[1992 Mumbai Riots] If citizens are forced to live in atmosphere of communal tension, it affects right to life under Article 21: Supreme Court

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The Supreme on Friday observed that the right to live and meaningful and dignified life is a facet of right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution and if citizens are forced to live in atmosphere of communal tension, it affects such right [Shakeel Ahmad v. Union of India & Ors.].

A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, AS Oka and Vikram Nath made the observation in relation to the 1992 Mumbai communal riots.

“If the citizens are forced to live in an atmosphere of communal tension, it affects their right to life guaranteed by Article 21. The violence witnessed by Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993 adversely affected the right of the residents of the affected areas to lead dignified and meaningful life”, the bench observed

The top court also remarked that the Police failed to contain the riots and protect the rights of the people.

“It cannot be disputed that certain groups were responsible for the largescale violence in December 1992 and January 1993. There was a failure on the part of the State Government to maintain law and order and to protect the rights of the people guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India,” the bench said.

The Court, however, said that it is too late to reopen the discharge/ acquittal of nine erring police officials against whom cases had been registered.

The bench also made it clear that the Justice Srikrishna commission’s recommendations towards compensation have to be followed regardless of pendency of the instant plea.

While the bench said that the prayer for enhanced compensation could not be granted at this stage since it was not pressed earlier, it nonetheless stressed that those who have not been paid the due sums yet are entitled to interest on it.

“The Committee will have to decide the issue of entitlement to interest in terms of these directions. We cannot allow the victims to suffer only because there was a delay in the disposal of this writ petition. The Committee can always take the help of the Para Legal Volunteers to reach the persons who have been deprived of compensation and to render assistance to them to comply with the formalities.”

The top court issued a slew of directions in this regard which are summarised below:

A three-member committee headed by the Secretary of the Maharashtra Legal Services Authority, and consisting of a Revenue Officer (Deputy Collector-rank or above) and a police officer (ACP-rank and above), to be appointed within two months, shall look into compliance of the present judgment;

The committee shall monitor the exercise of the State government’s efforts to trace missing persons (those who were so after the riots) or their legal heirs, submitting a report in this regard;

Provide a report and lists of those who have been paid compensation as per government resolutions and those who have not received the same, or did so before the judgment, respectively;

A compensation of ₹2 lakh shall be paid to legal heirs of missing person with 9 per cent interest with effect from January 1999; same goes for victims not yet paid the compensation;

The entire compensation exercise is to be completed within nine months, and the compliance report is to be filed by the committee within ten months with help from paralegals where needed;

The State government shall provide details to the High Court Registry’s about pending riot-related criminal cases, who shall in turn bring the same to the notice of the concerned courts;

The State is to expeditiously implement all the police reforms suggested in the commission’s report;

The State is form a special cell to trace missing accused and assist trial courts towards trial in such cases as well as dormant ones.

In the Bombay/Mumbai riots in December 1992, around 900 people were estimated to have died, 168 were reported missing and 2036 suffered injuries. The riots were followed by the March 1993 bombings in which 257 persons lost their lives and around 1400 persons were injured.

Justice Srikrishna, then a judge of the Bombay High Court, headed the commission investigating into the riots, and submitted a report in 1998.

The apex court at the outset noted the passage of time since the recommendations of the commission, but said it would still have to deal with the submissions canvassed.

“We are conscious of the fact that the recommendations of the Commission were submitted more than 24 years back and most of the trials and disciplinary inquiries have been concluded more than 20 years back,” the Court noted.

As per the prayers made as well as the pending commission reccomendations yet to be accepted, the top court addresed the following issues in its judgment:

Action against erring police officials

The petitioners had raised their grievance against the acquittal or discharge of culpable policemen as well as their let-off in disciplinary proceedings.

FIRs had been registered against nine police officials. Two of them were discharged and seven were acquitted.

On this the Court said that it now too late to direct the State to examine whether the acquittal deserves to be challenged since seven of the nine police officials already retired.

“These orders of acquittal were not challenged. Out of nine police officials, seven have already been superannuated. The State Government has not stated the reasons for not questioning the orders of acquittal. The State should have been vigilant and proactive in these cases. Now it is too late in the day to direct the State to examine whether the orders of acquittal deserve to be challenged.”

The bench also said it would not be appropriate for a writ court to opine on disciplinary proceedings.

Riot-related criminal cases

Towards this, the concerned Sessions Court was directed to dispose of the pending cases at the earliest. Further, it was stated that the Bombay High Court must ensure that appropriate steps are taken for tracing the accused that have gone missing or have their files dormant.

“The State Government will have to set up a special cell for tracing the accused,” the bench said

Failure to provide legal aid to the victims

Regarding the contention that the legal service authorties had not done their duty well towards ensuring justice for the victims of the riots, the bench highlighted the passage of time, stating,

“We hope and trust that after 75 years of independence, riot­like situations will never arise. Unfortunately, if such situations arise, we are sure that the Legal Services Authorities at various levels will come to the rescue of the victims of violence and render legal services to them, keeping in mind the spirit of Section 12 of the 1987 Act. Now, it is too late in the day to direct the Legal Services Authorities to render legal aid to the victims of the 1992 and 1993 riots for challenging the orders of acquittal.”

Failure to conduct proper investigation

The judgment noted that out of 1371 cases that were closed due to lack of evidence, 112 had been reinvestigated. Out of these 104 were again closed and in the remaining eight chargesheets were filed. Out of the eight, seven resulted in acquittals and in one the offence was compounded (condoned after settlement).

Recommendations for police reforms

The Commission had recommended that professionalism, better training, weapons, communications and fitness needs to be introduced in the police force. Further, political interference also needs to be stopped.

On this, the judgment noted,

“The Memorandum of the Government records that most of these recommendations have been accepted by the State Government. But what remains is the implementation part. The State Government cannot ignore the recommendations made by the Commission for the improvement and modernization of the Police Force and the recommendations shall continue to guide the State Government.”

Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves appeared for the petitioner. Advocate Rahul Chitnis appeared for the State.

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