Godhra train burning: SC postpones hearing of convicts’ pleas to Apr 17

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said on February 20 that the Gujarat government would seek death penalty for the 11 convicts in the 2002 Godhra train-burning case

Gujarat riots, Godhra train burning, Gujarat violence, murder, gang-rape
Violent communal clashes erupted across Gujarat following the attack on Sabarmati Express near Godhra on February 27, 2002 I PTI file photo

The Supreme Court on Monday (April 10) postponed the hearing of the pleas of several convicts challenging their convictions in the Godhra train carnage case to April 17.

The Supreme Court Bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice PS Narasimha, and Justice JB Pardiwala was slated to hear the pleas on Monday, but it was later postponed on the request of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

Mehta, on behalf of the Gujarat government, had said on February 20 that they would seek death penalty for the 11 convicts in the 2002 Godhra train-burning case. Their sentences were reduced to life imprisonment by the Gujarat High Court.

“Rarest of rare cases”

“We will be seriously pressing for award of death penalty to the convicts whose death penalties were commuted into life imprisonment by the Gujarat High Court. This is the rarest of rare cases where 59 people, including women and children, were burnt alive,” Mehta had said.

Also read: Godhra train burning case in SC: Gujarat govt to seek death penalty for 11 convicts

“It is consistent everywhere that the bogie, S6, of the Sabarmati Express was locked from outside. Fifty-nine people died, including women and children,” Mehta had added.

Notably, a trial court in Gujarat had awarded the death sentence to 11 convicts and life sentences to 20 others in the case. Later, the Gujarat HC had upheld the conviction of the 31 accused but commuted the punishment of 11 of them from death to life in prison.

One of 9 cases

The Godhra train-burning case is of one of nine cases related to 2002 Gujarat riots where Special Investigation Teams (SITs) were formed for investigation under the directive of the Supreme Court.

Initially, 68 people were named in the chargesheet of the Godhra train-burning case, where 59 Karsevaks were burnt to death in the S6 bogie of Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, at Godhra railway station in Gujarat.

“The SIT that investigated the Godhra train-burning case named those who were identified by the witnesses, as well as those who they thought were suspects. The police then worked towards finding evidence against those suspects, many of whom were convicted in the coming years. That is unlike the cases of riots, where no accused were named or identified in the process of investigation by the government; the only accused named in the chargesheets are those identified by the victims. Then again, in multiple cases, the statements of the victims were deemed unreliable,” Shamshad Pathan, one of the many advocates based in Ahmedabad associated with the 2002 riots cases, told The Federal.

Also read: 2002 Gujarat riots: Court acquits 26 accused for gangrape, multiple murders

A glaring difference

“However, the glaring difference between the handling of these nine cases investigated by SIT was that the accused were booked under Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002 (POTA), among other charges, in the Godhra train-burning case. In the other eight cases, the accused were not charged under POTA,” added Pathan.

The other eight cases included he carnages in Naroda Patiya and Naroda Gam in Ahmedabad, Sardarpura and Deefna Darwaza in Mehsana, Ode in Kheda, and the murder of four Muslims who were NRIs (British citizens) from Sabarkantha. These are among the about 2,000 cases that were filed after the riots of 2002.

Most of these cases are still in trial courts, where the defence lawyers have been asked to make the final arguments for the fourth time since the inception of the trials. In a handful of cases where judgements were delivered by the trial or high courts, the accused are either out on bail or have been acquitted by a higher court for lack of evidence.

In February 2015, six rioters accused of murdering British citizens Saeed Dawood and Shakil Dawood and their driver Mohammed Aswat were acquitted for lack of evidence. The Dawood brothers were caught amid riots at Prantij, Sabarkantha district, while travelling to Rajasthan. The car they were travelling in was stopped by rioters and the brothers, along with their driver, were burnt to death.

Also read: Bilkis Bano case: SC notice to Centre, Gujarat govt on plea against remission to convicts

The family of the brothers pursued a lengthy campaign for justice, including petitioning Tony Blair, the then premiere of the UK, to deny Narendra Modi, then the CM of Gujarat, a visa to visit Britain. However, the family withdrew the campaign after receiving the brothers’ bodies upon the intervention of the then British government.

The Naroda Patiya case

In April 2018, the Gujarat High Court, after hearing 11 petitions moved by the convicts, the Supreme Court-appointed SIT, and the families of the riot victims in the Naroda Patiya case, acquitted former BJP minister Maya Kodnani and her assistant.

As many as 97 Muslims, including women and children, were killed in Naroda Patiya on February 28, 2002, in a riot that had spread across Gujarat following the burning of the Sabarmati Express coach in Godhra.

Kodnani, along with her then-assistant Kripal Singh Chabra, were found guilty of conspiracy in the trial court. However, the High Court held the statement of the 11 witnesses against Kodnani and Chabra “unreliable”.

In the same case, the High Court reduced the sentence of prime accused Babu Bajrangi from life sentence to 21 years. Four police witnesses had testified against him. However, Babu Bajrangi has been out of prison since March 2019 after being granted bail by the Supreme Court on account of his deteriorating health.

Also read: Gujarat riots: 22 acquitted due to lack of evidence

The other cases

Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi, along with VHP leader Jaydeep Patel, are still accused in the Naroda Gam case. The case was investigated by the SIT and is still being heard in the trial court.

In January this year, 22 people accused of burning 17 Muslims to death in Panchmahal district were acquitted by the Halol sessions court for lack of evidence after 18 years since the trial was registered.

The Halol court held that the prosecution “could not prove the suspected place of crime” as the bodily remains could not be recovered from the suspected place of offence. “The prosecution also failed to establish beyond doubt the presence of the accused at the site of the offence or their specific role in the crime, failed to recover the alleged weapons used in the crime and that there was no inflammable substance found at the suspected site of crime,” the court said.

Notably, an FIR in the case was filed two years later, in 2004, following which 22 people were arrested. The local police investigating the case held that the bodies of the victims were never found. All that was found were some bones charred beyond recognition.

In April 2023, 16 accused of gang rape and murder of more than 12 Muslims in two separate incidents in February 2002 were acquitted for lack of evidence.

In all, 39 people were accused in the case in which an FIR was filed in Kalol, Gandhinagar district. Of them, 13 died during the pendency of the case in trial court.

The other 26 were acquitted by the court of Additional Sessions Judge Leelabhai Chudasama at Halol in Panchmahal district. The court observed, “The prosecution examined 190 witnesses and 334 documentary evidence in support of its argument, but there were contradictions in the accounts of witnesses, and they did not support the prosecution’s argument.”