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Why the Godhra verdict is humane

Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express, in which 59 people, mostly 'kar sevaks'?returning from Ayodhya, were travelling, was burnt on February 27, 2002 at Godhra station, triggering riots in the state. Photograph: (Reuters)

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Oct 11, 2017, 11.28 AM (IST) Meenakshi Ganguly

On the fateful morning of 27 February 2002, 59 people died in a fire inside the Sabarmati Express train near the Godhra railway station in the Indian state of Gujarat. All of them were kar sevaks who were returning after a religious ceremony at the disputed Babri Masjid site. 

On the way, coach S6 of Sabarmati Express was set on fire. The tragedy of the incident did not end there but spilled into a terrible riot across the state of Gujarat. The retaliatory spree of the rioting mob killed hundreds of Muslims, displacing thousands of others as homes were set on fire.

The hearing on the case has continued for more than a decade. Initially, 11 of the perpetrators of the Godhra carnage were given death sentences. But, recently, in a verdict given by the Gujarat High Court, the bench of Justices Anant S Dave and G.R. Udhwani has commuted the sentence of the 11 convicts into life imprisonment. 

WION spoke to human rights activist and the Director of Human Rights Watch in South Asia, Meenakshi Ganguly on the issue.

What is key is a criminal justice system that conducts a fair and impartial investigation to identify perpetrators and then prosecutes them with enough credible evidence to ensure a conviction.
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1. Has justice been done in giving life imprisonment terms for 11 convicts of the Godhra train burning incident?

The High Court, on October 10, ruled on an appeal in the Godhra case, commuting 11 death sentences to life imprisonment. Under the Indian constitution, everyone has the right to a fair trial and the right of appeal. In the 2002 cases from Gujarat, most of those convicted-- both in the Sabarmati Express attack in Godhra, as well as for the subsequent attacks on Muslims in various parts of Gujarat including those claiming to be supporters of the government-- have appealed the verdict. Prosecutors can also appeal the verdict, as also happened in this case. The High Court has upheld the 2011 special court ruling, convicting 31 and acquitting 63.

For victims and their families, what is key is a criminal justice system that conducts a fair and impartial investigation to identify perpetrators and then prosecutes them with enough credible evidence to ensure a conviction.

Many believe that violent crimes deserve the capital punishment. We, however, oppose the death penalty in all countries and under all circumstances because it is unique in its cruelty and finality, and is plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. In its December 18, 2007 resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty, the UN General Assembly stated that “there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable.”

We oppose the death penalty. But, of course, those responsible for these deaths need to be held to account.
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2. The Gujarat High Court has cited 2 reasons for commuting the death sentence: "overcrowdedness" of the coach & "more than 100 people could escape". Do you see these as sufficient reasons to rule out premeditated murder?

There have been various inquiries into the circumstances that led to the horrible deaths of 59 people on the Sabarmati Express. What is not in doubt is that there was a mob attack on the train and that scores were killed or injured. Since 2002, we continue to see incidents of vigilante violence, often based on racial or religious prejudice. It is crucial that the state draw some lessons. The Gujarat High Court, for instance, said that it was highly charged communal environment at that time, and the state administration should have been much more active in ensuring the protection of pilgrims, particularly in an area that was known to be prone to violence.

3. 59 people died that day but can a state hang eleven people for the crime committed? 

We oppose the death penalty. But, of course, those responsible for these deaths need to be held to account. The High Court has upheld convictions after hearing appeals. It has, however, we believe also upheld humane principles and commuted the death penalty to life imprisonment.

4. The High Court has blamed the state administration for its failure to maintain law & order, leading to kar seva. Who do you think should take moral responsibility for the failure?

It is the responsibility of the state to protect lives, and the administration clearly failed to take necessary steps to protect the pilgrims. The High Court has ordered the state to bear responsibility and pay compensation to the victims.

We will seek the prosecution of someone responsible for a crime, but will then defend the right of that same accused to a fair trial.
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5. Does the Human Rights Watch still hold on to the view that the government and the Court have been particularly slow in bringing the people involved in Gujarat riots to justice? Particularly, in comparison to the case filed on Godhra?

There have been three incidents of massive communal violence in recent decades. The mass attacks on Sikhs in 1984 after the Indira Gandhi assassination, the 1992-93 attacks on Muslims around the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and then the 2002 attacks on Muslims, killing hundreds after 59 Hindus died during a mob attack on the Sabarmati Express.

In the 1984 and 1992-93 cases, the justice process is stalled despite numerous inquiries. In the Gujarat cases, because of interventions of the Supreme Court, the National Human Rights Commission, and the appointment of independent investigators, there has been progress in a number of cases. People, including those that held office in the Gujarat administration, have been convicted.

6. As a human rights activist, in a situation like this, how do you decide whose side you take? Whose cause do you fight for?

We don’t have to take sides. Our role is to ensure that the state abides by the constitution and upholds international standards. We will seek the prosecution of someone responsible for a crime, but will then defend the right of that same accused to a fair trial.

Meenakshi Ganguly

Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. She investigates a broad range of issues from police reform to discrimination against marginalised groups.

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