“Terrorism was not just perpetrated by terrorists, but also by the judiciary in the country” Former Gujarat High Court judge, Justice (retd.) Behram Jahan bux Sethna, remarked. Justice Sethna had hit the headlines in January 2004, after a two-judge bench headed by him had upheld the judgment of the Vadodara fast-track court, acquitting all the 21 accused in the Best Bakery case in which 14 people were burnt alive during the post-Godhra 2002 riots. But the Supreme Court rejected his judgment, ordering a fresh trial by a special court in Mumbai, and the accused were finally punished.
The former judge was speaking at the launch of the NGO, Justice for Victims of Terrorism (JVT), a brainchild of former IPS officer D G Vanzara, an accused in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Ishrat Jahan encounter cases, and other retired IPS officers, including former Gujarat DGP S SKhandwawala, K P Raghuvanshi, among others. The NGO aims to “provide financial and legal aid to victims of terrorism as well as to family members of the accused named for terror activities”.
Referring to the reversal of his judgment by the Supreme Court in the Best Bakery case, he said, “Terrorism sirf terrorists hi nahikarte, judicial terrorism bhihai. (Terrorism is not perpetrated by terrorists alone, there is judicial terrorism also).” Sethna said that the lower court in Vadodara had acquitted all the accused after the complainant, Zahira Sheikh, had turned hostile.
He said that an NGO from Maharashtra had got involved in the case when the lower court’s judgment was challenged in the High Court. “Maine lower court ka judgment confirm kiyaaur observation me likhaki is NGO kijaanchkaraijayekikahan se paisa aaya, kya interest hai (I confirmed the judgment of the lower court and observed in the order to probe the NGO as to where it got funds from and what was its interest.)” Sethna added that the Supreme Court, while reversing his order, allegedly “removed the observation on the NGO” while sending the case to Maharashtra for fresh trial.
Sethna said that in the Best Bakery case, the “principal of fraternity” was not applied by SC, which stated that this was “an exceptional case”.
He said: “Why was this case exceptional? Was there any pressure from the government or were there other reasons?” In his 30-minute speech, Sethna said it was unfortunate that so many police officers, who were eliminating terrorists, became “the victims of terrorism”.
Questioning the independence of the judiciary, the former judge said that the courts refused bails to these people (IPS officers from the state accused in the encounter cases) from “2004 to 2014” on the ground that there was prima facie evidence against them, but beginning 2014, these officers and the politicians were given clean chits and bail.
“Ishrat Jahan was declared a terrorist by the international court. Our political leaders made her the daughter of the nation. The time has come to teach such political leaders a lesson,” said Sethna, who also headed the Commission of Inquiry for Religious Polarisation set up in 2009.
The commission was disbanded earlier this year. Sethna said, “For six years, I visited all districts and talukas of Gujarat and collected unofficial figures from 2004 to 2014 and found that about 35,000 unemployed youths — from places like Vapi, Tapi, Surat and Bharuch — were readied to fight for terrorism. Unfortunately, even after sharing this information with the government, nothing happened.”
Sethna also questioned the midnight hearing of the mercy petition of YakubMemon hours before he was to be hanged. He said no such hearing would ever take place for a common man.
Incidentally, in August 2015, a division bench, led by then Acting Chief Justice V M Sahai, had issued notices to 27 sitting and retired judges of the Gujarat High Court. The proceedings were initiated after Justice Sahai (now retired) received letters written by two judges. One of them was Justice Sethna. The court had taken suomotu notice of these letters alleging irregularities in the allotment to 27 judges and took these up as a PIL. These plots were in Neetibaug Cooperative Housing Society and are located in the Sola and Gota areas which have emerged as plush neighbourhoods Ahmedabad. Some of the respondent judges approached the Supreme Court against the issuance of the notices which was stayed. The matter remains pending in the apex court.
By – Nikita Goel