As investigating agencies proceed to nail terror-related charges on members of the RSS and its affiliates, the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat has stealthily been weaving a web to discredit, arrest and prosecute people who collected and brought to light crucial evidence driving many cases related to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots. The Modi government, it seems, is keen to turn rights activist Teesta Setalwad into another Binayak Sen. Television journalist Rahul Singh and advocate M.M. Tirmizi too have been feeling the pressure of probable prosecution in the matter of the Pandharwada mass burial.
The Gujarat police has already knocked twice at the gates of Singh, whose television coverage had exposed the undignified dumping of the bodies of murdered Muslims of Pandharwada village in a pit off the Paanam river, near Lunawada. Singh, the son of a newspaper editor who has also served in Gujarat, has said on record that the Gujarat police has offered to let him off the hook if his testimony frames Teesta for manufacturing evidence in the mass burial case.
It was a rift between Teesta and Rais Khan, her former colleague in her rights group Citizens for Justice & Peace whom she sacked for irregularities, that provided the Gujarat police the opportunity to target her. The case against Teesta, Singh and Tirmizi is based on statements Khan and four of his friends made under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure before a Godhra magistrate. They have accused Teesta, Singh and Tirmizi of manufacturing and doctoring evidence in the mass burial case.
Here is the background to the case. The relatives of 27 Muslims killed in Pandharwada had been insistently asking the authorities to hand back the remains, convinced that the victims had been buried without dignity or proper last rights. Frustrated by repeated refusal, they informed some TV news channels and also the CJP. The CJP asked them to wait till the authorities came, informed the collector and the superintendent of police immediately and the next day moved the Gujarat High Court along with the victims’ relatives. The DNA sampling of the corpses established that nine of the 22 skeletal remains belonged to victims of the Pandharwada massacre. The state government argued that the victims weren’t dumped, but had been given a decent burial on forest land. The activists and survivors countered that the case papers for the original crime of mass murder did not mention any skeletal remains and that the burial hadn’t been conducted in a kabristan with due ritual. Despite the DNA identification of the dead, it took a Supreme Court order of February 2008 and a subsequent trial-court order of December 2008 for the remains to get a decent burial, as late as in August 2010.
Meanwhile, a vindictive Gujarat police lodged cases against Khan and the survivors of the Pandharwada massacre who had petitioned the court. They were granted bail and their arrest was stayed by the Gujarat High Court.
Then, crucially, Khan turned around in another case—the notorious Naroda Patiya case. The stay in the Pandharwada case was vacated towards the end of last year and almost went unnoticed. Khan surrendered and then, with four of his friends, made allegations against Teesta and some media persons, following which the Gujarat police went knocking at Singh’s door twice last month.
This was preceded by allegations of perjury against Teesta in the matter of affidavits filed by victims of the 2002 riots in several trials. These were publicised by some newspapers and television channels. Teesta may not be wrong in thinking that this campaign of calumny and the cases against her are an attempt to intimidate witnesses and prejudice the courts in cases related to the 2002 riots, in which some politicians and policemen are named as the main accused.
If the campaign succeeds, we might again face the irony witnessed in the cases related to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, in which several people were killed publicly but no one has yet been found guilty. These are testing times anyway for our criminal justice system, what with the shocking Binayak Sen case and the turnaround in the Malegaon, Hyderabad, Ajmer and Samjhauta Express blast cases in which Hindutva groups now stand accused after many innocent Muslims had been picked up, tortured and held in jail. Now comes the latest episode in the Gujarat riots cases. A judiciary already being challenged for lack of transparency and accountability has to tread carefully if it is to come out unbesmirched in its trial by history.