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Trial by ire

Trial by ire

Author: Editorial
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: April 14, 2004

The Supreme Court has ordered retrial of the Best Bakery case, and its transfer to Maharashtra from Gujarat. This will predictably provide grist to the overactive mill of demonisation Chief Minister Narendra Modi has long faced. But it is not his gratuitous branding as modern-day "Nero" that makes the judgement unfortunate. The more disturbing aspect is that the order is a vote of no-confidence against Gujarat's entire judicial machinery.

Ironically, the High Court, dismissing the Modi Government's prayer for retrial, had voiced "concern" over "a definite design" to target "the system as a whole". It could hardly have conceived of a gravely anomalous situation in which it would have its own integrity doubted by the nation's highest court of appeal. The SC has not passed an insignificant stricture against a lower court.

The Gujarat High Court itself stands demeaned-for no other reason than having discharged its duty in a manner prioritising national interest, based on its view that Best Bakery hinged on a self-confessed perjurer who could well be a tool in the hands of stakeholders in social unrest. It may be asked if the SC wishes to imply that Gujarat's judges are so spineless and susceptible to 'political pressure' that they can deliver judgements tailormade for supposedly venal politicians.

In the popular perception, certainly, its order represents the judiciary's indictment of itself, one to be set right only by assuming guilt-in advance. For, the apex court has unambiguously suggested that an official conspiracy was afoot to 'protect' the killers of innocent women and children.

It would follow that no verdict but of 'guilty' could lay Best Bakery to rest, that the charge of institutional collusion needs no further verification and that culpability may be established without concrete, and credible, evidence-all because a key prosecution witness changed her story at will, that too only after the Vadodara court gave its verdict. With its Gujarat counterpart painted as incapable of dispensing justice, the Maharashtra judiciary seems to have been issued a virtual directive on how to deal with Best Bakery.

Under the Constitution, law and order is a State subject. Inquiry has to be conducted by State authorities and cases represented by government prosecutors. Since perjurers allege the Gujarat authorities obstructed justice, surely there is little to guarantee the latter's future model conduct. The Vadodara court had acquitted the accused only after Zaheera Sheikh's retraction.

Given lack of evidence, it could hardly have done otherwise. After perjury was admitted, the High Court ruled out retrial. Yet the SC has put the Modi regime in the dock, using the harshest language possible to express contempt for a democratically elected Government. That this very regime appealed the Vadodara verdict and sought retrial does not seem pertinent; its view justice could be done within Gujarat even less so.

All of this can only bolster Mr Modi's contention that a relentless vilification campaign has been waged against Gujarat and its people. Given the media circus over Best Bakery and its uses for publicity-hounding human rights champions, his charge has always had takers. That the SC should also appear partisan, or swayed by people carrying out a virtual out-of-court trial, can only be rued as a sad day for the judiciary. Innumerable cases of justice miscarried or denied have gone unmourned. Anti-Sikh riot survivors may ask why their call for retribution has not been heard.

During the Punjab crisis, no TADA case was transferred. No one spoke of the human rights of terrorised victims. They too could demand fair trial, asking why they have never prompted the kind of concerted activism always at hand when judicial resolution of social conflict is given a communal colour. The judiciary and society at large need to think of answers, so that dispensation of justice can be authenticated as more than an institutional pretension.

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