All said and done, at least three innocent people had been killed in cold blood in the cold months of November 2005 and December 2006 by those who were sworn to uphold the rule of law.
SAFI JANNATY | Caravan Daily
AFTER two former Gujarat ministers and several high ranking police officers were discharged, exonerated and acquitted between 2014 and 2017, there had been hardly any hope that the families of Sohrabuddin Shaikh, Kauser Bi and Tulsiram Prajapati would get justice. In fact, for many who knew the ins and outs of the entire conspiracy, the acquittal had been a foregone conclusion.
Just two months ago, VL Solanki, a former Gujarat police officer whose investigation report was crucial in establishing the chain of events and who had brought to light a larger controversy linked with the killings and whose efforts find special mention in two Supreme Court judgments on the case had anticipated such an outcome.
His bluntness in stating ‘there is no justice in India’ might sound presumptuous, yet, the families of the victims would agree with him now. The likes of Anupam Kher and other ‘Bhakts’ would target him for being anti-national and get for him a ticket, probably for Nepal or Bhutan.
Delivering last judgment before his retirement, the CBI special court judge, justice SJ Sharma acquitted all of the remaining 22 accused and the only argument he placed for their acquittal was the absence of evidence against the accused. However, while giving the anticipated reprieve to the accused, he did not forget to defend and commend the efforts of the CBI and argued that the prosecution could do nothing if the witnesses on whose testimonies they had built up the case turned hostile. Though, a proper legal term, yet, the phrase ‘turned hostile’ seems to be a very strong expression.
If one were to go with the statements of VL Solanki, the witnesses just did not want to put at stake their life and limb. When questioned as to why he would not depose before the court on 21 September 2018, VL Solanki indicated to the journalist of Caravan India interviewing him to conclude on his own the reason bearing in mind that Gujarat government had withdrawn police protection that was accorded to him and his family until July 2018.
When judiciary effectively administers justice and convicts culprits, the victims and their families get the means to dry up their tears and live in a little peace. At the same time, a fair and impartial justice system acts as great deterrence and helps in curbing the excessive use of power by politicians and bureaucrats.
A close analysis of the trail of the case sends shudders down the spine and makes one believe that it is almost impossible to get justice when faced against the people having their hands on the reins of power. The case history and the chronology of events demonstrate as to how the power dynamics work in India and how it keeps changing. From the stage of pursuing the matter aggressively during the years, 2010-2013 which had led to the preparation of 2000 odd pages charge sheet containing 700 pages of statements by witnesses recorded before a magistrate to maintaining a lackadaisical approach from 2014.
Neither did it dare to file an appeal against the decision to discharge and release Amit Shah in December 2014; nor did it raise any objection against the acquittal of DG Vanzara, Raj Kumar Pandian, Ajay Chudasma and other high ranking officials whom it had directly accused of hatching and executing the murders. Nor would it consider now to file an appeal or review petition or knock the doors of higher courts. It was the same CBI that had charged Amit Shah for presiding an extortion racket and using his position to have the police from top to bottom to serve and safeguard his interest. It was the same agency that had petitioned before the Supreme Court to cancel the bail granted by Gujarat High Court to Amit Shah and argued that he had sufficient resources to tamper with the evidence and to intimidate the witnesses.
When we talk of the trial for Amit Shah, it took less than a month for the successor of Justice Loya to hear and acquit Amit Shah on December 30, 2014. Besides the usual argument of political vendetta, Justice M B Gosavi, who was aware of the circumstances in which Justice Loya had died, ruled that the frequent call records were not acceptable as proper evidence and held that it was not unnatural for a home minister to interact closely with policemen on the field in an age when “terrorist activities were on rise”.
All said and done, at least three innocent people had been killed in cold blood in the cold months of November 2005 and December 2006 by those who were sworn to uphold the rule of law. They were not just extrajudicial killings or killing of suspects or convicts in police custody. When the accused are rejoicing and celebrating the judgment and imploring others to respect the judiciary and the judgment, let us also focus our attention on judgments issued by the apex court of the country on the matter.
