For a country that has borne communal and mob violence of horrific dimensions, every conviction for murder and rioting is a rare victory for justice and accountability. The >Ahmedabad Gulbarg Society massacre, in which 69 Muslims, including former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, were murdered by a rampaging mob, was one of the most gruesome incidents of the Gujarat riots of 2002. > The conviction of 24 persons , including 11 for murder, by a Special Court in Ahmedabad for their role in the incident, marks a partial, but significant, victory for the Special Investigation Team constituted by the Supreme Court to probe specific cases of the post-Godhra riots, after serious misgivings were expressed on the manner in which the cases were being investigated and tried. That identified members of a mob have been found guilty of murder, and several others for rioting, arson and unlawful assembly, will go some way in giving the victims a sense of closure. The quantum of punishment will be known shortly, but nothing short of life imprisonment is in store for at least 11 found guilty of capital offences. Given India’s long experience of seeing perpetrators of communal violence get away, it is some consolation that many of the Gujarat riots cases are reaching a logical judicial conclusion. The > Best Bakery and > Bilkis Bano cases ended in convictions after being transferred out of Gujarat. After the SIT took over, the more sensational cases also saw rioters being jailed. The > Naroda Patiya massacre, in which 97 Muslims were killed, resulted in a historic verdict, as the trial court upheld the conspiracy angle and sentenced a former Gujarat Minister and a Bajrang Dal leader to life. For a riot at > Sardarpura , in which 33 people were killed, 31 were convicted and 42 acquitted.
After the SIT gave a clean chit to Narendra Modi and repudiated allegations by Ehsan Jafri’s widow that, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had instructed the police to let the mob run riot, the Gulbarg Society case became a rallying point for those pleading that the Modi administration be implicated in the riots. The SIT included a police inspector and a BJP councillor in the charge sheet, but both are among the 36 now acquitted. The prosecution was unable to prove any conspiracy behind the communal violence with the court finding insufficient evidence of pre-planning, never easy to establish in a case such as this. The collapse of the conspiracy angle does not imply an acceptance of the narrative that the Gujarat riots were an angry, reflexive response to the Godhra train carnage. The lines between spontaneity and subtle orchestration are hard to delineate. Likewise, there is a difficulty in assessing the varying degree of moral culpability between commission and wilful omission. It would be well to remember this as the Gujarat riot cases reach their judicial closure.