Jun 2, 2014, 05.01AM IST TNN[ Manoj Mitta ]
It took almost a year for the police to swing into action in the Akshardham investigations. Till August 28, 2003, Gujarat’s anti-terrorism squad (ATS) had been, as the apex court verdict put it, “shooting in the dark for about a year without any result”. It added: “No trace of the people associated with this heinous attack on the Akshardham temple could be found by the police.”
And then, there was a dramatic change, merely because of the transfer of the case from ATS to another wing of the Gujarat police: the crime branch, which did not take even a day to crack the case.
Drama in a day
This was all thanks to a “verbal instruction” from the controversial police officer DG Vanzara, who has been in jail since 2007 in connection with a series of fake encounters allegedly conducted when he was heading ATS. It was apparently on Vanzara’s tip-off that the crime branch, within hours of being entrusted the Akshardham case on August 28, 2003, unraveled the conspiracy behind it by recording the statement of one Asfaq Bhavnagari.
The very next day, on August 29, 2003, five of the six accused persons were arrested in Gujarat. A day later, on August 30, 2003, POTA was finally applied to the shootout in which there were 33 fatal casualties, including both the fidayeens. After another day, the last accused person was arrested in Kashmir.
Yet, despite the critical role attributed to him, Vanzara was not produced as a witness during the trial. “This shrouds our minds with suspicion as to why such a vital witness — DG Vanzara, who discovered the link to the accused persons, was not examined by the special court (POTA),” the Supreme Court said.
“The courts below accepted the facts and evidence produced by the police without being suspicious about the extreme coincidences with which the chain of events unfolded itself immediately, that is, within 24 hours of the case being transferred to the Crime Branch, Ahmedabad.”
The trial court and the Gujarat high court had also relied on the confessions claimed to have been made by the six accused persons. But the Supreme Court found that those confessions could not have been voluntary because of, among other reasons, the manner in which those had been recorded by a chief judicial magistrate (CJM). Though their confessions came up 11 months after the incident, the accused persons had been given no more than 15 minutes to reflect on their involvement.
Besides holding that this was not a “reasonable” amount of time in the circumstances, the Supreme Court found it “highly improbable” that the CJM could have, as claimed, recorded each statement running into more 15 pages, read it over to the accused person concerned and enquired from him about any coercion and torture, “all in a period of half an hour”. Even otherwise, the confessional statements gave “different versions of the same story, each of which contradicted the other and was actually fatal to the case of the prosecution”.
An even more improbable aspect highlighted by the Supreme Court related to the alleged recovery of incriminating letters from the trouser pockets of the blood-stained and bullet-ridden bodies of the two fidayeens. Purportedly instigating terrorism to avenge the post Godhra violence against Muslims, these hand-written notes in Urdu were claimed to have been seized by the police in the presence of Brig Raj Sitapati, who had led the commando operation of the National Security Guards (NSG). Yet, the police never bothered to record the testimony of Sitapati who was, as the Supreme Court said, “the most important witness for proving the recovery of the alleged letters”.
Fact or fiction
What made the letters-recovery story all the more implausible was the perfect condition in which they had apparently been found. Though there were bullet holes even on the trouser pockets, as verified by the Supreme Court, the letters apparently recovered from them were clean, without any tear or crease, soiling or stains of blood. The high court had admitted the letters as evidence drawing on the adage that “truth is stranger than fiction”.
The Supreme Court countered that by pointing out that this epithet of Mark Twain came with a caveat saying, “Fiction must make sense.” The implication was that the fiction generated by the Gujarat police did not make sense.
The case would not have gone to trial with such infirmities had Gujarat’s home department — a portfolio then held by Narendra Modi — denied the necessary sanction for prosecution under POTA. KC Kapoor, who was principal secretary, home, admitted that that in the material placed before him for sanction, he had not seen any papers suggesting compliance of the statutory conditions. As a corollary, the SC said that the sanction was neither “an informed decision” nor was it on the basis of “an independent analysis of fact in consultation with the investigating officer”.
The apex court added, “This would go to show clear non-application of mind by the Home Minister in granting sanction.” The stricture on Modi didn’t end with that. The Supreme Court said that there was “perversity in conducting this case at various stages, right from the investigation level to the granting of sanction by the state government”.
The judgment acquires greater significance as it was delivered on the very day Modi-led BJP won the Lok Sabha election.