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Ahmedabad blasts case

Shocking verdict: Human rights activists outraged by death sentence in Ahmedabad blasts case

Print edition : Mar 25, 2022 T+T-
People celebrating  the verdict in the 2008 bomb blasts case, in Ahmedabad on February 18, 2022.

People celebrating the verdict in the 2008 bomb blasts case, in Ahmedabad on February 18, 2022.

A caricature  celebrating the verdict, tweeted by the BJP’s Gujarat unit on February 20, 2022.

A caricature celebrating the verdict, tweeted by the BJP’s Gujarat unit on February 20, 2022.

Forensic experts  collecting evidence from a blast site outside the  Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad on July 27, 2008, following a series of bombings  the day before.

Forensic experts collecting evidence from a blast site outside the Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad on July 27, 2008, following a series of bombings the day before.

A special court sentences 38 persons to death for the 2008 Ahmedabad blasts, leading to widespread outrage among human rights activists and comparisons being made with the verdict in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom cases.

Gujarat witnessed the bloodiest and most brutal riots in recent history in 2002 in which more than 2,000 people were killed over a period of three months across the State. Heinous crimes against humanity were committed during that period. However, not one of the 150-odd persons convicted for the riots was sentenced to death. In 2008, a series of bomb blasts in Ahmedabad killed 56 people. Of the 49 convicted in the case, 38 persons have now been given capital punishment.

Declaring the case as the “rarest of the rare”, Judge Ambalal Patel, of a special court hearing the 2008 Ahmedabad serial blasts case, on February 19 sentenced 38 men to death by hanging and condemned the remaining 11 to life imprisonment. The judgment itself is rare, and also unprecedented. Defence lawyers said that never before had so many convicted in a single case been given capital punishment. The only other case in which a large number of persons were sent to the gallows was the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case; in 1998 a special court sentenced 26 persons for being part of a conspiracy to kill the former Prime Minister.

The death penalty verdict in the Ahmedabad blasts case has raised the hackles of human rights activists and Muslim community leaders in Gujarat. To begin with, they said, the country needs to take a hard look at doling out the death penalty so freely. Second, they added, in a State where the perpetrators of the 2002 communal pogrom roam free, it is certainly questionable why such a large number of Muslims have been given the harshest punishment in the law.

When the verdict was delivered, many people in Ahmedabad were seen celebrating. The Gujarat Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) official Twitter handle posted a caricature showing a group of men wearing skullcaps being hanged together, with the national motto, Satyameva Jayate. A lawyer and activist involved in the case said that the distasteful and irresponsible reaction was sadly a reflection of how the right wing has successfully polarised the State. He added that the timing of the verdict was also questionable and wondered if the hastening of the judgment was related to several other States being in election mode.

Also read: Death sentence for 38 convicted in the 2008 Ahmedabad serial bomb blast case

Lawyers in Ahmedabad said the 7,015-page judgment gave capital punishment to the 38 persons under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Additionally, the convicted were charged under Sections 10 and 16 (1) 9a), (b) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The judgment also levied a fine of Rs.2.4 lakh on each of those sentenced. The court said that the money would go towards compensating the families of the 56 victims who died in the blasts.

Riaz Pathan (name changed), a lawyer and activist in Ahmedabad, said: “This investigation was done under a lot of secrecy. We tried to track it but received sketchy information from the authorities. We do not believe there is substantial evidence to incarcerate many of the accused.”

He added: “Unfortunately, due to the lack of material we could not authenticate anything. We believe a lot of the evidence was gathered from hearsay that suited the government’s agenda. One man turned approver. His testimony supposedly led to the arrest of suspects from all over the country. There needs to be far more transparency and substantial evidence, especially in a case [in] which [convicts] can be given death.”

Ahmedabad blasts

The Ahmedabad blasts case involved a series of explosions that took place in the city on July 26, 2008. In a span of about an hour, 21 bombs exploded in several parts of the city, including at the massive Civil Hospital. Local residents said that there did not appear to be a pattern behind the planting of explosives. Some went off on buses, a few in parked vehicles, and a few were found in public garbage bins. According to official figures, 56 people died and about 200 were injured. The next day, as many as 17 bombs were found in Surat. In the following days, 11 more devices were discovered in the city. In Surat the bombs were placed in highly congested areas and could have caused heavy damage. None of them exploded owing to faulty wiring of the integrated circuit chips.

At the time, police authorities told the media that minutes before the bombs exploded, a television channel received an email of what it said was an extract from a 14-page manifesto of an unknown terror outfit called the Indian Mujahideen. The police said the email, titled “Rise of Jihad”, claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the police, the email said that the outfit was “raising the illustrious banner of jehad against the Hindus and all those who fight and resist us, and here we begin our revenge with the help and Permission of Allah a terrifying revenge of our blood, our lives and our honour that will Inshah Allah terminate your survival on this land.”

Another militant group called Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami also apparently claimed responsibility, but the authorities did not release information on this organisation.

Also read: The terror of laws

Several people interviewed soon after the explosions said that they felt the blasts were in retaliation to the 2002 pogrom. Moreover, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then the Gujarat Chief Minister, had been boasting about terrorists not daring to enter Gujarat. It was believed that the militants were trying to send him and his party a message.

