What?s his excuse?

Zahira Sheikh is paying the price for perjury. Her flip-flop-flip has cost her a year’s jail sentence plus a Rs 50,000 fine. There’s no reason why Shyan Munshi, a hostile witness in the Jessica Lall case and no victim, should be treated any differently.

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Ok, so Zahira Sheikh is a liar. A big liar whose flip-flop-flip has cost her a year’s jail sentence plus a Rs 50,000 fine — failure to pay will result in another year in jail. The prime witness in the Best Bakery case has surrendered in a Mumbai court. Zahira will serve time and if the truth be told, nobody’s really shedding any tears over the Supreme Court’s two-judge bench decision to jail her for contempt of court.

Elsewhere, another hostile witness has been lying low. All things considered, Shyan Munshi, a one-time model, and would-be Bollywood star, has got off pretty lightly. His incredulous claim in court (the FIR was in Hindi, a language he’s unfamiliar with — which perhaps might explain why his film career has yet to take off), led to the acquittal of all nine accused in the Jessica Lall murder case.

Both Zahira and Shyan are prime witnesses in criminal cases. Both turned hostile. Yet one goes to jail while the other stays back in Mumbai to contemplate his next career move, or, perhaps, what he will say in court again, now that the Delhi police have filed an appeal against the acquittal.

Before the days when Zahira became the Evil One, she had been the Great Hope, of her own community (that has since disowned her; in fact, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board has welcomed the Supreme Court verdict) as well as the liberal lobby (that has also disowned her). Then she recanted her testimony, some say she was paid off, and her family now faces an investigation into its accounts and income.

In all the frenzy to brand Zahira for her ultimate sell-out, we seem to have forgotten one crucial fact: Zahira was a victim of the communal riots in Gujarat which, according to official estimates, leftover 1,000 people dead in the state. Best Bakery, which was owned by her family, was attacked by a 1,500-strong mob that burned to death 14 people — nine of them her relatives, including her sister and a maternal uncle — inside the shop.

Shyan is not a victim. You can find fault with the system, you can ask for witness protection, and you can justify his apparent fear to state the truth in a court of law, but you cannot see him as a victim of the crime that claimed Jessica’s life. He was merely a bystander, a person who in his own words in a recent TV interview, was at the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’. A person whose world came ‘crashing down’ for no fault of his.

Until a month before the trial began in Vadodara, Zahira was one of the most strident fighters for justice. Then, in May 2003, she went back on her statement to the police saying in court that she saw nothing and that the accused in court were not the people who had set her family’s bakery ablaze. That testimony resulted in the acquittal of the 21 accused. Following the acquittal, Zahira changed her story once again. She said she had been threatened by BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastav and was faced with no choice but to recant. At this point, activist Teesta Setalvad brought Zahira and her family to Mumbai and asked the National Human Rights Commission to move the Supreme Court for a retrial, outside Gujarat.

The Supreme Court agreed and the trial was moved to Mumbai. Then, amazingly, Zahira seemed to have yet another change of heart. It was too dark for her to have seen anything, she told the court. But there were other witnesses, and their testimony ultimately resulted in the sentencing of five of the accused to life terms. Justice in the Best Bakery case at least seems to have been served.

The Jessica Lall case is devoid even of that fig leaf. The acquittal of all nine accused (and one of them is lodged in jail on another murder charge) has resulted in a white rage among the middle- classes. Armed with candle-lit vigils, petitions, SMS, and e-mail messages, this rage has resulted in the Delhi Police filing an appeal.

It’s early days yet. In the absence of any fresh evidence or of hostile witnesses changing their stand (and making themselves liable to perjury), can the outcome be anything but another acquittal? And if Zahira — a direct victim of the crime — can end up in jail, then why not Shyan and the other hostile witnesses?

Zahira is not the first witness to have turned hostile. The legal system is so slow and so expensive that victims of crime, as well as eyewitnesses, often tire of the procedure. Everyone wants to get on with their lives. The burning quest for justice slowly peters off and gets weighed down by other considerations: threats to their own lives, the offer of money, and so on. And let’s face it, our record of convicting people for communal crimes has been pathetic. If the perpetrators of the Sikh holocaust walk free, if the Gujarat administration that stands accused of failing to protect its minorities remains in power, why blame Zahira for believing that things could have turned out differently?

If the system is going to crucify Zahira Sheikh for her failure to take a stand, why should other hostile witnesses be treated differently? Zahira only wanted to get on with her life. If she took the money, she took it to wash away the cinders. What’s Shyan’s excuse?