23 December 2004

The latest act in the tragedy that is Zahira

Date:23/12/2004 http://www.thehindu.com/2004/12/23/stories/2004122313861100.htm

Opinion - News Analysis

The latest act in the tragedy that is Zahira

By Siddharth Varadarajan

NEW DELHI, DEC. 22. Given the close interest it has taken in the Best Bakery case, the Supreme Court is bound to view with grave concern the videotaped "claim" by the BJP MLA Madhu Srivastava about how he used "money and intimidation" to procure Zahira Sheikh's silence in the Vadodara fast-track court last May.

Assuming that Mr. Srivastava's claim is true, the obvious question that requires urgent investigation by an impartial and empowered investigative agency is why Zahira turned hostile once again, refusing to identify the accused at the Mumbai special court on December 21.

If Tehelka's allegation — that Mr. Srivastava fixed the case last year with Rs. 18 lakhs and the threat of violence — is correct, it is only reasonable to surmise that a similar "package" was put together this time around. What was in this package? And who put it together?

Money, threat

The Tehelka tape shows Mr. Srivastava and his cousin, Chandrakant Batthoo Srivastava, admitting that they had paid Zahira Sheikh Rs. 18 lakhs. It is also evident from their choice of words — and the videotaped remarks of their close associates — that the threat of violence was a factor which ensured that the key witness in the Best Bakery case kept her end of this "bargain".

Why Zahira subsequently resiled from this "bargain" and found the courage to charge Mr. Srivastava and his cousin with intimidation is not known. Nor, of course, do we know what it is which led her to turn "hostile" for a second time. Mr. Batthoo Srivastava and Nisar Bapu, an associate of the BJP MLA, attack her for being "greedy" and speculate that the Gujarat Government might have paid her as much as Rs. 35 lakhs this time around. Of course, such hearsay clearly has no legal validity.

Sloppy prosecution

When the Supreme Court in April 2004 ordered a retrial in the Best Bakery case and also directed that it be held outside Gujarat, it did so because it was more than evident that the State Government had deliberately allowed the prosecution case to be sabotaged. Zahira turning hostile was an important — but small — part in the officially sanctioned sloppiness that marked the conduct of the prosecution. Moreover, the fate of the Best Bakery case closely mirrored what was happening in virtually all riot cases across the State.

At the same time, the Bench also knew that Zahira had not undergone a sudden change of heart in the courtroom and that mala fide factors had played a role. Her affidavit spoke of the threats she had received, but not, of course, about any money that might have changed hands. Perhaps, the money was promised but not delivered; perhaps the intermediaries took a substantial cut, leaving Zahira with much less than the agreed sum.

Again, these are questions for the CBI to probe.

As the nation ponders over the latest twist, it is important to remember that the Best Bakery case is not about Zahira Sheikh but about those who killed 14 innocent persons.

It is also about those "modern day Neros" — to borrow from the Supreme Court's own words — who allowed the killings to take place and have busied themselves ever since in trying to find ways to shield the guilty.

Zahira may or may not have taken money but she and her family will always remain the principal victims in the case. Each time she turns hostile, she enacts another chapter in the tragedy that is Gujarat.

Apart from the obvious issue of witness protection, the Supreme Court needs to take a hard look at the question of financial compensation for the riot victims.

The pittance that the Modi Government has offered as compensation for the lives lost or homes and businesses destroyed often forces victims who have lost everything to forsake the elusive chimera of justice for the immediate relief of a pay-off.

The worst that can be said about Zahira Sheikh is that having lost everything while the rulers of Gujarat sat back and enjoyed the show, she is trying to get the best she can out of a politico-legal system that rarely delivers justice to the poor.

But if "greed" is the vice which has afflicted her, it pales into insignificance before the greater immorality of those who are so determined to ensure that the perpetrators of the communal carnage in Gujarat are never brought to book.

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