A political science researcher in Ahmedabad said that post-2014 (when the BJP came to power at the Centre and Modi became Prime Minister), there had been little ‘militant activity’. “Either they have genuinely been wiped out or it was a case of raising the bogey, creating a fear psychosis that helped achieve a political agenda,” the researcher said. The scholar added: “Unfortunately, over time the Hindu right wing in Gujarat has steadily dismantled and reduced the Muslim population to a section that is extremely scared and defenceless. Verdicts such as these make one wonder whether militant groups exist or whether it is part of a conspiracy to further persecute Muslims while leveraging political gains.”

Investigations and arrests

Forensic experts concluded that the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used in Ahmedabad and Surat were identical in design to those used in the May 2008 serial bombings in Jaipur; the November 2007 attacks on trial court buildings in Lucknow, Varanasi and Faizabad; the August 2007 bombings in Hyderabad; and the March 2006 attack in Varanasi. Furthermore, the Indian Mujahideen sent emails to the authorities in these cities, in much the same way it did before the Ahmedabad blasts. The Gujarat Police said: “Evidence suggests that either the same bomb-makers built the IEDs or the people who made them were trained by the same experts.”

Investigators from Gujarat’s crime branch told the media at the time that the emails purportedly sent out by the outfit contained images from the Gujarat riots of 2002 and claimed that the bombings were revenge for the communal violence and for the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992. Additionally, forensic evidence gathered from the material used to assemble the bombs led them to conclude that similar cocktails of chemicals were used by the banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and they believed that the Indian Mujahideen was a regrouping of SIMI members.

Riaz Pathan and other activists who have been monitoring the communalisation in the State said that for days the police had no leads or information about who had planted the bomb. They would release bits of information, but it was apparent that they were floundering. In fact, an activist said, some bombs were found in garbage dumps or parks. He asked: “Which sophisticated terrorist would plant a bomb in garbage?”

Also read: False accusations, ruined lives

The Gujarat Police claimed that they made a big breakthrough when a police constable called them to say he saw two of the cars that were used in the bomb blasts in a house in Bharuch city. When they traced the ownership of the cars, they found that it belonged to two men they suspected were involved with Indian Mujahideen.

Between 2010 and 2017, the police arrested 78 persons from Kerala, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Among the accused were several SIMI activists, according to the police. Families of the convicted persons, including Safdar Nagori, a SIMI leader who apparently showed no remorse during the death sentencing, said that their relatives were innocent and that their connection to the blasts was fabricated.

Riaz Pathan said: “They come from poor or modest means. It’s the same situation where they do not have the resources to defend themselves, so they languish as undertrials for years and years.”

There were several twists and turns in the trial, including a jailbreak attempt by the accused in 2013. News reports stated that 14 prisoners in this case were booked for digging a 213-foot-long tunnel while they were in Sabarmati Central Jail. The special court saw eight judges preside over the trial.

20 years since Godhra

Significantly, February 27 and 28, 2022, marked 20 years since the Gujarat communal pogrom happened. According to official figures, about 1,000 people died and 233 went missing, but according to unofficial estimates, the deaths were closer to 2,000 and the number of missing almost double.

Brutal riots broke out across the State after a coach of Sabarmati Express with kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya was set on fire. Civic and human rights groups gathered evidence over the years and claimed that the violence was premeditated.

The Gujarat riots came down to nine main cases. Barring the Naroda Gam and Gulberg Society case, the remaining have been closed and verdicts pronounced in them led to the arrest of several senior politicians, police officials and local thugs. In spite of crimes such as raping women, killing children, burning people alive on the road, and looting houses, no one among those convicted was given capital punishment.

Riaz Pathan said: “Not only has Maya Kodnani been set free, Amit Shah is today the second most powerful man in the country. Both were charged in riot cases.”

Also read: How hate is brewed in Hindutva’s laboratory

For instance, in the Naroda Gam area of Ahmedabad, 97 people were killed in a massacre led by right-wingers. Eyewitnesses said at the time that BJP Minister Maya Kodnani was seen in the area issuing instructions to the rampaging mob. In August 2012, the special court sentenced 32 persons, including Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi, a notorious Bajrang Dal member, to 28 years in jail.

In 2018, Maya Kodnani and 29 others were acquitted for want of evidence. Bajrangi was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Supreme Court granted him medical bail in 2019, and he has never returned to prison. Regarding the verdict in the Ahmedabad blasts case, Father Cedric Prakash, who sheltered many members of the Muslim community during the dark days of the riots, said: “The biggest perpetrators and the masterminds of this crime against humanity [2002 riots] still roam the streets fearlessly as they continue to mainstream their fascist agenda of hate and vilification, of divisiveness and denigration, of exclusiveness and violence. Some of the lynchpins today rule the country. They have succeeded in generating a palpable fear in the hearts and minds of millions through their anti-constitutional methods of falsehood and vindictiveness.”

He added: “None of the perpetrators of this bloodiest chapter in the history of independent India were given the death penalty or for that matter even exemplary punishment. Some key persons who were convicted and sent to jail were in a matter of time even released on bail. Today, they enjoy their freedom protected by the most powerful of the land. That is the pathetic state of our criminal justice system.”