A special court in Ahmedabad has ruled out the possibility of conspiracy in the Gulberg Society massacre of 2002, a move that has come as a major disappointment for riot-survivors and their supporters.

The court pronounced its much-anticipated verdict in the Gulberg massacre case – the second-last of the nine Gujarat riots cases of 2002 still under trial – on Thursday morning, 14 years after a mob of Hindu rioters attacked residents of Gulberg Society, a Muslim-dominated housing complex in Ahmedabad and burnt it down. The court convicted 24 of the 66 accused and acquitted 36 of them. Six of the accused died during the course of the six-year trial.

Those convicted include Atul Vaidya, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, while those acquitted include Bharatiya Janata Party corporator Bipin Patel and KG Erda, inspector of the local Meghaninagar police station. Most significantly, however, the judge, PB Desai ruled out any charges of criminal conspiracy behind the Gulberg Society attacks, effectively indicating that the massacre of 69 residents was not planned.

“I am satisfied that 24 people have been convicted after 14 years, including powerful Hindutva leaders like Atul Vaidya and Bharat Taili,” said Teesta Setalvad, founder of Citizens for Justice and Peace, the organisation that had taken the Gulberg case to court on behalf of the survivors. “But I am bewildered that the judge has not accepted charges of conspiracy. The 2012 judgement in the Naroda Patiya case ruled that there was definitely a wider conspiracy behind the attacks. We will now definitely exercise our legal right to appeal this judgement.”

The Gulberg case

When Gulberg Society was attacked on February 28, 2002, at least 69 people died – including Congress parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri – and 31 people were declared missing. According to witnesses and survivors, the mob that gathered outside the society with swords and inflammables, and later attacked the residents, consisted of members of the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Witnesses have alleged that the local police was complicit in the attacks, included police inspector KG Erda who has now been acquitted.

Numerous police complaints were registered after the incident, but the National Human Rights Commission consistently claimed that the complaints lacked credibility. In 2008, following allegations of biased investigations, the Supreme Court constituted a Special Investigation Team to look into the Gulberg Society case as well as the other eight riots cases.

The SIT report, submitted to the apex court in 2010, named 66 accused in the Gulberg case. In general, across all nine cases, the SIT’s investigations have been heavily criticised by activists and survivors for being inadequate and giving a clean chit to powerful government officials, including former Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

‘Willing to take him to the Supreme Court’

Rupa Mody, one of the 338 witnesses to testify in the case, is both relieved and disappointed by the court’s verdict. Mody’s 14-year-old son Azhar went missing during the Gulberg carnage and the 2007 film Parzania is based on her ordeal and failed attempts to find him.

“It is good to know that 24 accused have been convicted, but honestly I expected the number to be at least 30, considering so many of us saw who was involved and provided our testimonies,” said Mody, who is particularly upset that Erda has been let off. “Erda knew that Bharat Taili and others were perpetrators of the attacks – he told me so himself. He had support from the government too. And under Erda, the police also forged my signature on a statement given in July 2002. I have identified him, and I am willing to take him to the Supreme Court.”

Nirjhari Sinha, founder of Gujarat-based non-profit group Jan Sangharsh Manch, is also unhappy with the court’s judgement. “I never expected this to be a trend-setting verdict because the SIT’s investigation itself was never satisfactory,” said Sinha. “As expected, the less powerful accused have been convicted and the big names, those who held the remote control, have been acquitted. The police was definitely complicit but all police officials managed to get away.”

Final solution

Witness accounts of police complicity and the involvement of Hindutva leaders are also echoed in this chilling excerpt from Final Solution, a 2004 documentary by filmmaker Rakesh Sharma, who has interviewed Gulberg Society survivors multiple times since 2002. Here, survivors talk about Congress MP Ehsan Jafri's desperate attempts to get help from chief minister Modi as residents took refuge from the mobs in his house. They also talk about how the police refused to send for help when rioters began to burn men, women and children alive.