the former Bajrang Dal convener, Babu Bajrangi, and Vijay Shetty, who died during the trial. The court received some 2,500 documentary pieces of evidence and examined 327 witnesses, including eyewitnesses, doctors, survivors and their relatives, officials, forensic experts and a journalist who conducted a sting operation, in which Babu Bajrangi and some others allegedly made some confessional statements.
Ms. Kodnani, a former president of the BJP’s Ahmedabad city district unit and considered close to Mr. Modi, was arrested soon after the SIT took over the investigation and forced to resign from the Cabinet. She was granted bail.
She is perhaps the first senior BJP leader to be convicted in a riot-related case so far. Eleven eyewitnesses told the court that she had made instigating speeches, while 15 witnesses deposed against Babu Bajrangi, who allegedly chased people with a sword, killing some of them.
The Mumbai-based Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), which has been supporting the riot victims in their legal battles, and many of the survivors have hailed the conviction of Ms. Kodnani, Babu Bajrangi and others. The advocates of the accused, however, said they would study the judgment before approaching the higher court.
State BJP spokesman I.K. Jadeja said the party would decide its future course of action after studying the judgment, but said the Congress demand for Mr. Modi’s resignation was unfounded and reminded the Opposition party of the fact that the Congress government in the State did not resign when one of its Ministers, Mohammed Surti, was convicted of terrorist activities by the lower court and his conviction upheld by the Gujarat High Court.
Fr. Cedric Prakash, director of Prashant, one of the non-government organisations co-ordinating with the CJP in handling the riots cases, described the judgment as a “landmark verdict,” a “shot in the arm” for the survivors and many others who had been relentlessly campaigning for “complete truth and justice” to prevail in the State.
When the judge asked whether any convict had anything to say, a sobbing Kodnani, a practising gynaecologist, said she was a “victim of politics.” She did not elaborate, but added that her husband was ailing and she, too, was suffering from high blood pressure and sought leniency.
Many other convicts also pleaded for leniency on various grounds, including various diseases or being the breadwinner of their families. The defence lawyer told the court that some of the convicts were under prolonged medication and requested that the court direct the jail authorities to take care of their medical needs.
Both the media and the relatives of the accused were barred from entering the court room when the verdict was pronounced. Many friends and relatives of the convicts, who had gathered outside the court room, broke down on hearing the verdict. Many convicts also broke down while being escorted to police vans outside the court, and then to the Sabarmati Central Jail.
Mukul Sinha, convener of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, which is representing the riots victims before the G.T. Nanavati-Akshay Mehta judicial commission probing the Godhra train carnage and the post-Godhra riots, blamed the “faulty investigation” by the Gujarat police and the SIT for the acquittal of 29 others.