In a historic first, a special court in Gujarat has convicted and awarded life sentences to as many as 31 mostly high caste, landed Patels for burning alive 33 Muslims — the majority of them women and children — of Sardarpura village in Mehsana district. The village was among numerous Muslim habitations targeted across the State by irate Hindu mobs as part of a pogrom ruthlessly executed in the aftermath of the February 27, 2002 Godhra train carnage. The rioters locked the victims in a cramped room and set it on fire, suggesting that they wanted a repeat of the Godhra horror. In handing out exemplary punishment to the murderers, the court has sent out a strong message that perpetrators of communal violence cannot get away lightly and, indeed, that the judgment is a critical step in the reversal of the pattern of administrative and judicial inaction seen in such cases so far. Sardarpura is a legal trendsetter in many ways. It is the first of nine post-Godhra riots cases prosecuted by a Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court, which in another remarkable initiative aimed at securing justice for the pogrom victims, also supervised the setting up of a string of fast-track trial courts.
It cannot be overemphasised that the pogrom-related cases came under the watch of the Supreme Court following complaints that the Gujarat police, itself perceived to be complicit in the riots, was deliberately lethargic in booking and prosecuting the accused. As the highest court in the land observed in an interim order, “the need for early completion of sensitive cases, more particularly in cases involving communal disturbances, cannot be overstated.” In the Sardarpura case, during the course of the trial, the SIT twice amplified the list of accused through additional charge sheets, taking the total number to 76. However, in a blow to the families of the victims, the court has acquitted 42 of them. The SIT also failed to prove the charge of conspiracy. But easily the most significant aspect of the case — which ought to have a decisive bearing on how future communal cases are fought — relates to the emphasis laid during the trial on protection of witnesses. The Supreme Court's directive to the SIT to provide tamper-proof cover to witnesses ensured that they were able to testify without fear of reprisals. Its instructions to the trial courts to deal “sternly” with any disturbances that might be created to “terrorise witnesses” strengthened the cause of justice. It is now the turn of the central government — which for some inexplicable reason put on hold the comprehensive architecture laid out by the 17th Law Commission in its report on ‘Witness Identity Protection' — to act.