Gujarat massacre: the law must apply to all

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
18 Feb 2012

Almost ten years ago, one of the survivors of a horrific massacre set about trying to win justice for her murdered husband and scores of others. This brought her up against some of the most powerful – and ruthless – people in the state of Gujarat in India. But she persisted.

The case took yet another turn on 15 February 2012, when a magistrate in Gujarat deferred a decision on whether the results of an investigation should be made available to the widow, or indeed more widely. A Special Investigation Team had advised that no charges be brought against the state authorities, led by Narendra Modi (still chief minister), for their role in the killings, and that the report be kept secret by the court. The Team was ordered to submit all papers to the court by 15 March, though it has not yet been decided what will happen after that.

On 28 February 2002, ex-Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, and numerous others who had sought refuge in his home, were brutally killed at the Gulbarg Housing Society in Ahmedabad. A mob had been gathering for hours, and those besieged inside had repeatedly sought help, but the police did not come. Many others too were killed or injured in the Gujarat riots.

With the support of human rights activist group Citizens for Justice and Peace, Zakia Jafri sought to bring those in charge to justice. Modi, of the extreme-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had won popular support by portraying himself as a pious defender of Hinduism, to the dismay of many Hindus. Despite widespread criticism, especially of his role in 2002, when he allowed anti-Muslim violence to rage unchecked, he has managed to stay in power in Gujarat.

Initially the Gujarat authorities tried to brush off Jafri’s complaint, and India’s Supreme Court had to intervene to make sure it was properly addressed. But substantial evidence has emerged, including records of the increasingly frantic phone calls and the testimony of whistleblowers. Reportedly the case against Modi is strong and Raju Ramachandran, the amicus curiae – senior lawyer appointed to advise on the case – has urged that he be prosecuted on serious charges such as promoting religious enmity, doing acts prejudicial to national integration and maintenance of harmony and deliberately and wantonly disobeying the law with intent to cause injury.

There are some people in India who would rather let the matter drop, because they are in denial about the damaging nature of Hindutva terror and cling to the false notion that only Islamist extremism poses a threat. Yet, even in Gujarat, public attention is increasingly been drawn to the grim reality behind the pious exterior.

Also on 15 February, the Gujarat High Court issued a contempt notice to the state government for failing to compensate those whose shops burned down in the riots. Earlier in the month, the High Court had ordered the Gujarat authorities to pay for the restoration of hundreds of religious structures which were destroyed as the result of “negligence of the state”.

On 17 February, the strength of the case against Modi became clearer still. Retired judge H Suresh, who had taken part in a fact-finding visit to Gujarat in 2002, revealed that an audio recording had been made of a statement by former home minister Naren Pandya. On 27 February, Modi had allegedly instructed the police not to intervene if violence broke out. Pandya was murdered the following year, but his evidence remained on record, and was supplied to the Special Investigation Team.

After the 2002 riots, the National Human Rights Commission had sent a team to Gujarat to investigate. It reported “a comprehensive failure on the part of the State Government to control the persistent violation of the rights to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the people of the State.”

“It is, of course, essential to heal the wounds and to look to a future of peace and harmony. But the pursuit of these high objectives must be based on justice and the upholding of the values of the Constitution of the Republic and the laws of the land. That is why it remains of fundamental importance that the measures that require to be taken to bring the violators of human rights to book are indeed taken,” the Commission urged.

It also pointed out, “Critical and cruel as the communal dimension was to the tragedy of Gujarat, what was at stake, additionally, was respect for the rights of all Indians – irrespective of community – that are guaranteed by the Constitution.” Across India, and internationally, it is important for those who wield power to realise that they will be held accountable of they fail to protect the safety and dignity of those for whom they are responsible.

When the magistrate reaches a decision, if Zakia Jafri is dissatisfied, she can take the matter to the High Court and, if necessary, the Supreme Court. This many mean that she will have to wait even longer for the case to be resolved, but she is determined to continue.

"I have full faith in the court of justice and God Almighty, he is watching us and he will surely deliver justice in my favour," Zakia Jafri told reporters earlier in the week. "I have not given up hope yet, if the decision comes in my favour I would be very happy but if it doesn't then I have enough strength in me to continue my fight further." Many, of all faiths and none, will be wishing her well in her quest.

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(c) Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on politics society and religion. An Ekklesia associate, she lives and works in Britain and was born in Sri Lanka.

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