The Best Bakery Case

Where things stand today

Nine months after charges were framed in the famed Best Bakery case, the penultimate stage of the re-trial has been reached. As we go to press, a total of 75 prosecution witnesses have been examined of which only seven have turned hostile. Currently, the cross-examination of the investigating officer (IO), PP Kannani by the defence counsel, is on.

Barely one month after the trial began on October 4, 2004 at the Mazgaon Court in South-Central Mumbai, serious attempts to derail the due process of law were made when key star witness in the trial, Zahira Sheikh turned hostile for a second time and hurled allegations against us (see CC, November 1984). Six months after those unfortunate developments, where does this trial stand today?

With 75 witnesses and evidence running into a few thousand pages, a genuine appreciation of evidence would only be possible after defence witnesses have been called and arguments have been made by both the prosecution and the defence. Until that stage is reached, which looks to be a few months away, an appraisal of the proceedings so far will help bring our readers up to date.

One of the key issues raised by the Supreme Court in its historic verdict of April 12, 2004 (see CC, April 2004) was about the conduct of the prosecution during the trial in the fast track court in Vadodara. Some key witnesses, bakery workers who were all eye-witnesses, were not examined in the Vadodara court and surprisingly, relatives of the accused were called in as defence witnesses. Of the 74 witnesses, 34 turned hostile in Vadodara.

Apart from the fact that four independent eye-witnesses, three bakery workers and Yasmin Sheikh, Zahira Sheikh’s sister-in-law, identified key accused by face and name, the prosecution in the re-trial has managed to bring a host of documented material on record as evidence.

For example, the fact that the police as the investigating agency in the Best Bakery trial treated Zahira Sheikh’s statement made before senior officials and the IO on March 2, 2002 as the First Information Report (FIR) in the case. And that there is clear evidence to show that she had named nine accused in the first instance and five more later, is also a case in point. The fact that this statement was treated as the FIR and given a Case Report – CR number has been brought as evidence through documents in the re-trial. Moreover, this FIR was filed before the magistrate as required under law, and a Special Report on the Best Bakery case also faxed from the Control Room at Vadodara on March 3, 2002. There are detailed ledger entries of this fax having been sent through the appropriate channels on that date.

What this evidence establishes is that in the mass and compounded crimes committed by the mob gathered at Best Bakery on the night of March 1, 2002 right until the next morning, Zahira Sheikh was treated as the chief complainant by the investigating authorities. While the evidence of Yasmin Sheikh was being recorded, she stated that the police were recording a video of the events on the morning of March 2. This was, in fact, an official video recording of the rescue operations being conducted by the police at Best Bakery. This video, which was brought in as evidence after the videographer was also examined, gives a graphic view of the tragedy that unfolded. Zahira Sheikh and her family are shown in a traumatised condition, including her maternal grandmother who was on the terrace and is shown in the video being helped down by fire brigade personnel. A distraught Yasmin is seen with her little daughter beside husband Nafitullah, who has been brutally attacked. As it played, the video image of a baby whose leg had been ripped off chilled the courtroom.

A stir was created during the re-trial when former freelance filmmaker Pankaj Shankar (now with Doordarshan) offered to give testimony before the re-trial court because he had interviewed Zahira and her family in April 2002, a month after the tragedy. Examined as a prosecution witness, Shankar’s testimony could also provide a valuable insight into events since it depicts Zahira looking straight into the camera and naming the accused, and her brother Nafitullah stating, "Sab ko jaanta hoon, sab ko pahachanta hoon (I know and recognise all of them)."

Apart from the fact that four independent eye-witnesses, three bakery workers and Yasmin Sheikh, Zahira Sheikh’s sister-in-law, identified key accused by face and name, the prosecution in the re-trial has managed to bring a host of documented material on record as evidence

Documentary evidence brought on record by the prosecution includes detailed medical entries made regarding the victims and those who survived with doctors, firemen, policemen, panch witnesses, etc. all being examined.

The prosecution led its case in the Mumbai re-trial court with the evidence of key eye-witnesses who had not received summons or who did not appear in Vadodara. Tufel Ahmed Sheikh stepped into the box as the first prosecution witness and identified seven accused by face. Tufel, who was injured by a sword on the back of his head, both sides of his chest, left arm, right leg (with burns) and left leg, identified the persons who assaulted him on the morning of March 2, 2002 as: Sanjay R. Thakkar, as forcing the victims down from the terrace, tying their legs and hands; Ravi Rajaram Chavan, also making them get down; Dinesh P. Rajbar as seen with a mashaal (flame torch) on the night of March 1, 2002 shouting slogans; Bahadur Singh alias Jitu Chavan running towards Best Bakery with a mashaal and sword in hand; Suresh Vasava, seen running towards the Bakery with a sword and a mashaal; Sanabai Baria, on the next morning, making victims get down, tying their legs and hands and assaulting them; and Kamlesh Tadvi, in the morning, seen standing with those gathered.

Following Tufel, Raees Khan Pathan, Shehzad Khan, Yasmin Sheikh, and Shailun also identified some of the accused and gave an insight into how the attacks had unfolded that fateful night.

Shehzad Khan, another worker at the Best Bakery had appeared before the fast track court in Vadodara. He was traumatised by the atmosphere in the court with the huge presence of persons from Hanuman Tekri and their leaders. Without giving him a fair chance to testify, the judge declared him of unsound mind, a fact that drew mention from the apex court in its famous judgement. In the special leave petition filed by Zahira Sheikh with the CJP in the Supreme Court, Shehzad’s affidavit recording events as he remembered them had also been filed.

Ironically, this bakery worker was in the box on November 3, 2004, the day of Zahira Sheikh’s infamous press conference in Vadodara. The same afternoon, Shehzad identified 12 accused by face and name including: Raju Baria, Mahendra V. Jadhav, Pankaj V. Gosai, Jagdish C. Rajput, Shailesh A. Tadvi, Kamlesh B. Tadvi and Ravi Rajaram Chavan. In addition, he identified accused Dinesh Rajbar as assaulting him with a sword, Sanjay Thakkar as extorting money from him before attacking him, Jitu Chavan with a sword, Sanabhai with a sword and Suresh Vasava with a sword. Similarly, five accused were identified by Raees Khan, another bakery worker, and another five by Yasmin Sheikh.

Apart from identification of the accused, witnesses have identified the presence of other surviving and dead victims at the site of the incident as well as the weapons used in some of the attacks.

When the Supreme Court ordered the re-trial on a day-to-day basis, the Mumbai court was directed to conclude the trial by December 31, 2004. The unfortunate developments related to Zahira Sheikh and her family resulted in their cross-examination stretching over two months. The Mumbai court, which had earlier requested an extension until December, has since asked for and been granted a second extension until September 31, 2005. It is to be hoped that by then at the latest this historic trial, a re-trial, will conclude.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2005 Year 11    No.108, Cover Story 3



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