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April 16, 1998


SC acquits 11 in infamous Radhabai Chawl case for lack of evidence, families overjoyed

Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Bombay

The Supreme Court has acquitted all the 11 persons awarded life imprisonment by the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act court for allegedly burning to death six members of a family in a suburban area of Bombay in 1993 in the wake of riots which broke out following the demolition of Babri masjid in Ayodhya.

The division bench, comprising Justices G N Ray and G S Pattanaik, set aside the October 18, 1996 judgment of the designated TADA court of Bombay, sentencing them to life imprisonment.

The court observed that the investigating agency, merely on suspicion, had roped in the persons belonging to the other community who were residing in the locality. And then somehow tried to get them identified through witnesses who belonged to the community whose members were burnt alive. The designated court, the apex court ruled, was swayed by the so-called evidence of identification.

''We have already discussed as to how unreliable the evidence of these witnesses is, and no court on the basis of such unreliable evidence can base conviction however ghastly the crime maybe. On the aforesaid premises, we set aside the conviction and the sentence passed by the designated court under the provisions of the TADA as well as under the different sections of the Indian Penal Code and direct the appellant at liberty forthwith unless they are required in any other cases,'' the judges added.

The prosecution's case was that the accused, along with six others, terrorised the minority of Jogeswari suburb on January 7, 1993 as a consequence of which they remained in their respective homes in the chawl. The accused then locked one of the chawls with six people inside and set it on fire, resulting in the death of the six inmates.

''We are quite aware... (that in India) it is difficult to find a witness who has not made embellishment or exaggeration, and therefore in such a case the court would be justified in separating chaff from the grain and act upon the grain. But here the evidence consists only of chaff... Then again all the eye-witnesses suffer from same infirmities as has been discussed by us, and the question of one corroborating the other does not arise,'' the judges said.

If a witness is partly reliable and partly unreliable, then one may look for the corroboration of the unreliable part on the ocular version of a witness. That if a witness is wholly unreliable, as has been accessed by us, the question of corroboration does not arise, the judges observed.

The judges noted that no doubt, the incident with which they were concerned in the present case was a ghastly one and on account of communal frenzy several people belonging to one community were burnt alive by some others. But unless and until the prosecution evidence conclusively established those others as perpetrators of the crime, it was not possible for a court of law to record conviction on mere conjectures and hypothesis.

The judgment triggered jubiliation in Radhbai Chawl, where several boys came rushing to Zaibunnisa to break the news that her son Salim Babunnian Sheikh (28) had been acquitted by the Supreme Court. She could not believe her ears.

For a moment she thought she would collapse in shock coupled with extreme joy. She was speechless, and finally when she did react, it was through copious tears.

She was not alone in her reaction. Along with her, 10 other women could not believe that their children and spouses had been acquitted in the infamous Radhabai Chawl case, in which six members of a Hindu family were burnt to death on January 6, 1993.

This was the incident that seared the city's psyche, and set it on course to a communal conflagration. Widely perceived to be the trigger that set off the hellish anti-Muslim riots, the police picked up 17 people under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, Zaibunnisa's son being among them.

Zaibunnisa said, "For five years I ran from pillar to post, I met all the local politicians from all parties for his release. And when I had given up all hopes of his release, the Supreme Court has come as a saviour."

The TADA court, which heard the case, released six people on October 16, 1996, and sentenced the others to life imprisonment.

"We lost all hopes after the judge gave this decision. I thought my son will not even be able to attend my funeral. And till this day, I cannot believe that I will see my son after he has spent six years behind bars," said Yusufbi Sheikh, whose son was also arrested by the police.

Interestingly, not a single member of the victims's family was produced as a witness either before the TADA court or the Supreme Court. According to a social activist, in the affidavit the police had registered, the eye-witnesses to the ghastly crime had stated that the culprits had covered their face with a mask.

Today, as the families of the accused celebrate the judicial intervention that has brought joy back to their lives, no one is willing to talk about the Bane family which perished in the incident apart from commenting that whatever happened was a crime against humanity.

Incidentally, the chawl where the Bane family lived has been brought by an NGO, Yuva, which is using it to help the aged through community development.

Additional reportage UNI

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