Maya Kodnani
Maya Kodnani's alibi was accepted by the court I File photo

‘No one killed 11 Muslims?’ Naroda Gam riots case witnesses in state of shock

Witnesses recount the horrific day of the riots and say they will move a higher court to challenge the acquittals

Early on Thursday (April 20), Imtiyaz Qureshi, Sharif Malek and Abid Pathan, three witnesses in the Naroda Gam riots case, reached the Sessions Court in Ahmedabad. They had been waiting for the day for the past 21 years. It was the day the verdict in one of the major post-Godhra riots cases was to be pronounced. 

Like many victims of the riots who later turned witnesses, the trio had never missed a hearing for the past 13 years since the trial in the case began in 2010, and wanted justice for those killed in the riots.

Little did they know that their hopes would be dashed to the ground – to their surprise, the special court acquitted all the surviving 69 accused in the case in which 11 Muslims were killed.

‘Never thought all of them will be set free’

The witnesses were not even allowed to sit inside the courtroom on the day of the judgment, said Malek.

“It was crowded with the relatives of the accused. Maya Kodnani, Babu Bajrangi and Jaydeep Patel (the three key accused) were also present along with the other accused. As we found a seat for us in a corner of the courtroom, a police personnel called us outside. We objected first, but he said it was for our own safety. There were no police personnel inside the courtroom, so he made us sit with cops just outside,” Malek told The Federal.

Also read: Naroda Gam riots case: Gujarat court acquits all 67 accused

“We heard the crowd cheer inside the courtroom and understood the judgment was not in our favour. Keeping in mind the current political scenario of the country, we did not expect high profile accused like Kodnani, Patel and Bajrangi to be found guilty. But we had expected some of the accused to be held guilty and punished. We did not expect all of them to be set free,” he added.

21 years of wait

The 2002 Naroda Gam riot was one of the major post-Godhra riots cases probed by a Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team.

Kodnani, a former BJP MLA; Patel, a former Vishva Hindu Parishad leader and Bajrangi, a former Bajrang Dal leader were among the 86 accused, 18 of whom died in the course of the trial. The accused were facing charges under Sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 143 (unlawful assembly), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting armed with deadly weapons), 120 (B) (criminal conspiracy), and 153 (provocation for riots) of the Indian Penal Code among others.

Eleven people belonging to the Muslim community were killed in the riots that broke out in the Naroda Gam area of Ahmedabad city during a bandh called to protest against the Godhra train burning a day before in which 58 passengers, mostly Karsevaks returning from Ayodhya, were killed.

Witnesses recount horrific day

Malek and his family were residents of Naroda Gam when the riot ensued. They were all injured in stone-pelting during the riot but managed to escape the mob and hide in a local police station.

Malek was one of the 19 witnesses who had identified Kodnani and Patel and testified that they were present on the spot on the day of the riots. The duo, however, was acquitted on the basis of an alibi provided by four witnesses including Union Home Minister Amit Shah (then the Deputy Chief Minister of Gujarat), who testified that Kodnani was in the state Assembly and later in the Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad, when the riots broke out.

Malek, however, counters the alibi saying Kodnani and Patel through their incendiary speeches in the marketplace in Naroda that day had sent out a bloodthirsty mob to kill Muslims and destroy their homes.

“The mob had already gathered in the marketplace in Naroda that day. But it was after Kodnani and Patel arrived and gave inflammatory speeches that the mob went berserk, looting and killing Muslims indiscriminately,” Malek said.

Also read: With 2002 Gujarat riots back in discourse, Cong’s dilemma is how to deal with it

As he was fleeing, Malek saw four family members of Madinaben, another witness in the case, being killed.

“We pulled Madinaben from the spot else she would have been killed too. Her husband, brothers-in-law and mother-in-law were killed that day and her home was burnt down. She lived just across the street from the Naroda police station, not even 100 metres away,” recounted Malek.

Madinaben, in a letter to the police commissioner in 2002, had stated that her husband, mother-in-law and two brothers-in-law were set on fire after being doused in kerosene. The same was noted in the Nanavati Commission report as well.

