Disgusting Volte Face…
By Maxwell Pereira
maxpk@vsnl.com

Disgusting… ! Revolting… ! …frustrating!
These and many more are the reactions that flood the mind, just thinking about the Zaheera Sheik saga. Despite a committed top judiciary, one wonders, is the Indian justice administration system being taken for a ride? …has it ever before been dashed to such abysmal depths?!!!

Is it mere justice thwarted here? And is it truth or money that stands flaunted? ….or the machinations of the powerful, the cunning - the vested 'private' or 'State' interests that leave no stone unturned to subvert the due process of law? Does the unfolding drama and the developments reflect the utter miserable state of affairs also at and with our country's highest justice dispensing outfits in doing their job of meting out due justice? Is there no sanctity left, or any respect for the proverbial long arm of the law?

The Gujarat riots… arson in the train …the burning and roasting alive of returning kar-sevaks and others… and the carnage that followed… Godhra and Vadodara - names of ignominy indelibly implanted in one's memory for reasons none other than the grisly horror they depicted.

The night of March 1, 2002: The nightmare at Best Bakery - just one of innumerable such nightmares - the gathering mob outside, setting the building afire…. terror stricken 25 inmates trying to hide …of those who could not make it to the terrace, four children and three women asphyxiated inside rooms they had locked themselves in, as the building burnt …the ones on the rooftop with feet singed, hiding behind the parapet invoking heavenly intervention. Five more, chased and killed even as daylight breaks and they try escape.

Among the survivors, the star FIR eye-witness Zaheera, daughter of late bakery owner Habibullah Sheik, attractive with her rustic beauty, schoolgirl plaits and innocent doe eyes, later catapulted to being the instantly identifiable face of the grisly tragedy and the Godhra aftermath….

Despite the magnitude of the tragedy that struck her and the surviving members of her family, Zaheera turns hostile in the Vadodara court during trial, resiles from her testimony recorded earlier by the police, changes it so the court delivers a verdict of 'not guilty' setting free the so called criminals accused of the carnage.

Step in the do-gooders and the NGOs, mainly 'Citizens for Justice and Peace' led by Teesta Setalvad, to learn Zaheera had lied out of fear - due to threats received, she claimed. Her 'lie' had led to the acquittal of all the 21 accused. Zaheera names BJP MLA Madhu Srivastav and Chandrakant, among others, as responsible for the threats. Also alleges, the Government lawyer and police were non-cooperative, they were hand in glove with these criminals… She had feared for her family's safety.

Setalvad gets Zaheera to file an affidavit to this effect in the highest court, seeking retrial. The apex court in a confidence restoring display of proactive intervention, is constrained to

pull up the prosecution in Gujarat and to direct a retrial to be held in Maharashtra, away from any influence. The drama rages on with a changed theatrical arena.

The re-trial is on in Mumbai, with every indication of the truth at last seeing the light of day. But from out of the blue on 3rd November, Zaheera stuns everyone with yet another volte face. In a press interview a day before her deposition at the retrial, she tells all that what had happened in the initial trial at the Vadodara court, and its verdict declaring the accused innocent, were all true - the correct position; that her subsequent affidavit before the Supreme Court was the result of pressure from Setalvad. The Commissioner of Police Baroda responds to media queries with a non-committal "she has given a fresh affidavit, which has to be examined!" The hitherto face-blackened and battle-scarred on this score, Narender Modi, breaks his long silence, speaking of the need for a probe into NGO affairs.

Zaheera and her brother do not appear on the appointed date and time for their deposition at the retrial, and she is reportedly being secured at an undisclosed place back in her state - courtesy who, no one knows.

"Who arranged for the press conference in which Zaheera retracted her statement? …and what was the Baroda police commissioner doing when the prime witness in the Bakery case was turning hostile?" asks Setalvad; and I agree with her! These questions need to be answered. She also refutes the allegations levelled against her, and seeks Supreme Court direction for CBI to probe into the circumstances of Zaheera's retraction.

"This latest twist is not out of fear, it is for money. She has been paid off," is the general feeling being voiced by many. "…she is just another moolah-grabbing opportunist willing to change her deposition to the highest bidder" some others add.

Much as the NGO feels the retrial is progressing well and conviction of many could still be a reality, Zaheera's volte face is a slap in the face not only to Setalvad and her crusading NGO, but also to the justice administration system that appears impotent to act against blatant indulgence in perjury; willy-nilly or wantonly. An apt case and situation to be wringing one's hands in desperation and disgust.

850 words: 09.11.2004: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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