RECOVERING JUSTICE FROM ROT
The SC’s recent acquittal of five of the six accused in the Akshardham attack case, citing “gross violation of fundamental rights” by the lower courts and investigating agencies, exposes the dangerous nexus between the lower judiciary and government machinery
Manisha Sethi Delhi
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” wrote the division bench of the Gujarat High Court in 2010, invoking Mark Twain to explain two letters recovered in perfect, unsoiled condition from the bullet-perforated and blood-soaked bodies of two fidayeens. The court used the letters to confirm the convictions of six men—including life imprisonment and death sentences for three—handed out by the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) special court in Ahmedabad.
In September 2002, an attack on the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar left over 30 dead and scores injured. The National Security Guard (NSG), requisitioned from Delhi, finally shot and killed the two armed raiders after hours of gun battle. A complaint was lodged the same day. For almost a year, investigations meandered and changed hands, from the local police, to the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), and finally reaching Crime Branch on the evening of August 28, 2003.
At 6.30 pm, GL Singhal assumed charge of the investigation. At 8 pm, he recorded the statement of the first prosecution witness (PW 50) concerning information provided by Deputy Inspector General (DIG) DG Vanzara. The following day, August 29, accused numbers 1–5 were arrested. POTA provisions—absent in the original complaint—and FIR were added on August 30. On August 31, Inspector General of Police (IGP) operations, ATS Gujarat, received a fax message from IGP, Kashmir, stating that one Chand Khan in their custody had confessed to involvement in the Akshardham attack.
It turned out that the Urdu on the recovered letters matched the handwriting of Accused No. 4. Moreover, the six accused readily agreed to make confessional statements detailing their roles in the conspiracy, first before the Superintendent of Police (SP) Sanjay Gadhvi (PW 78), and then before the Chief Judicial Magistrate (PW 99). An Ambassador was meanwhile seized from Accused No. 6 in Jammu and Kashmir—the car allegedly used to ferry the fidayeens from Kashmir to Ahmedabad, via Bareilly.
All loose ends taken care of and neatly tied up. What was there not to believe in the prosecution story? The Special POTA court passed its judgment convicting all six in July 2006. In June 2010, the High Court opined that “the offence of criminal conspiracy of mass killing of Hindus in Gujarat; of promoting enmity between the two groups on grounds of religion; of inviting support for a terrorist organization; of arranging and managing meeting/s to support terrorist organization; of inviting another to provide money, of receiving money and of providing money for the purpose of terrorism; of use of prohibited arms and explosives; of terrorist act of mass killing without provocation; of attempt to murder and of abetment are established.”
The real story of the Akshardham case is not the malicious investigation, which is by now rather familiar. Even the cast is well-known: GL Singhal, DG Vanzara and their cronies in the ATS and Crime Branch. Neither is it surprising that reading judgments and chargesheets of terror cases induces ennui—like watching a series of mind-numbing B-grade potboilers, where plot, camera angles, dialogues, all resemble each other, to the extent that they all segue into one mess, difficult to extricate from one another. For example, the fortuitous discovery of fragments of papers that point the investigators straight to the accused. In the Red Fort attack case (2000), a paper slip bearing a telephone number allegedly fell from the pocket of an escaping terrorist, nailing the main accused, Mohd Arif @ Ashfaq. In the Parliament attack case (2001), telephone numbers recovered from the dead terrorists led to Mohammad Afzal, Shaukat Husain Guru, Afsan Guru and SAR Gilani. Then there are hazy lines joining Special Operations Group (SOG) in Kashmir to investigative agencies in Delhi and Gujarat. Also characteristic is the efficiency of the investigating agencies—the ATS, or the Special Cell, or Crime Branch—in cracking cases, arresting accused, and wrapping up confessions in no time.
The real story, however, lies in what happened in the courts and the judicial offices. On May 16 this year, the Supreme Court acquitted five of the six convicted men—who had appealed against their conviction—and liberally used the terms “perverse”, “injustice”, “manifestly unreasonable”, “a gross violation of fundamental rights and basic human rights” to refer to the previous judgments and the court’s power to overturn them. So deeply troubled was the apex court by the business of the POTA special court and the High Court that it also acquitted Accused No. 1, who had not even appealed. What played out in the courts cannot be called judicial abdication. That would be too polite. It was nothing short of absolute abnegation of judicial responsibility.
For the long list of crimes the six accused in the Akshardham attack were charged with, and the severe penalties imposed upon them, the evidence produced in court was shockingly sparse. The bulk of the evidence was five confessions extracted from them (No. 5 had refused to confess) under Section 32 of POTA.