“We spent 21 years of our life fighting and waiting for justice. We will fight the case in a higher court. This is for our children and to ensure justice for the victims of the riots,” Malek said.

‘Nobody killed the 11 Muslims’ 

Imtiyaz Qureshi, another witness in the case, stood in disbelief as he heard the judgment. “You mean to say nobody killed those 11 Muslims?” he asked as mediapersons approached him post the judgment.

Qureshi’s ancestral home and shop were burnt down in the riots. He managed to flee, but was separated from his family. He only came to know that they were alive a month later when he met them at a relief camp.

In 2009, just before the trial was slated to begin, Qureshi wrote a letter to the Witness Protection Cell of the SIT, stating that he was being threatened by Prahlad Parmar, one of the accused in the case. Parmar allegedly had shown Qureshi photos of former Gujarat Inspector General of Police DG Vanzara and boasted about his proximity to several BJP MLAs while threatening him to withdraw his testimony.

On April 20, Parmar was one of the accused to walk free in the case.

Also read: SC Gujarat riots verdict: Amit Shah says Modi suffered for 19 long years

“The judgement is yet to be made public. So, we don’t know on what basis the accused were acquitted,” said Shamshad Pathan, one of the lawyers who represented the victims of the riots.

Accused set free despite ‘piling evidence’

“There was piling evidence and many witnesses against Kodnani and Patel who were accused of instigating and leading the mob that day. Kodnani was also accused of providing kerosene from her car to the rioters. Apart from 19 witnesses, there were mobile tower records that confirm the presence of Patel and Kodnani at the spot thrice – between 10 am and 10.30 am, 12.30 noon and at 2.30 pm on the day of the riots,” Pathan told The Federal.

Pathan also questioned Shah’s alibi in defence of Kodnani. “Four witnesses provided alibi for Maya Kodnani including Amit Shah. Shah’s testimony was that he saw Kodnani at the state Assembly and later at the Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad at 11.15 am. After his testimony, we even argued that one can easily reach Naroda Gam from the Civil Hospital by 12.30 pm,” he added. 

High-profile accused

Kodnani was a former women and child welfare minister in the Gujarat government. She is the daughter of a Sindhi RSS worker who had migrated to Gujarat during the partition. A practising gynaecologist in the Naroda area of Ahmedabad, she quickly rose to prominence in Gujarat politics.

In 1995, the BJP fielded her as its candidate from Saijpur ward during the Ahmedabad civic elections. Soon she became the rising star of the party after being elevated as the chairman of the standing committee. In 1998, Kodnani was elected as the BJP MLA from Naroda. She was the general secretary of Gujarat Pradesh BJP Mahila Morcha and later, from 1998 to 2000, its chief. In 2000, she became the first woman president of Ahmedabad BJP, a position she retained till 2005.

Kodnani was a sitting MLA from Naroda when the riots broke out. She was convicted for instigating rioters and orchestrating the Naroda Patiya massacre on February 28, 2002, where 97 people, including women and children were brutally murdered and the Naroda Gam case, where 11 people died. She has been acquitted in both cases.

Babubhai Patel alias Babu Bajrangi was a former Bajrang Dal leader and a central figure in the 2002 riots. Bajrangi, known to be a fierce leader of Gujarat Bajrang Dal, was also co-accused in the Naroda riot case. He was convicted in the Naroda Patiya case and awarded life sentence until death. But he has remained primarily out of jail, having been granted bail 14 times on grounds of his and his wife’s health.

Also read: NCERT removes content on Mughal history, Gujarat riots from its textbooks

Jaydeep Patel, another accused in the Naroda Gam and Naroda Patiya massacres of the 2002 Gujarat riots, was also acquitted on April 20. He was the former Gujarat state general secretary of Vishwa Hindu Parishad and a very influential leader in the Naroda area of Ahmedabad where he lived.

Patel was accused of being present in Godhra to attend to the victims of the Godhra train burning on February 27, 2002. Patel allegedly had a role in the decision to send the bodies of the deceased to Ahmedabad. The charred dead bodies were allegedly handed over to him by the executive magistrate of Godhra at the behest of his senior officers, to be transported to Ahmedabad.

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