Some politicians know the riots are the time to, well, make a killing. As politics of hate and violence has become an accepted form of politics, riots are the time to make a career. Maya Kodnani, a three-time MLA who has been sentenced to 28 years in jail, is certainly not the first politician who led murderous mobs, but she is among the few who have been convicted.
During the 1980s, when riots were an annual affair in Ahmedabad, many such careers were made on either side of the communal divide. Let us take the case of the worst riot that the city faced in 1985. A gentleman called Abdul Latif, a bootlegger by profession, became a hero among Muslims after he killed a policeman who had fired at a mob. He did go to jail eventually, but the punch line of the Latif saga is that he won municipality elections from five wards, unopposed, while he was in jail five years later. (He was killed in an encounter in 1997.)
Also in 1985, a five-year-old BJP was already making waves and was soon to come to power in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. One of its rising stars, Ashok Bhatt, a veteran of many riots, allegedly led a mob that killed a policeman, according to a police complaint. Bhatt was acquitted in 2006, but not before the irony of having Bhatt as law minister who would decide on how the state government would fight the case against Bhatt the accused.
Given such sterling precedents, Kodnani was working with a familiar script. She must have been shocked and surprised to find that orchestrating massacres, even under some twisted ideology, is a crime and you go to jail for that.
What would she have thought as she went to the labour locality on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002? She would have thought that nobody ever gets punished in riots, at any rate, maybe foot soldiers, not politicians. Because riots are not crimes per se, maybe a political crime but that can be dealt politically.
For a while, it seemed her logic was impeccable. If you are on the right side of the powers that be, legal processes can be tinkered and witnesses can be talked to. Thus, even an FIR against Kodnani could not to be lodged till some of the survivors raised this issue before the visiting prime minister. And, of course, she was not only re-elected to the assembly for two more terms, she even became a minister – of women and child welfare, given her background as a good doctor of Naroda.
The pleasant surprise has been that there was a twist in the familiar tale this time and the judiciary has delivered justice. In a rare instance, a politician has been found guilty of rioting. That, let’s hope, will set a deterring precedent.
Meanwhile, the Naroda Patiya verdict is in a series of judgments relating to the 2002 riots. Even if a decade later, justice is being delivered to the victims and survivors. Few had expected this ten years ago. It was probably the unusual pressure from the media and activists, arguably because they were the first riots in India after the advent of 24x7 television news. It is a welcome development. It is heartening to see the term ‘closure’ becoming a cliché in no time.
Is this, then, the right time to debate the reconciliation proposal once again? Following the model of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated crimes of Apartheid, some well-meaning activists of Ahmedabad floated this suggestion of going beyond the usual judiciary and punishment model – justice in a limited sense of the term, which can do little to actually heal any wounds and bring the two communities closer. Instead, they suggested, let us bring the two communities together, let the perpetrators confess their crimes and let the victims forgive them. This should lead to the delivery of justice in a deeper sense of the term.
When this idea was mooted years ago, the first convictions were yet to happen. Nobody supported the proposal and even motives were imputed. After the series of convictions over the past year, reconciliation might be the idea whose time has come.