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ZAKIA AHSAN JAFRI v STATE OF GUJARAT AND ANR[1]: AN OVERVIEW

INTRODUCTION

Congress MP Ehsan Jafri was among the many who lost their lives in the Gulbarg Society massacre during the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Following his brutal murder, Ehsan Jafri’s widow, Zakia Ehsan Jafri filed a petition seeking an investigation into the incident of the riot, alleging that a conspiracy was behind the occurrence of the unfortunate events that unfolded in Gujarat in February of 2002.[2] 63 persons, including the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, were accused in a police report filed by Mrs. Jafri. The State officials were accused of deliberate and wilful dereliction of duty, police complicity, bureaucratic inaction, hate speech, etc.[3] When no action was taken by the police on Jafri’s complaint, she approached the Gujarat High Court asking for her complaint to be treated as an FIR to launch an investigation. On dismissal of the case by the High Court, Jafri approached the Supreme Court for the same relief. Since a Special Investigation Team (SIT) had already been constituted by the Supreme Court to investigate the Gujarat Riots case, the court directed the SIT to investigate Jafri’s case as well[4].

The SIT, without hearing Mrs. Jafri, granted the accused a ‘clean chit’ and closed the investigation, against which Mrs. Jafri then filed a Protest Petition before the Supreme Court. After a harrowing experience of filing repeated police complaints and petitions in various courts demanding a thorough investigation into her conspiracy complaint, Mrs. Jafri’s final attempt at seeking justice was heard between October and December 2021.[5]

FACTS OF THE CASE

  1. On 27th February 2002, 59 people died when the Sabarmati Express caught on fire near Godhra, Gujarat. This led to riots throughout Gujarat. A day later, Congress MP Ehsan Jafri was killed by rioters in Gulberg Society.[6]
  2. After repeated police complaints and petitions in various high courts, Mrs. Jafri approached the Supreme Court, where the National Human Rights Commission had already filed a writ petition seeking a thorough investigation into the various cases relating to the Gujarat riots.[7]
  3. In March 2008, for an investigation into the Gulberg Society cases, an SIT was appointed by the Supreme Court and directed to submit its final report before the Magistrate. However, all the records of the report were not supplied to the appellant.[8]
  4. Jafri filed an SLP, and, after obtaining the relevant materials, filed a protest petition before the Magistrate. This protest petition was dismissed.[9]
  5. Following this, a criminal revision filed before the High Court was also rejected. Hence, the present Special Leave Petition was filed by the aggrieved Mrs. Jafri.[10]

KEY ISSUES

  1. Whether the Magistrate was obliged to look into any evidence other than the SIT’s closure report when deciding Mrs. Jafri’s protest petition?
  2. Whether all the complaints in Mrs. Jafri’s protest petition were addressed by the Magistrate?
  3. Whether the Gujarat High Court’s decision to uphold the Magistrate’s dismissal of Mrs. Jafri’s protest petition factually and legally erroneous?

CONTENTIONS RAISED BY THE APPELLANT

The appellant contended that the SIT report was erroneous in its conclusion that no offense was made out against the accused and that the evidence gathered by the SIT suggested other indications and hence. It was contended that the SIT should have refrained from submitting a final report as several crucial pieces of information that were indicative of a conspiracy had been disregarded by the SIT. It was argued that the matter was not decided on the merits and facts of the case and the SIT’s conclusions were accepted without question. Moreover, proper procedure as laid down in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 was not adhered to. Mrs. Jafri also contended that her evidence was dismissed.[11] Mrs. Jafri had submitted statements of Gujarat police and certain bureaucrats, among other evidence, as proof of a “larger conspiracy” to postpone relief and assistance. Help was also taken from the Tehelka sting operation tapes which reportedly bore proof of government inaction and bureaucratic complicity.

CONTENTIONS RAISED BY THE RESPONDENTS

The SIT in its submission contended that complying with the instructions of the Supreme Court, it employed all of its ability to investigate each allegation. It was argued that a thorough study and analysis of each facet of every material obtained was done, while also dealing with the 32 allegations against each of the 63 people identified in the complaint. It was contended that the SIT’s scope was limited and it gave no authority to the SIT to foray into another issue without the court’s permission. Moreover, in the 2,000 other cases, the allegations of conspiracy had previously been probed into.[12] Counsel for the respondent argued that the events alleged by Mrs. Jafri had no connection to an alleged “larger conspiracy”. The SIT’s own judgement has to be consistent with the material covered in its report[13]. The report is exhaustive and every accusation pertaining to each person identified in the complaint has been addressed. Counsel for the SIT also submitted that the magistrate considered all of the factors before concluding that the disturbances were not the result of a bigger conspiracy. Moreover, the Supreme Court had ordered the SIT to submit its report to The Magistrate.

