That the Supreme Court had to intervene to ensure justice in the Best Bakery is indicative of a systemic failure that needs to be addressed without any further delay. Else, how will justice be delivered to victims of terror where the perpetrators are faceless?

Rasheeda Bhagat

The victims of the Best Bakery case finally got justice with a Mumbai court last week sentencing nine of the 17 accused to life imprisonment. A greater justice was the one-year RI for Zahira Sheikh, the most disgraceful face of the entire episode, worse than even the perpetrators of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Her repeated flip-flops and the highly credible charges of her being bribed to turn a hostile witness, have made a villain out of a victim. With the bakery victims, justice was also done to social activist Teesta Setalvad, whose reputation Zahira had torn to shreds.

But not as lucky was the family of the woman who was shot dead in a bar in Delhi in front of many witnesses. It could not get justice as all the nine accused were acquitted because of either hostile witnesses or on technicalities such as the murder weapon not being recovered. Jessica Lal's murderer appeared to have got away scot free.

And, just as in the Best Bakery case initially, the rich and the powerful got into the act. The prime accused in the case were Manu Sharma, the son of a Haryana minister, and Vikas Yadav, son of the former Rajya Sabha member, D. P. Yadav.

PUBLIC OUTRAGE

But what the police and the friends of the accused did not bargain for was the public outrage at the acquittal. Technology made it possible for the most indifferent of citizens, who cannot be bothered to turn up for protest marches or participate in signature campaigns, to get into the act. And this they did by sending a simple SMS demanding justice for Jessica.

The power of a well-managed public campaign was such that the Delhi police had to register a new case. The Delhi Police Commissioner, Mr K. K. Paul, openly admitted that they had done so because "a lot of material has come up in the aftermath of the judgment, including in the media, which had created doubts."

The media, taking a lot of flak these days for a myriad of issues, should be justifiably proud of this admission. The relentless media campaign, along with a strong stand taken by the National Human Rights Commission, was responsible for the Best Bakery case being shifted out of Gujarat. Initially, all the 21 accused were acquitted by a fast-track Gujarat court. But, then, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial in a Mumbai court.

But in these two instances, despite an unwilling Gujarat government, in the Best Bakery case, and the rich and the powerful who "scared away" the witnesses, in the Jessical Lal case, there was scope for some justice because the principal characters involved

knew

who the criminals were.

VARANASI BLASTS

But what about that child with her bandaged arm, who so helplessly stared at us out of newspaper pictures of the Varanasi blasts? How, and when will she get justice? Or, the families of those killed in the blasts at the Sankat Mochan temple? As the live footage of the chaos and horror at the crime scene showed, the devotees at the temple and those around the venue were furious that their place of worship had been targeted. Along with religious slogans such as "Jai Siyaram", there were angry cries of "Down Down Pakistan".

The channels played and replayed the footage of one angry man in blood-splattered clothes, who kept saying that but for a few seconds he too would have died in the blast.

He, and others around him, were livid that "Islamic terrorists" were targeting one temple after another... Ayodhya, Akshardham... But to their credit, and that of the people of Varanasi, not a single voice called for any retaliation or mentioned a word about "Indian Muslims". (The coverage was live, with no scope for editing.) Until, of course, the BJP leaders in Delhi could be located and the mikes thrust in their faces. They, of course, attributed the attacks to the UPA Government "going soft" on terrorists because it wanted to appease the Muslims.

Fortunately neither in Varanasi, nor elsewhere, did the people take a signal from any of these irresponsible speeches, or those of VHP leaders such as Praveen Togadia.

The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, was speaking for the nation when, after visiting the Sankat Mochan temple he congratulated the people of Varanasi for standing together and "guarding social harmony and peace in the city in the wake of terror attacks on the temple and the railway station. People from Hindu, Muslim and other religious communities of the city should be appreciated for not allowing the terrorists to succeed in their nefarious designs to divide the society on communal lines by targeting a religious place."

Expectedly he came down heavily on the BJP for its decision to take out two rath yatras and was confident the people would rebuff its attempts to "vitiate" the atmosphere in a bid to get political mileage. A relevant question he raised was why the BJP had not taken out such yatras after the terror attacks on Parliament and the Akshardham Temple during the NDA rule.

Whatever the BJP does or does not do, and however shrill Mr Togadia's campaigns, the communal calm that prevailed after the attacks on the Sankat Mochan temple is ample evidence that it is no longer going to be that easy to shatter the communal peace in this country.

SYSTEMIC FAILURE?

Coming to the larger issue of justice and how difficult it is to get it, let us turn to what Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising had to say on the Best Bakery case. In an article on

rediff.com

, she wrote: "All the factors leading to the first acquittal were predictable, yet nothing was done to prevent them from happening. It is all very well for the Supreme Court to say that the chief minister behaved like Nero and looked the other way. What did the High Court do? I wonder which direction his court was facing...

Meanwhile, 2,000 cases are closed as being unworthy of further investigation. After a Supreme Court calling for a review of the closed cases, a review committee has called for a reopening of 1,594 cases!

What a damning admission that the police and 1,594 magistrates did not do their jobs and unquestioningly accepted the closure reports. What we have here is not one Zahira Sheikh to think about, not one sessions court judge to give the first acquittal, not one high court judge who dismissed the appeal, but a failure of epidemic proportions."

Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 15, 2006)
XThese are links to The Hindu Business Line suggested by Outbrain, which may or may not be relevant to the other content on this page. You can read Outbrain's privacy and cookie policy here.