The conviction by a Gujarat Special Court of 23 men — mostly Patels — for the pre-meditated massacre of Muslims in Ode village is another significant milestone on the long road to justice for the victims of the 2002 violence. Ode was among hundreds of Muslim neighbourhoods targeted and destroyed by organised rioters as part of a pogrom planned and executed in retaliation for the Sabarmati train carnage at Godhra. In Ode, mobs set ablaze a shelter where Muslims had huddled for safety, burning to death 23 of them, 18 women and children included. This is the second of nine pogrom-related cases investigated and prosecuted by the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) where judgments have been pronounced and the murderers brought to book. In November 2011, 31 men — again all landed Patels — were given life sentences for killing 33 Muslims in Sardarpura. There too the victims were mostly women and children locked into a small space and set on fire. Sardarpura, which recorded the highest number of convictions in any instance of targeted communal violence in independent India, was a trendsetter. The Ode judgment takes that spirit forward: not only did the court convict nearly half of the accused, a record in itself, it accepted the prosecution's argument that the violence was a result of criminal conspiracy.
Ode and Sardarpura represent an astonishing reversal of the pattern of acquittals seen over the years in cases of communal violence around India, including Gujarat. The 2003 Best Bakery case, for instance, was so shoddily prosecuted and the acquittals were so quickly obtained that the Supreme Court censured the State government and its officers. The apex court followed this up by ordering a retrial and transferring the case to Mumbai. In 2008, the Bilkees Bano case was transferred to Mumbai. Though the lower courts absorbed this message, acquittals continued to outnumber convictions thanks to a complicit prosecution's failure to lead credible evidence. It was to offset this baneful influence of the State government that the Supreme Court took major pogrom-related cases under its care and also directed the trial courts to deal “sternly” with attempts to intimidate witnesses. Whether in Sardarpura or Ode, the emphasis on witness protection allowed survivor witnesses to testify without fear of reprisals. The fact that the Ode judgment comes at a time the SIT has filed a closure report in the omnibus Zakia Jafri complaint against Chief Minister Narendra Modi — on whose watch the pogrom occurred — is ironic. Yet if there is a message in the recent court verdicts, it is that justice will be done to the victims of communal violence, however long and exhausting the battle may appear to them.