JUDGMENT

The Supreme Court held that the investigation was conducted by the SIT in consonance with the requirements and there was no proof of conspiracy. Furthermore, the SIT was restricted in its scope from encroaching, in the course of its investigation, upon cases already assigned to other authorities[14]. The Court held that this case was not brought before the Magistrate as a separate FIR and thus, it was not mandatory to follow the strict provisions of CrPC. The SIT report and all of the applicant’s complaints were appropriately addressed. The Court observed that the SIT’s duty was limited to investigating allegations of conspiracy, not administrative failure. It emphasized that a breakdown of state administration, which is to be expected under the circumstances of a riot, does not equate to state-sponsored violence and a conspiracy to incite riots. Mrs. Jafri must demonstrate a long-term and intentional disruption of law and order to prove conspiracy. Single incidents would not suffice. The Court found the statements relied upon by Mrs. Jafri to be untrustworthy. Furthermore, the SIT discovered additional evidence of rapid action by State officials to stop the rioting, including the quick arrival of Army troops. The Tehelka Tapes were considered by the Court to be insufficient to establish conspiracy. The Magistrate and SIT’s decision to grant a clean chit to the accused was thus upheld by Justices A.M. Khanwilkar, Dinesh Maheshwari, and C.T. Ravikumar on 24th June 2022 on the ground that Mrs. Jafri’s case lacked merit.[15]

CONCLUSION

According to the Supreme Court’s judgment, the evidence presented failed to prove a conspiracy. However, the question of why the violence occurred remains. Although on examination of the reports submitted by the SIT, no conspiracy could be made out, that does not nullify the fact of the occurrence of crimes[16]. The incident of the Gujarat riots was certainly a shock for the entire nation, a communal disharmony and public chaos of the greatest degree. In spite of this, the present laws seem inadequate in dealing with the aftermath of such occurrences and thus fall short in raising accountability of the individuals involved and of the government in its duty and abilities to manage such unforeseen mishaps. An amendment to the Indian Penal Code should be considered to place more responsibility on the government. In that regard, aid can be taken from international statutes.

According to Article 28(b) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court[17], the superior should be held criminally liable when crimes against humanity, genocide, and crimes against peace are committed by subordinates if the “crimes concerned activities which were within the effective responsibility and control of the superior” and the “superior failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures within his or her power to prevent or repress their commission of such crimes”. It is imperative, here, to reflect upon the responsibility of the state that claims to be the largest democracy in the world, in ensuring protection for its citizens against such anarchy, and to cogitate on the matter of rising incidents of communal disharmony in the country.

Author(s) Name: Aneequa Ahmed (University of Calcutta)

References:

[1] Zakia Ahsan Jafri v State of Gujarat and Anr (2022) Live Law SC 558

[2] ‘Zakia Jafri and Gujarat Riots SIT’ (SCC Observer) https://www.scobserver.in/cases/protest-petition-against-gujarat-riots-sit-zakia-jafri-state-of-gujarat/> accessed 22 March 2023

[3] Ibid

[4] Zakia Ahsan Jafri (n 1)

[5] ‘Zakia Jafri: Judgment Summary’ (SCC Observer) <https://www.scobserver.in/reports/zakia-jafri-judgment-summary/> accessed 22 March 2023

[6] ‘Zakia Jafri verdict: The law is harsh, but it is the law’ (India Today,  29 June 2022) <https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/zakia-jafri-verdict-supreme-court-gujarat-riots-case-law-1967862-2022-06-28> accessed 22 March 2023

[7] Ibid

[8] Zakia Jafri and Gujarat Riots SIT (n 2)

[9] Ibid

[10] Zakia Ahsan Jafri (n 1)

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Alok Prasanna Kumar, ‘The Error of Judgment’ (2022) 57 (28) Economic and Political Weekly

[14] Zakia Ahsan Jafri (n 1)

[15] Ibid

[16] Arvind Narrain, ‘Supreme Court’s judgment in Zakia Ahsan Jafri versus State of Gujarat bodes ill for democracy’ (The Leaflet, 27 June 2022) https://theleaflet.in/supreme-courts-judgment-in-zakia-ahsan-jafri-versus-state-of-gujarat-bodes-ill-for-democracy/> accessed 22 March 2023

[17] Rome Statute of International Criminal Court 1998, art. 28