It is a sad commentary on the criminal justice system in the country that the second batch of convictions in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case which was based upon the city of Mumbai being rocked by 13 explosions in different parts of the city has come this Friday, 24 years after the horrific tragedy was perpetrated. The fact that the blasts resulted in 257 fatalities and injuries to over 700 (independent estimates quote higher figures) underlines how horrific was the tragedy in which innocent citizens had to pay with their lives. In the first leg of the trial that concluded in 2007, the TADA court had convicted 100 accused in the case, while 23 persons were acquitted. The wheels of justice move far too slowly and mere lip service by the government and the higher judiciary cannot compensate for the frustration this must be causing to the families of the victims of the terrible event many of whom lost their sole bread-earners.
The Mumbai bomb attacks of 1993 still remain the largest coordinated terror attacks to have taken place on Indian soil in terms of the number of casualties. It is also one of the most well-planned terror attacks to have been perpetrated in India apart from the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. At the same time, this was the first terror attack on Indian soil in which RDX was used as the explosive material. Even as sentencing is announced, there are still courts that are open to the convicts to challenge the verdict. Extradited gangster Abu Salem and five others — Mustafa Dossa, Firoz Abdul Rashid Khan, Tahir Merchant, Karimullah Sheikh and Riyaz Siddiqui — have been convicted while the court has acquitted Abdul Quayyum who was charged with delivering weapons to actor Sanjay Dutt.
Underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, who was charged as the mastermind behind the terror attacks that caused mayhem in the commercial capital of the country is living in great opulence in Pakistan cocking a snook at the Indian establishment. Seven of his associates are among a total of 36 who are out of the purview of the Indian judicial system since they have taken shelter abroad. While submissions to Pakistan have fallen on deaf ears, even the US which recognises Dawood Ibrahim as an international fugitive has either been unable or unwilling to bring him to book. So much for the long-standing friendship with India which will again be touted when Prime Minister Modi meets US President Donald Trump later this month.
So weak-kneed have been successive Indian establishments that secessionists and separatists who openly side with enemy Pakistan against India are roaming around freely in Kashmir, preaching and practising subversion. The situation cannot change unless the Indian establishment picks up cudgels.
Strangely, the quantum of punishment for the six accused (the seventh was found innocent) is still not out. It is expected to be pronounced on June 19. According to Special Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, this is a unique judgement in so far as the prosecution cannot demand death sentence for gangster Abu Salem due to the agreement with Portugal which had extradited him. The court had dropped certain charges against Salem in 2013 after the investigating agency – CBI – moved a plea, saying those charges were against the extradition treaty between India and Portugal. Another twist to the case has been the interview of former Supreme Court Judge B N Srikrishna, who had headed the judicial inquiry commission, in which he said that most of the investigations carried out in the case were without evidence.
If this is true, it is a reflection on the investigating authorities and the manner in which the system operates and the evidently poor protection that the police provides to witnesses. It reminds one of Punjab at the height of terror when no one came forward to depose against terror undertrials due to fear. Justice Srikrishna whose stature as an apex court judge is well recognised, also said in the interview with News 18 that there were plenty of cases which should have been really investigated. Most of the cases they had investigated either had no evidence or were true but undetected. When questioned, it was stated that it was not possible to find out anything more, said Justice Srikrishna.
Clearly, the criminal justice system in the country is in need of urgent attention. Apart from delays which are endemic, there are other areas crying for reform. Undertrials are rotting in jails for years. The fact that an important case like the Mumbai blasts case has taken 24 years to get past the special court stage is an index of frequent adjournments that are routinely granted by courts. Committees have sat on reforming the criminal justice system but their recommendations are not implemented. There is indeed a crying need for reforms. The Modi government which has been proactive in many areas needs to focus attention on this too on high priority.