This article was first published by The Hindustan Times on 20th June, 2016
Every communal massacre in India is marked by the stain of impunity. Imp unity means the assurance that those who plan and execute the slaughter and rape of innocents, and the loot and arson of their homes will ultimately escape all punishment.
As a result of these persisting failures of legal justice, there is little closure possible for survivors of mass hate crimes. The large majority of victims are people from religious minorities — Sikhs who survived the 1984 massacre, Christians who were battered in Kandhamal in 2006, and Muslims slaughtered in a multitude of communal massacres beginning with Jabalpur in 1961. Their wounds cannot heal because those who organised their suffering walk free.
This dishonourable reality of our secular democracy is not a chance outcome. It is built into the communal and anti-minority institutional bias of the criminal justice system that plays out through the police, prosecution and courts.
The impunity for communal crimes in India was broken, only partly, in the Gujarat massacre of 2002. After the slaughter and gang-rape of more than a thousand people the criminal justice system acted the same as in the past. More than half the cases registered after the carnage were closed without trial within a year.
But an extraordinary alliance arose for defending secular democracy, not just of tireless human rights defenders, but also the National Human Rights Commission with the moral leadership of Justice JS Verma, judges of conscience like Ruma Paul and Arijit Pasayat, courageous police officers like Rahul Sharma, and scores of survivors who fought for justice at all odds like Zakia Jafri and Bilkis Bano.
As a result of this alliance, the closure without trial of 2,000 cases was annulled; a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was constituted; and some cases were moved to courts outside Gujarat.
Yet the recent ruling of the special SIT court in the massacre of 64 people in the Gulberg Society in the heart of Ahemdabad on February 28, 2002, illustrates the limits of the possibilities of full justice in the context of persisting institutional bias. If the version the court accepts is correct, then this was a spontaneous massacre by 11 men who were part of a crowd that was incensed by the burning of Hindus in a train in Godhra a day earlier. They were provoked by the firing on them by former MP Ehsan Jafri, who was later burned alive by members of the crowd. There was no conspiracy at any level in planning or enabling the massacre, and the mobs were not led or provoked either by BJP leaders or by the police. There were 20 police persons at the spot, but they lacked the means to control or disperse the mob provoked by Jafri’s shooting at them. The convicts displayed ‘good conduct’ during the 14 years of trial, and ‘deserved a second chance to reform and rehabilitate’.
The version of the survivors, and many citizen investigations is different from Judge PB Desai’s conclusions. The massacres of the scale that transpired in Gulberg Society and elsewhere required mobilisation and arming of a scale that was impossible without alarger conspiracy. The crowds everywhere were led by leaders of the BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal. The crowds were angered by the way the burning of Hindus on the train was reported, and their bodies were paraded. The small numbers of poorly-equipped policepersons on the spot was not a matter of chance. Ehsan Jafri called senior police officials and, reportedly even the CM, but no reinforcements were sent.
These two versions conform closely to two competing under standings of why communal violence recurs in India. One version is that although religious minorities constitute the large majority of persons killed or raped in hate violence, it is they who provoke the violence by acts such as the burning of Hindus on the train, killing of PM Indira Gandhi, desecrating temples, sexual designs on Hindu girls, killing cows, religious conversions, etc. This leads to spontaneous violence, and the police does all it can to control the riots, but is unable to do so because of the scale of righteous anger of the provoked Hindu mobs.
Another version is that there are no communal riots, only systematically planned communal massacres. And that the State can control communal violence of any scale in not more than 24 hours.
Foot soldiers are not blameless, but their share of guilt is far less than that of communal groups that organise these massacres, and politicians, police and civil officers who abet it by inaction. The men convicted are foot soldiers, who deserve another chance. However, the real criminals — who organised the massacre — must be punished severely, but the court absolves them completely. No wonder Ehsan Jafri’s widow, Zakia Jafri, is dismayed by the ruling and says, “‘My husband was a good and kind man. I will never give up my fight for justice, for him and thousands like him”.