Justice, at last?
Now that the NHRC has made its courageous move, the nation looks to the court
Last month the tidy acquittal of all 21 accused by the fast track court in the Best Bakery case was a betrayal of justice, and hope. It was a message that survivors and relatives of the victims of that gruesome massacre would not be permitted any closure. A signpost, warning of more blind alleys ahead. Wouldn’t other, far less chronicled, cases meet a similar fate? Wouldn’t those who committed the gruesome crimes at Naroda Patiya, Gulberg Society, Sardarpura, get away as well, relying on a winning combination of frightened witnesses, predatory MLAs and impassive courts? Now, suddenly, the NHRC’s decision to move a special leave petition asking the Supreme Court to set aside the judgement and call for a retrial of the case, outside Gujarat, holds out a reason to hope. It suddenly seems possible that justice is delayed, but will not be denied, to victims of the Gujarat riots.
The NHRC’s activism is immensely reassuring. Of course, there are bound to be obstacles in the course it has so bravely set out on. Questions will be raised, substantive and procedural. As this paper has pointed out, the NHRC’s step is unconventional, unprecedented. So far, retrials are ordered by the first court of appeal, and not the apex court. They happen at the behest of the accused, not the prosecution. And, in this case, it isn’t even strictly the prosecution. The Modi government, remember, has reacted to the acquittal of the accused with resounding silence. No, it may not be easy. But the NHRC must stay the course. Because, at the end of it, it may have proved that the institutions of justice are not deaf to the tremulous fear in the voice of Sehrunissa Sheikh, mother of prime complainant Zaheera Sheikh, who told this paper: ‘‘Kaanpte, kaanpte jhooth bola tha court mein’’. It may yet provide it with the opportunity to live up to the despite-it-all hope in Zaheera Sheikh’s decision to come out of hiding and demand a retrial. It will, hopefully, make up for the inexcusable helplessness of civil society organisations so far — including the NHRC. All watched justice being miscarried in Gujarat.
It is rare that the system is given another chance to correct a deliberate injustice. And, of course, it doesn’t all depend on the NHRC alone. The ball is now with the court. Down the years, even as the credibility of almost all democratic institutions has been steadily eroded, the Supreme Court has often intervened and acted in ways that have provided recourse, and restored faith. This moment calls upon the court to do so once more. To uphold the NHRC’s plea. And thereby to reaffirm that a fair trial is a constitutional imperative and a fundamental human right. A nation looks to the court.