What's the best thing about the Sessions Court judgement in the Best Bakery case? The sense that justice was done? The deserving slap in the face of a state's administration, of its justice system? The prospect that terrorists will get their due?
All those, yes, and all worth celebrating. But possibly the most far-reaching facet of the decision is that Justice Thipsay sent notices to several witnesses, asking them to explain why they should not be prosecuted for perjury. I could be wrong, but this is the first time that I know of that the justice system has taken serious note of perjury. And if all these witnesses who turned hostile are punished, it might just be a warning to future witnesses in future cases. The message must go out that the penalty for going back on your statement, as 39 (!) witnesses did in this case, is worse than any intimidation from parties to the case.
Yet there is something pathetic about the prime witness in this case, Zahira Shaikh. She and her relatives spent a terror-filled night on the terrace of Best Bakery, hiding from the thugs who were intent on burning it down. They had, she said in her initial statement to the police, "swords, bottles, stones, tins of petrol and kerosene." That night, they hacked and burned to death nine of her family members, including 4-year-old cousins. In the morning, they murdered three bakery employees.
Zahira's statement was considered the FIR in the case; yet a year later, this once-terrorized woman had herself turned hostile, and there were more turnarounds to come. What kinds of pressures was she under? No doubt you remember plenty of news about that. Yet she, and those pressurizing her, knew that there was no price to pay for recanting.
Well, last year the Supreme Court did call her a self-condemned liar. But what's in a name, anyway?
Now we have a judgement that has convicted several men accused in that atrocity. But we also have a judge willing to punish people for perjury. There's something pathetic about it happening to Zahira Shaikh, yes, this traumatized woman turned "self-condemned liar". But maybe this, and the focus on the Jessica Lal case, will drive some introspection on what perjury has done to our ideas of justice, and what can be done to deter it.
I wouldn't celebrate just yet. But it's good news.