Published on: November 5, 2022 at 18:25 IST
Nearly 30 years after the communal unrest that erupted in Bombay in 1992–1993, following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Supreme Court on Friday issued a number of directives for the payment of damages to the surviving families of victims and the reopening of closed criminal cases.
The State Government failed to uphold law and order and to defend the rights of the populace that are guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, the Court found.
Article 21’s protection of the right to life is compromised if citizens are made to live in a hostile social environment.
“Mumbai’s violent events in December 1992 and January 1993 had a negative impact on the citizens’ ability to live honourable and fulfilling lives. Over 2000 people were hurt, and 900 people perished. Citizens’ homes, businesses, and other possessions were destroyed.”
“All of these are infringements on their rights, which are protected by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution,” the Court pointed out.
The Court found that the impacted individuals had a right to request compensation from the State Government because “one of the core causes of their suffering was the State Government’s inability to preserve law and order.”
The Maharashtra government agreed to compensate the victims with rupees two lakh, and the money was given to the legitimate heirs of 900 people who died and 60 people who went missing.
The State Government informed the Court that it could only provide compensation to the relatives of 60 missing people, as the other legal heirs could not be located, despite the fact that 168 people were reported missing following the disturbances.
Therefore, the Court instructed the State to make every effort to find the 108 missing people’s rightful heirs.
According to the Court’s ruling, “The State Government shall pay compensation of Rs. 2 lakh to the legal heirs of the missing persons traced out hereafter, with interest at the rate of 9% per annum from 22nd January 1999, i.e., from the expiry of the period of six months from the date of the second Government Resolution, until actual payment.”
The Court further mandated that the State find additional victims who were due compensation under the terms of the first Government Resolution’s annexure but who were not given any.
The victims listed below will also get their compensation along with interest beginning on January 8, 1994, or six months after the date of the First Government Resolution, until the payment is made in full.
Committee Established to Oversee State Activities
To oversee the execution of the directives made by this judgement, the Court established a Committee under the control of the Member Secretary of the Maharashtra State Legal Services Authority.
The other two members of the Committee shall be appointed by the State Government and shall be a Revenue Officer not below the rank of Deputy Collector and a Police Officer not below the position of Assistant Commissioner of Police.
When Shakeel Ahmed filed a writ petition in 2001 asking for the implementation of the recommendations of the Justice Sri Krishna Committee report—which was assembled by the State Government to look into the riots—a bench made up of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Abhay Sreeniwas Oka, and Vikram Nath—passed these instructions.
The 1992–1993 Riots were Considered “Ethnic Violence” under the Legal Services Authorities Act
In his appearance on behalf of the petitioner, Senior Advocate Dr. Colin Gonsalves argued that the Legal Services Authority had failed to provide the riot victims with legal help.
He cited Legal Services Authorities Act Section 12(e), which states that victims of racial or ethnic violence are entitled to legal aid.
The Court stated that, given the passage of time, it is unable to issue any directives regarding the provision of legal assistance. However, it looked at Dr. Gonsalves’ legal defence and determined that it had merit.
The 1992–1992 riots shall be considered “ethnic violence” for purposes of the Legal Services Authorities Act, the court said.
“It is possible to define “ethnicity” as only encompassing “linguistic” or “racial” groupings. If given a broad definition, it will include caste, tribe, and religion as forms of group differentiation.”
“There is no way to deny that communal strife between two religious groups was one of the primary causes of the riots and violence when examining the conclusions in the Commission’s report and the State Government’s response to its recommendations in the form of the Memorandum. There are sufficient hints in both records that there was conflict between the two religious movements, which is one of the main factors contributing to the violent episodes.”
“For the purposes of determining eligibility for the grant of legal aid, a broad definition of the phrase “ethnic” will need to be given in light of the 1987 Act’s intended purpose. In light of paragraph (e) of subsection (1) of section 12 of the 1987 Act, these episodes from December 1992 and January 1993 constitute instances of ethnic violence.”
“In light of this, legal assistance could have been given to the victims of the crime or their legal heirs upon request by appointing advocates who could have assisted the Criminal Courts in accordance with subsection (2) of Section 301 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (commonly known as the “Cr.P.C.”) during trials. The victims may have received legal assistance to contest the verdicts of acquittal”.
The Court did point out that those were the early years for the Legal Services Authorities and that over the last few decades, its purview has grown.
The Court expressed the hope that such circumstances would never arise in India again, but it also stated that in the regrettable event that they did, Legal Services Authorities would assist the victims.
“After 75 years of freedom, we firmly believe that no riot-like circumstances will ever materialise. Unfortunately, if such circumstances develop, we are certain that the Legal Assistance Authorities at different levels would act to protect the victims of violence and provide them with legal services while keeping in mind the letter of Section 12 of the 1987 Act“.
Reactivate Stale Cases
The State Government provided the status of 253 rioting cases in response to the Court’s inquiries. Acquittals were obtained in 114 cases. Six people were found guilty. One case was resolved.
In 34 incidents, there was no evidence of riots. Only one case is still open. 97 cases are sitting idle.
The accused must either be untraceable or be fleeing, the court reasoned, therefore that must be the cause.
The Top Court ordered that the High Court send suitable administrative instructions to the relevant Courts where these cases are ongoing.
The High Court must make sure that the relevant Courts take the necessary actions to find the accused. It will be necessary for the State Government to establish a special cell for locating the accused.
The trial in the ongoing case needs to be accelerated.
The Court further ordered the State Government to swiftly carry out all recommendations made by the Commission regarding police force changes that were approved by it.