In the immediate aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Supreme Court urged the investigating agencies to be “fair and impartial” while probing cases relating to the violence. Judges were harsh on the Gujarat government for its failure to ensure an unprejudiced legal course. In fact, the sensitive Best Bakery and Bilkis Bano trials were transferred to Maharashtra because the Supreme Court did not have enough faith in Gujarat’s courts.
The recent ruling on the Zakia Jafri petition, which not only closes the case but allows the state to arrest petitioners, appears to be in sharp contrast with the mood 20 years ago and has drawn a fair amount criticism from the legal fraternity. A look at a few of the early cases in which the Supreme Court was critical of the Gujarat government.
In September 2003, the then Chief Justice of India, V.N. Khare, chastised the Gujarat government for its failure to protect lives and property, and its open collusion in the subversion of the process of justice. Justice Khare pulled up Chief Secretary P.K. Laheri and Director General of Police K. Chakravarti for the state’s inability to provide explanations on the hasty completion of the Best Bakery trial, which led to many acquittals.
On November 21, 2003, Justices Khare, S.B. Sinha and A.R. Lakshmanan, acting on petitions seeking an independent investigation into the cases, stayed trials in 10 major riot cases and asked the Gujarat government to show cause why these cases should not be transferred to courts outside the State. The judges said: “How many times does the Gujarat government need to be lectured on this?”
In April 2004, the Supreme Court shifted the trial in the Best Bakery case to Maharashtra in view of Gujarat “glaringly demonstrating subversion of justice delivery system with no congeal and conducive atmosphere prevailing”. At this hearing, Justices Doraiswamy Raju and Arijit Pasayut made their famous remark: “The modern day ‘Neros’ were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected. Law and justice become flies in the hands of these ‘wanton boys’.”
That same day, the Supreme Court, while hearing a petition filed by Teesta Setalvad, expunged a remark made by the Gujarat court against the activist. The apex court noted, “Observations should not be made by courts against persons and authorities unless they are essential or necessary for decision of the case…. There is no need or justification for any unwarranted besmirching of either the parties or their causes, as a matter of routine. Courts are not expected to play to the gallery or for any applause….”
The Supreme Court appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) in 2008 to reopen and investigate nine crucial riots cases in Gujarat. The court held that “communal harmony is the hallmark of a democracy. No religion teaches hatred. If in the name of religion, people are killed, that is essentially a slur and blot on the society governed by rule of law.”
In September 2018, the Supreme Court announced that it would no longer look at the Gujarat riot cases and directed the SIT to take all cases to their “logical end”.
The Zakia Jafri case was a separate petition. With the Supreme Court’s latest ruling, it appears it is curtains down on every major riot case.