In deciding on appeals and challenges to the convictions in the 2002 Godhra train burning case, a division bench of the Gujarat high court has showed the quality of mercy in reducing to “life in prison” the death sentences on 11 of the accused, while confirming the sentence of jail for life on 20 others. It wasn’t spelt out whether a sense of equity drove this order, nor did the court deem it fit to question any other aspect of the special trial court’s verdict, which in 2011 had convicted 31 people and acquitted 63 others on the charge of setting fire to a coach of the Sabarmati Express. Anyone seeking closure in the case may feel disappointed, including the prosecution, which pressed for conviction of the alleged mastermind behind the arson that claimed 59 lives, while those sentenced may wish to move the highest court.
It would be prudent to believe that final closure will not be possible in the Godhra train burning case as it emerged from one of the most forgettable events of modern Indian history. The whole chain of events starting with the train’s torching, and the communal riots that followed in Gujarat, claiming the lives of over 1,200 people, can be ascribed to inhuman behaviour of people consumed by religious hatred. While it has taken 15 years to reach this point in the judicial process and several more years may pass in appeals, the only conclusion to draw is that the country would have been spared this and many other tragic events in a long chain of animosity had only communal and religious amity prevailed. Mutual recrimination over the murder of kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya in the fire and of people, mostly Muslims, in the riots will serve no purpose other than keep alive the embers of distrust engendered by an avoidable set of events.
The protestations of innocence by people of either community isn’t going to convince anyone that such horrendous events challenging the most fundamental values of civilisation were happenstance. It may appear that avoidance of the death penalty is wrong as the train burning was an act of terror. Even those who argue against the death penalty may accept that dastardly acts of terror should invite the highest penalty in an age in which terror is humanity’s biggest enemy. In that sense, the court’s order may appear partly weak. In judicial terms, fixing guilt in criminal conspiracies becomes difficult and it could well be the reason why some conspirators may have escaped while those active on the spot may have been convicted of murder and attempt to murder. The issue will fester, no doubt, which is a pity as no good can arise from harbouring hatred.