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Zaheera rattles secular 'fixers'

Zaheera rattles secular 'fixers'

Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: November 16, 2004

Two events relating to Gujarat happened almost simultaneously. The first, which still reverberates in news columns, was Zaheera Sheikh's second volte-face in the Best Bakery retrial. The second, largely ignored by our Hindu-hating media, was the demand by Hyderabad Naxalites for the unconditional release of Maulana Naseeruddin, recently arrested by the Gujarat police in the Haren Pandya murder case. Ramakrishna, secretary of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), went so far as to demand that the Andhra Government ban police entry into Muslim homes or ghettoes without permission. Only the Kanchi Shankaracharya can be shamelessly arrested on Diwali eve for a case that does not require his presence in jail.
Even those of us who resist intimidation by the so-called secularists have failed to note the insidious growth of a trend to secure deferential treatment for the Muslim community in the realm of criminal law. The Sharia-based personal law has already bequeathed a grim legacy of inequality, as witnessed in the tragedies of the old Shah Banu and the young Gudiya. And now the criminal law of the land is sought to be tailored to an agenda that renders the Hindu community even more unequal vis-a-vis the Muslims. This calls for scrutiny of the motivation and funding of groups engaged in such activism.

The Zaheera Sheikh case is appropriate for such a study. Zaheera sprang into the limelight after her testimony in a Vadodara court led to the acquittal of 21 accused persons and outraged the secularists. Virtually hijacked by Mumbai activists, she then made headlines with her claim that a BJP MLA had intimidated her and she could not testify freely unless the Gujarat riot cases were transferred from the BJP- ruled State.

So loud was the din created by those determined to wrest a particular kind of judgment from the courts that the Supreme Court concurred with the exercise of tarnishing the reputation of the entire Gujarat judiciary, and took the unprecedented step of transferring the cases to Mumbai. Nemesis came close on the heels of the Congress Party's installation of its Government in Maharashtra: Zaheera accused Teesta Setalvad of virtually imprisoning her in the latter's Mumbai home, forcing her to sign documents she could not read, pressurising her to give a certain type of testimony, and generally threatening her in the guise of organising her legal defence.

Setalvad and her fellow travellers managed a stupendous feat in getting the cases transferred to their chosen state (Maharashtra) on the strength of an orchestrated outcry and a conniving media. This same media has now launched a witch-hunt against Zaheera and is trying to pre-empt the judiciary by declaring her testimony valueless. An activist of Setalvad's impugned NGO, anticipating snags in the cosy relationship with the judiciary, has made the staggering demand for an out- sourcing of the judicial process itself to NGOs with secret agendas and no public accountability.

The Indian judiciary's encouragement to activists with covert agenda's and no locus standi has placed it in an unenviable position. Concerned citizens are now raising questions that deserve an answer. For instance, does Setalvad's alleged behaviour amount to intimidation and prompting of a witness? But the real challenge before the learned judges is rebutting the media campaign against Zaheera and her testimony. The allegation that Setalvad pressurised a witness to name innocent persons is too serious to be shrugged aside without proper investigation, especially when a massive cover-up operation is already underway. The currently emerging view that the riot cases were transferred on faulty premises must be addressed and norms laid down to prevent the hijacking of justice in future.

Judicial activism is now a serious public concern. There is a feeling that the judiciary is prone to taking up high-profile cases out-of-turn, which perpetuates backlog and imperils impartiality. Best Bakery superceded the infamous St Kitts case involving the PMO under the late Rajiv Gandhi. If out-of-turn allotment of Government housing or petrol pumps is a malpractice, what is the judicial merit in selecting court cases out-of-turn?

Zaheera has asked the Vadodara Collector for protection from Setalvad and her NGO colleagues. Given the gravity of the charge that she was taken to Mumbai forcibly and the Mumbai police were unresponsive when approached for help, the judiciary must immediately remove other witnesses from the care of NGO-activists. Press reports suggest that other witnesses have been pushed underground by NGOs, and this may result in doctored testimony.

Some facts in the Zaheera case are being obfuscated by a partisan media. To begin with, she was accompanied to the Vadodara press conference by all her family members, which means that her retraction is not an individual whim. Her lawyer hinted that her relatives had been kept hostage the last time she appeared before the media, and this cannot be dismissed out-of-hand. Secondly, the testimony of witnesses who have testified in the Best Bakery case must be evaluated independently by the judiciary, and not pre-judged by the media.

 Zaheera's specific allegation that a friend of Setalvad threatened that she would be "lynched" if she returned to Vadodara appears to have merit as an organised group burnt her effigy there after she reiterated her initial testimony. Even if we posit a margin of exaggeration in the claim that Setalvad and her colleagues told Zaheera she must lie for the sake of her community, one must take cognisance of the assertion that Heena (wife of Zaheera's brother) was at her maternal home when the Best Bakery incident took place, and was falsely made an "eye-witness" by the NGO. If memory serves me correctly, Zaheera said this previously also, when the said sister-in-law made a public statement after the riots. An honest investigation by the police should easily clarify the picture in this regard.

The unmistakable lesson of this unsavoury episode is that there is a well-funded and well-organised extra-constitutional caucus serving ends that have little to do with justice or national interest. Worse, it synergises perfectly with political parties and bureaucrats and is treated with rare indulgence by pillars of the State, such as the judiciary. What is most disturbing in the present case is the sheer brazenness with which they have pursued an overtly communal agenda with the specific objective of humiliating and denouncing the Hindu community as a whole.

Weak and poor Muslims like Zaheera and her family have been used as fodder in a grand design to ensure special treatment for the Muslim community in the matter of criminal law, to further embed and empower political votebanks. The NGO crowd would like the Hindu community to pretend that Godhra never happened and that the Gujarat riots were not a reaction, but an independent act of aggression. Victims unable to identify culprits (who may have died in subsequent police firing) can be hijacked in their own interests (sic) and made to testify against their wishes.

In this scenario, there is no need for justice for Hindus and special yardsticks can be applied to Muslims such as non-arrest in the face of heinous crimes like political assassination, as suggested by the Andhra Maoists. NGOs have run amuck for too long. The Supreme Court would do well to scuttle their covert agendas by questioning their locus standi and transferring the Gujarat riot cases back to the State.

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