Godhra Bogie!

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 14 Oct 2017 11:43:07

Why should our judiciary be reluctant to award death sentence? This question is going to dominate our legal discourse in future, no matter what some so-called liberalists may be thinking.


By R.K. Misra Gandhinagar, October 9: The Gujarat High Court on Monday upheld the conviction of eleven persons in the Sabarmati Expressing bogie burning case but commuted their death sentences to life sentence even as it directed the payment of Rs. 10 lakh as compensation to the next of kin of each of the 59 persons who perished in it.

A Division Bench of Justices Anant S. Dave and G.R. Udwani also upheld the life sentences of 20 others who had been convicted and maintained the acquittal of 63 people by the trial court.Thus, the eleven accused, who were earlier awarded death sentence, will now serve life sentence.

Fifty-nine passengers travelling by coach S/6 of the Sabarmati Express were burnt alive near the Godhra Railway Station when it was charred on February 27, 2002, triggering state-wide communal riots which left over one thousand people dead. The Special Court trying the Godhra train carnage case had in its judgement on March 1, 2011, awarded death penalty to 11 of the 31 convicted in the case in which 84 people had been accused. ...

THIS news came as a shock and surprise to countless people across the country. It also triggered on social media a flurry of statements questioning the approach of the honorable Gujarat High Court. The sense of shock was evidenced because the common people expected the death sentence given by the trial court to be upheld. The reason of this strong feeling was that the Godhra carnage was a deliberate act of cruel crime in which an entire bogie of the Sabarmati Express was locked from outside and set on fire with so many people having been trapped inside. The common people did feel that the Godhra carnage was one of the worst acts of collective crime obviously intended kill many people. Everybody treated that as an act of organised and deliberate crime with intimidation as aim and deserved death sentence.

That was the reason why countless common people felt a sense of shock as well as surprise when the Gujarat High Court judgement came commuting death sentence to life imprisonment. Common people did feel that such people should be treated as criminals and their act as rarest of rare deserving death sentence as the ultimate penalty.

The honourable High Court, however, thought otherwise and commuted death sentence of 11 persons to life imprisonment. In spite of the fact that the honourable judges have developed their own approach to the case of bogie burning, the common people have felt a sense of frustration as well, thinking that certain leniency has been shown to the accused in the ugly Godhra episode.

There is a need to re-decipher Godhra. It was one dirty point in contemporary Indian history that triggered untold violence as a reaction. That that subsequent violence should not have taken place is one thing, but then even Godhra, too, should never have taken place. But the cruelty of Godhra was such as to incite a reactionary violence which nobody in the country appreciated. In the same light, even Godhra should be looked at.

And what happened at Godhra? Among the 59 persons charred to death trapped in the S-6 bogie of Sabarmati Express were 20 children, 15 women, and 23 men. They -- the attackers -- did not spare even kids and women. All those trapped persons were screaming for life, urging for doors to be opened. But no, that was not allowed. Was that not the rarest of rare acts of planned cruelty? To consider the ugly episode in legal terms, let us realise that there were no aggravating circumstances that acted as a sudden provocation for the attackers to go to that dirtiest possible extent. At the other end, there were no mitigating circumstances either to offer lenient treatment to those who were convicted and given death sentences.

And let us also not forget the time-lag. The entire judicial process until this point took as many as 5690 days, that is more than 15 years. And now also, there is no end to the legal journey of this case. For, now the case will enter the honourable Supreme Court, and take its own time to its logical culmination.

But the subject at hand is not the time that the case consumed so far. The issue is how the the nation and its judicial system should look at cruelty of such insane intensity. In fact, there are fairly serious issues about why only some of the accused should have been given death sentence and why others life term and still some others an acquittal. For, when a crowd indulges in cruelty, can there be such distinctions?

The purpose here is not to disturb a legal process; it is only to raise certain issues that the nation can only ill-afford to omit from its public discourse. It is necessary for all of us at this stage to take a re-look at what happened at Godhra and what that metaphor should mean in historical context. Godhra was just an independent verticle in contemporary history. It is a part of an undesirable chain that nobody ever wanted to happen. Yet, Godhra, per se, pushed collective tolerance beyond limits, as a result of which came a wave of violence. That violence cannot be pardoned, but in the same vein, even Godhra should be considered.

Honourable Gujarat High Court has brought the legal discourse to a point where we must take a pause and think in depth about how we, as a society, should handle future challenges in this category. What anybody would want to happen is to deliver the sternest possible message not to one section but to the entire Indian society that Godhras or anything else in the category, would never be tolerated. Commutation of death sentences, thus, gives rise to some doubts that need to be sorted out, answered.

In fact, similar doubts have come up in popular mind in the past few years about the course the judicial system has taken on many counts. Doubts have also come up about political connotations of various events and happenings. When all those doubts get pushed into a boiling social cauldron, then what rises to the surface is an awkward chemistry whose reactions have a terribly destructive value. Will Godhra act as one such point in our history? -- is the issue at hand.

In our public discourse in the past fifteen-plus years after Godhra, we have had elements that have tried to overlook the Godhra cruelty but wanted to make a huge issue out of the massive collective reaction to the bogie burning. It is this dichotomy that troubles sane minds. What India needs at this stage is not the consideration in terms of just one case; India needs a cogent method and manner to deal with situations as extreme as Godhra.

It is in the light of this that we must take a fresh look at the Godhra carnage. Why should our judiciary be reluctant to award death sentence? This question is going to dominate our legal discourse in future, no matter what some so-called liberalists may be thinking.