March 1, 2002: Two days after the Godhra carnage, a mob attacked Best Bakery in the Hanuman Tekri area of Vadodara. Hanuman Tekri is a poor, lower middle-class neighbourhood. Predominantly Hindu, very few Muslim families live here. The mob looted and burnt the bakery, killing 14 people in a period of 12 hours. The mob targeted the Muslims inside including the Sheikh family which ran the bakery. Three Hindu workers who worked at the bakery were also killed.
Fifty-year-old Sehrunissa Sheikh, wife of the bakery owner Nafitullah Habibullah Sheikh, eldest son of bakery owner Habibullah Sheikh and 18-year-old Zahira Sheikh, her daughter, were the key witnesses. When the occupants of the building called the police for help a police van arrived about an hour and half later. But it drove past the bakery and did nothing to stop the mob. A policeman got off the van and even incited the mob. The attack intensified after the police van left. Zahira’s sister Shabira, her mama, and 12 others including four small children of the neighbours who had taken shelter there, were burnt alive by the mob. Two of her brothers were burnt alive. Two of her other brothers were tied up and torched but survived the attack. Her chacha’s entire family was killed. Two bodies could not be found. The stomachs of the three Hindu workers were slit.
March 2, 2002: Zahira recorded a statement at the site of the incident and thereafter continued at the hospital where the injured had been admitted. She filed an FIR before the police on March 2, 2003 naming the accused. She also made a full statement before the chairperson of the NHRC when they visited Gujarat after the riots on March 22-21, 2003.
May 7, 2003: Brother of Zahira, Nafitullah, and sister Saira retract their statements in court.
May 17, 2003: Zahira turned hostile under pressure. The same day her mother Sherunissa and younger brother Naseebullah also depose and also deny facts. She allegedly received threats from various sources including a local scrap dealer, Lal Mohammed, who was also a witness in the case and later retracted his statement. On the day of Zahira’s court appearance the local BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastava was present; he accompanied her to court. This is perceived as a tactic of intimidation.
June 27, 2003: Additional sessions judge HU Mahida of the Vadodara fast track court acquitted all the 21 accused in the case who were named by key witness Zahira Sheikh in her statements before the police, the NHRC and the Concerned Citizens Tribunal (Crimes Against Humanity, 2002).
July 7, 2003: CJP holds a press conference for Zahira in Mumbai. About a month-and-a-half after she turned hostile in court, Zahira and her family approached the Citizen’s for Justice and Peace, a citizens’ group committed to the legal battle for justice for victims of mass crimes.
July 11, 2003: Zahira gave a statement on oath before a full bench of the NHRC in the presence of Teesta Setalvad, secretary, CJP, about how she was forced to retract her statements in court. She named those who had threatened her and her family to pressure her to retract her statement.
August 1, 2003: The National Human Rights Commission filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) under Article 136 of the Constitution of India in the Supreme Court. The NHRC requested the SC to set aside the judgement of the trial court and for further investigation of the case by an independent agency. Also a re-trial of the case in a court located outside the state of Gujarat.
August 7, 2003: A day before the Supreme Court was to hear the NHRC’S petition, the Gujarat state government (prodded by the Supreme Court), filed an appeal before the Gujarat high court challenging the acquittal of the accused. The appeal did not ask for re-trial.
August 8, 2003: Zahira Sheikh and the Citizens for Justice and Peace also file an SLP accompanied by affidavits of key witnesses recording the facts that are listed along with the NHRC’s SLP.
October 9, 2003: During the hearing on October 9, the SC appointed senior counsel and former solicitor general of India, Harish Salve, as amicus curae to assist the court on the points that had arisen in the case.
October 17, 2003: Two affidavits were filed by Teesta Setalvad of Citizens for Justice and Peace before the Supreme Court. These pointed out the need for re-trial and for shifting the trial outside the state. Senior counsel Shanti Bhushan appeared on behalf of the CJP. The astounding facts about riot-stricken Gujarat contained in the affidavits made Harish Salve point these out to the Court.
November 21, 2003: Supreme Court stays all pending major trials including Godhra.
December 26, 2003: The appeal by the Gujarat government challenging the acquittal of the accused by the trial court was dismissed by the Gujarat high court.
January 12, 2004: The detailed reasoning of the judges was contained in a 90-page judgement justifying the acquittal. The bench comprising of Justice BJ Sethna and Justice JR Vora observed that a re-trial could not be ordered because the prosecution had failed to produce proper evidence. It pointed out that deputy commissioner of police and investigating officers had failed to discharge their duties since they did not record key witness Zahira’s FIR at the place of incident. Referring to the submission by advocate general SN Sehlat that most witnesses turned hostile under threat, the bench observed that "there may be more than one reason for the witnesses resiling from their so-called statements made before the police and that there is nothing to show that the witnesses ever made the so-called statements."
Moreover, the judges also passed specific remarks against Teesta Setalvad for carrying out a parallel investigation.
March 23-24, 2004: Arguments on Special Leave Petition in an appeal against the high court order filed by witness and Citizens for Justice and Peace.
April 12, 2004: Supreme Court Division bench, comprising of Justice Doraiswamy Raju & Justice Arijit Pasayat, orders re-trial of the Best Bakery case outside Gujarat, in Maharashtra. Remarks against Teesta Setalvad passed by Gujarat high court are directed to be expunged.
Archived from Communalism Combat, April-May 2004 Year 10 No. 97, Judgement 4