Rehabilitation should be as much, if not more, a focus of the criminal justice system as retribution, but its contours must be decided by the legislature—if needed, it can consult the judiciary— to reflect the will of the people.
A Supreme Court bench headed by CJI SA Bobde granted bail to 14 convicted in the Ode (2002 Gujarat riots) case. In 2018, the Gujarat HC upheld the conviction of 19 rioters, of whom, these 14 were sentenced to life imprisonment, and others handed seven-year sentences. Challenging the verdict, the defence claimed that since their incarceration in 2012, the convicts had been out on parole, furlough, etc, and had always exhibited proper conduct, returning to custody. While bail is a natural right until one is found guilty, it is hard to fathom the SC’s rationale behind granting the 14, who had been convicted by the trial court and the HC, interim bail. The SC making the bail contingent on “spiritual and social service” by the 14 is even more baffling.
Rehabilitation should be as much, if not more, a focus of the criminal justice system as retribution, but its contours must be decided by the legislature—if needed, it can consult the judiciary— to reflect the will of the people. The SC ruling sets a precedent that is outside its remit. Besides, a corrective penal system that recognises the rights of the incarcerated has to draw a balance with the nature of the crime and the optics of bail/parole/etc being granted. Against the backdrop of the gruesomeness of the Ode massacre—the Gujarat HC noted in its judgment that “the heat was such that they (the 23 victims, including eight children, and six women) were burnt to ashes … raging fire turned it (the building in which the victims had taken refuge) into rubble.”—bail for the convicts is unseemly, even if legal opinion may not hold it summarily unfair.