Truth, justice and other dreams in Gujarat

Law will take its course, as will politics


Ashish Mehta | March 12, 2010

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi will go to the Supreme Court-appointed panel on March 21 and answer questions about his alleged role during Gujarat riots. Beyond headlines in newspapers and talking heads on TV channels, do not expect much. Law is taking its course, and so is politics.

In the eight years since the communal violence, Modi has offered no specific comments on what he did – and did not do – when Ahmedabad was burning, when 1,169 people were killed (that was the official figure and now 'the missing' are added to it). This question is not allowed at the relatively few press briefings he has addressed and interviews he has granted. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) will at least be able to pose those crucial questions, though Modi can be expected to only answer in the language of the information department handouts.

Let us begin with facts.

It is a fact that the violence was triggered by the burning of a train, in which VHP campaigners were returning home from Ayodhya, even if the response to it seemed more calculated and pre-planned than that tragedy (59 killed) itself – going by the results. It is a fact that a large number of people – majority of them Muslims but also Hindus – were murdered, women were raped and whole colonies burnt down but nobody has been punished so far. Who was responsible? We do not have concrete facts, but both Modi's supporters and detractors agree that he was the one. He was responsible, according to the secular-liberal, as he could have stopped massacres, while the 'Hindu nationalist' would say (in private) that he was the one who finally taught the Muslims a lesson.

However, once you start collecting facts, then the trouble is more and more of them will tumble forth. It is also a fact that India has a very poor record when it comes to fixing responsibility after communal violence, be it a BJP regime or a Congress one – though that does not justify excesses or make it a precedent worth following. So, Modi says, name one politician who has been convicted for stoking communal violence. He is right even if sounding a bit like saying that the hundredth thief should be allowed to go home because 99 were.

So, facts will get us only this far. Time to turn to perspectives.

Gujarat, as is the case with many parts of the country, has a history of communal violence from pre-independence times, even if TV channels and edit writers think it started only in 2002. The most their archives take them back to is 1999, when another BJP government, headed by Keshubhai Patel, allegedly did nothing while some mobs burnt churches in Dangs district. But the state has seen worse: Ahmedabad holds the record for arguably the longest periods of curfew anywhere in India so far. That was in 1985 when Congress leaders marshalled police troops from the state guest house and Rajiv Gandhi took more than six months to replace Madhavsinh Solanki. The decade of the 1980s saw widespread riots almost every other year. And if the Congress was playing the communal card, you would not expect it to be pro-majority, right? When we realise that 2002 was the first time Gujarat saw riots under a BJP government, a lot of things too difficult to put down in writing will start making sense. Replace one community with the other, one party with the other and there is no difference between any riot from the 80s and the one of 2002 – except that there were no 24x7 channels back then, of course.

Thus, the state has seen bootleggers getting elected with the Congress support as well as street-level rabble-rousers becoming BJP ministers. Daily wagers, migrant workers and the poor suffer irrespective of community, but communal conflagration is a career break for thugs and fixers.

Now for some arguments for the way out.

Violence will not recur if the guilty are punished, if the victims get justice: they say. Post 2002, civil society has (rightly) explored legal options more than any other options. Law (rather than, say, elections), will set things right. Courts will punish the guilty, victims will feel alright again, a deterrent will be set.

But is that any guarantee that next time around madness gets better of masses, mobsters will stop to ponder legal ramifications before looting and burning a shop, murdering whole families? And, meanwhile, this series of crime and punishment, paying out in Gujarat especially since 1969 and also elsewhere, is only aggravated. If the mobsters' friends fail to get the victims to retract the complaint, the mobster who gets minor punishment only waits for the next opportunity to settle scores. The two communities keep sliding apart, every riots is followed by more Hindus leaving “Muslim-majority” areas and vice versa, communal stereotypes get hardened.

Hence, the need for a larger ideal of reconciliation. That is what that true-blue Gandhian, Nelson Mandela tried in South Africa. Imagine public hearings where the victims relate their tales, culprits are brought forward to confess their crimes (believe it, that too has happened), and justice in the deeper sense is delivered. This was the proposal one human rights activist in Ahmedabad forwarded – before he was shouted down.

Parties (note the plural) playing the politics hate work work round the clock, with meticulous planning. If civil society want to counter that, they will have to work beyond rallies on Dec 10 (Human Rights Day) and candle lights on February 28.

Otherwise, expect more Godhras, Gulbargs, Modis and SITs.



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