Two judgments by the Supreme Court delivered in the years 2010 and 2012 respectively clearly reflect attempts by the Gujarat government to cover up the heinous crime to protect the lynchpins and their motives for ordering the killings. The Supreme Court in its judgment of 12 January 2010 asserted that it took over six months and several reminders for Gujarat Police to commence investigation ordered by the Court on 21 January 2007.
When it became apparent to the court that there were large and numerous discrepancies in the action taken reports filed by the Gujarat Police at different times and when the court was convinced that the investigation was not being done in a fair and impartial manner, it decided to transfer the case to the CBI in January 2010. Specifically, the court reprimanded Geetha Johri, an IPS officer, who was first appointed by the Gujarat Government to lead the team of investigation for gross variations in her reports as well as for walking out of the investigation in Prajapati case.
The rise and fall and then the ultimate elevation of Geetha Johri is noteworthy. The initial investigation report prepared by Geetha Johri’s team resulted in the arrest of several high ranking policemen including the then DIG of Police, DG Vanzara in April 2007. Later, she was removed from the investigation team; but she returned to lead the investigation sometime in 2008 and submitted her last report to the Supreme Court in September 2008 which reflected a substantial change in her statements and that later led the CBI to add her in the list of the accused of destroying evidence.
Interestingly, in one inquiry involving corruption charges against her husband, Anil Johri, a forest officer, the committee handling the case acquitted him in July 2009. Not only Geetha Johri was acquitted by the CBI court in 2015 for want of State Government sanction, which was surely not to be accorded, she also rose to become the Inspector General of Gujarat Police in 2016.
Similarly, the Supreme Court judgment of 27 September 2012, which denied the request for cancellation of bail granted to Amit Shah by Gujarat High Court and ordered the transfer of case out of Gujarat, passed several strictures against the Gujarat government. The judgment asserted that at first the Gujarat government had ‘vociferously and stoutly’ denied that the Sohrabuddin encounter was state managed, but, later accepted that charge as well as admitted that Kauser Bi was killed while she was in illegal police custody and her body was consumed to fire to be untraceable.
The judgment reiterated that what had forced the Supreme Court to order the CBI to investigate the case in 2010 was the ‘trenchant refusal’ of the State police to see any connection between the killings of Sohrabuddin and his wife, Kauser bi with the killing of Tulsiram Prajapati. The two-judge bench also held that not only the pattern of killing but the pattern of handling of Prajapati case was similar to Sohrabuddin: at first, the State government denied the fake encounter and when it was not possible to deny the story, the State arranged a quick investigation and besides filing the required charge sheet it ensured quick trials by the Session court with a view to argue that once the State court commenced the trial, higher courts are denuded with the authority.
While refusing to cancel the bail for Amit Shah, the court had averred that the arguments of CBI against Amit Shah could not be lightly brushed aside and made it mandatory for Amit Shah to report to CBI on alternate Sundays. Ironically, the very linkage argument which the Gujarat government was denying helped Amit Shah as the order by another Supreme Court Judge, Justice P. Sathasivam to merge the two cases in April 2013 eliminated the need for Amit Shah to seek a separate bail in the case of Tulsiram Prajapati. Call it another co-incidence, when the BJP came to power, it appointed P. Sathasivam as the governor of Kerala after forcing Sheila Dixit out of that office in December 2014.
In short, the case had all the ingredients to be a great Bollywood potboiler. Only, it was in real life and involved a loss of three human lives and suffering for the families of the victims. Besides, it has saddened and angered the people who crave for justice and fairness. Unlike the usual climax of movies where the protagonists get justice, in the case of Sohrabuddin, the clouds of darkness got thicker for the families of the victims as it is too difficult for them to run further in pursuit of justice. In the end, it was all a game of quid pro quo and fear prevailed. In the words of Allama Iqbal, Qafila-e-Hijaz may aik Hussain bhi nahi; Garcha hai taabdar abhi gaisu-e-Dajla o Furaat (In this caravan, there is not one like Hussain; though the banks of Tigris and Furaat are still bright as ever).
Safi H Jannaty is a Gulf-based writer and legal professional. Views are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Caravan Daily