Quick Read: Best Bakery case exposed the flaws in India’s judicial system

Souvik Bhadra and Pingal Khan warn you in the introduction to their book Red Handed: 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India that they’re both advocates, which means you shouldn’t expect literary flair from their descriptions of the most controversial cases that have gone to trial in India. However, if there was ever a book to use as a battering ram against writer’s block, it is Red Handed. Particularly because Bhadra and Pingal adopt a dry, informative tone, the storyteller in you is bound to imagine these criminals’ tales told in a way that’s more twisted, tantalising and juicy. You may not remember some of the anti-heroes that Bhadra and Pingal write about, like Dhananjoy Chatterjee, but there are others who are unforgettable, like Manu Sharma and Charles Sobhraj. For those who have been reading newspapers, there isn’t much that’s new in this book, but it’s a handy reference volume, particularly for older crimes like the cases of Harshad Mehta and PV Narasimha Rao.

Here’s an excerpt from their chapter on the Best Bakery trials:  

Rarely has an event shocked the conscience of the nation nor stirred the emotion and faith of the people as the incidents and trials related to the Best Bakery catastrophe in the Gujarat of 2002. … A bleeding country demanded justice.

The trials were, however, mired in controversy. One of the most famous trials of the Gujarat riots was one of those responsible for the murders at Best Baker in Vadodara. The trial has since come to be known as the Best Bakery case. Many consider this case to be the test case for the Indian judicial system to show the world it was capable of handling post-conflict scenarios. …

Twenty-one persons were accused in the Best Bakery case and on 27 June 2003, the special court acquitted all of them for lack of evidence. Thirty-seven of the seventy-three witnesses turned hostile, i.e., they were presented by the prosecution but ended up testifying to the contrary. It was during this proceeding that Zaheera [Sheikh, daughter of the owner of the bakery] herself turned hostile. She said that she had been hiding while the massacre took place and had not seen what had happened.

The nation was shocked. People were expecting justice from the fast-track court in Gujarat. What they got instead was an acquittal. The state government gave the Gujarat police a rap on the knuckles for conducting a shoddy investigation and the verdict was appealed before the Gujarat High Court.

Less than a month later, Zaheera appeared after taking an oath before the NHRC, stating that she had been facing death threats and had been coerced to change her testimony. The NHRC, being the body responsible for the protection of human rights in the country, can intervene in cases and take them up to ensure that human rights are being respected. It therefore took cognizance of the matter and filed a petition before the Supreme Court in Delhi asking that the case be moved out of Gujarat for trial.

Upon hearing both, the petition by the NHRC and the appeal by the Gujarat government, the Supreme Court, relying on a sworn statement by Zaheera that her life was in danger, ordered that the case be tried outside Gujarat, and shifted the venue of the trial to the neighbouring state of Maharashtra. … Many in Gujarat also took this move as a personal insult to the state and felt that as a community they were being targetted by media propaganda.

Things changed once the case was moved to Mumbai and more witnesses testified. However. Zaheera turned hostile once again. She again said that she had not seen anything and alleged that she was being coerced by Teesta Setalvad, a prominent social activist who was spearheading the campaign to bring justice to victims of the riots. … Around the same time, investigative magazine Tehelka published an expose, where Zaheera was seen receiving a bribe of Rs 18 lakh by Madhu Srivastava, a BJP MLA from Gujarat. In response, the Muslim community in India discredited her and the Majlis-e-Saura declared her an ‘outsider’, stating that she had brought shame to India’s Muslim community.

Rupa-crimeIn 2006, the court in Mumbai convicted nine of the twenty-one accused of murder and sentenced them to life imprisonment. At the same time, it acquitted eight others and issued arrest warrants for four other missing persons. The nine filed an appeal with the high court in Mumbai and, in 2012, the court acquitted five of them for want of evidence. … Zaheera was convicted of perjury and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and fined Rs 50,000. Perjury, or lying under oath, is one of the more serious offences that a person can commit as it will lead to a miscarriage of justice. The fact that Zaheera was also sentenced to jail, in a case where she was also the victim, sheds light on the fact that the judicial system does not care who committed the crime, but enforces the law as it stands.

The Best Bakery case exposed many of the flaws in India’s judicial system, from the series of acquittals to the fact that witnesses could keep changing their statements. It was a judicial nightmare, to say the least. … It also showed how vulnerable the Indian judicial system is to outside influence. From accusations of bribing and intimidation of witnesses, which led to changed statements during the trial, the case exposed the system to public scrutiny.

What seems to be the most interesting element in this case, however, is the fact that Zaheera, a victim, was swayed by pressure and bribery to change her statements. If anything, this case should teach us that it is high time India focuses on victims’ rights and introduces a witness protection program.

Red Handed: 20 Criminal Cases That Shook India, by Souvik Bhadra and Pingal Khan, Rupa, Rs295

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