No Absolution for Gujarat Massacre

BY PRAFUL BIDWAI

Ever since Ahmedabad magistrate BJ Ganatra rejected Zakia Jafri’s petition in the Gujarat carnage case in December and held that Chief Minister Narendra Modi was not part of the “larger conspiracy” behind the butchery of nearly 2,000 Muslims in 2002, the Sangh Parivar has run a triumphalist campaign, and tried to turn the tables on the Congress by blaming it for the 1984 killings of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

But even if the Congress failed to prevent the 1984 massacre, that can’t absolve Modi for complicity in the 2002 pogrom. The carnage wasn’t spontaneous, but planned and instigated by him. There’s overwhelming evidence of this in official records and 30-plus inquiries by national and international commissions.

The last legal word on Modi’s culpability is yet to be pronounced. That will happen when the appeal being filed by Jafri is finally decided. Meanwhile, confusion has been sown by media articles which support Ganatra’s verdict, and argue that there can be no legal case against Modi.

Their writers base themselves mainly on the allegation that Modi had a meeting with top officials on February 27, the day a train coach was burnt at Godhra, killing 59 people, and asked them to stand by as Hindus vented their anger against Muslims – in keeping with his infamous “action-reaction” proposition. They hold that the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team rightly concluded that the allegation wasn’t proved.

The only person who claims to have heard Modi was police officer Sanjeev Bhatt, who kept quiet for nine years, and whose wife contested against Modi on a Congress ticket – making him an unreliable witness in the SIT’s eyes.

But the Supreme Court wasn’t satisfied with the SIT report. In an unprecedented move, it appointed lawyer Raju Ramachandran as amicus curiae (court’s friend) to independently assess the SIT-collected evidence.

Ramachandran recommended that Bhatt be cross-examined in the witness box and Modi be prosecuted for hate speech and other unlawful acts from February 27 onwards under Sections 153A and 153B of the Indian Penal Code (spreading enmity between two groups, and making imputations prejudicial to national integration) and Section 166 (public servants disobeying the law to cause “injury to any person”). Ganatra dismissed the recommendation.

Jafri’s petition wasn’t limited to the February 27 meeting. It cited many other actions, including Modi’s decision to bring the Godhra victims’ bodies to Ahmedabad; handing them over to Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists who paraded them; ignoring faxed intelligence warnings of impending violence; allowing bloodthirsty mobs to gather; neutralising the fire brigade; permitting Parivar elements to stockpile arms; and posting ministers at police control-rooms to ensure an uninterrupted killing spree.

The strong case against Modi is reinforced by a former police chief’s diary entries and whistleblowers’ affidavits. Ganatra ignored these, and exonerated Modi, terming the massacre spontaneous.

A researcher has unearthed “persuasive evidence” that it wasn’t spontaneous – as would be the case if the worst violence occurred “where the BJP was strong”. Killings were also less likely where the BJP was weak. It’s where “the BJP faced the greatest electoral competition”, having gained 35-40 percent of the vote in 1998, that violence was worst.

In a tell-tale paragraph, Ganatra observed that Jafri’s expressions “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” are “foreign terms”, and hence inapplicable to Gujarat. In other words, Indians, in particular Gujaratis, cannot commit genocide!

The judgement will go down as a black-mark in India’s judicial history. It bears eloquent testimony to the corrosion and communalisation of the Gujarat judiciary. It stands in sharp contrast to the National Human Rights Commission’s reports of 2002, which held that “there was a comprehensive failure … to protect the constitutional rights” of Gujarat’s citizens. The Supreme Court too accused the Modi government in 2003-04 of criminal negligence: “The Neros in Gujarat fiddled as Gujarat burned”. It transferred some Gujarat cases to Maharashtra for trial.

Revealingly, the conviction rate in these was 39 percent, nearly eight times higher than in the cases prosecuted by the Modi government. That government cannot be expected to honestly prosecute the culprits or expose the cover-up it itself organised, including filing of ‘rolling’ First Information Reports against unnamed persons, intimidation of witnesses, appointment of VHP office-bearers as the victims’ lawyers, and destruction of records.

The higher courts should overturn the Ganatra verdict and ask Modi to stand trial. They must show gumption and take the extraordinary steps needed to secure justice, which build further on solutions like transferring trials. The Gujarat carnage demands nothing less because of its unique nature.

Gujarat-2002 was much worse than Delhi-1984, when some Congress leaders incited anti-Sikh violence and the state indulged them. The Congress-led government’s responsibility was constructive, not direct. In Gujarat, the BJP-led government planned, authorised and organised the violence and allowed it to continue into May. Its responsibility was direct – and far graver.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi have at least apologised for the Delhi carnage. But Modi, boasting of a “56-inch chest”, doggedly refuses to show any remorse for Gujarat’s pogrom despite the victims’ unending agony, and the damage caused to the public’s faith in official claims to secularism, to the integrity of the justice delivery system, and to India’s international credibility.

However, the Congress in Gujarat has never confronted Modi on the issue of communalism. It fielded leaders who praised the RSS and capitulated to Hindutva. The task of taking on Hindutva has been left to secular people’s movement activists and NGOs, which are weak.

This must change. Hopefully, the Congress will take Sonia Gandhi’s recent charge against the BJP of “sowing hatred” to its logical conclusion – if not on its own, then at least under external pressure from an emerging anti-communal front of Left and regional parties. The Congress has no future as the BJP’s ‘B team’.

An electoral defeat stares the Congress in the face. Opinion polls suggest its Lok Sabha tally may fall from the present 206 to under 100 seats. Even in the post-emergency ‘wave’ election, it won 154 seats by retaining the southern states. More recently, its score fell to a poor 114 seats (BJP, 182) in 1999, but improved to 145 in 2004.

The Congress can hope to recover some already-lost ground only if it gives up the illusion that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty will somehow come to its rescue. It cannot. That era is over. In fact, the party’s best bet lies in Gandhi himself announcing that the family won’t lead it in the next election, and replacing it with a broad-based campaigning team. He must take a bold, convincing initiative.

Second, Gandhi must distance the party from the economic policy course that the Singh-Montek Singh Ahluwalia-P Chidambaram-Raghuram Rajan team has pursued. The Congress must decisively break with the strategy of compensatory neoliberalism, which timidly, grudgingly tries to combat a few of the countless ill-effects of their policies through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the (largely unimplemented) Right to Education Act.

Instead, the Congress must adopt a strong redistributive pro-poor agenda, with an emphasis on land reforms, universal healthcare and education provision, and comprehensive food security. It must put such progressive measures at the heart of a new anti-neoliberal policy orientation. There lies its only hope.

-the writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi

-courtesy: The News International