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Godhra Verdict: The Court Could Legalise Revenge Killings As Well!

By Avinash Pandey Samar

19 June, 2011

Probably no one place has scarred the Indian nation as did Godhra. The scar that did neither emanate from the triggering of the worst ever communal pogrom the country has ever seen nor from the architects of that pogrom attributing their acts to that mad evening of burning down a coach of train resulting in the killing of 59 Ramsewaks, or foot soldiers of right wing Hindutvaoutfits, returning, in a perverse sense befittingly from Ayodhya, another reservoir of all sectarian fault-lines in India. Instead, the scars came from the different treatment meted out to the victims, and the perpetrators, of the two tragedies that were to follow the incident and haunt the Indian nation ever after.

The scars were not invisible this time. They were evident, written in sharp pen, on the bodies of those 63 accused who have been acquitted. They, having been denied bail, had spent 9 years of their lives in jail for a crime they had never committed. They were all citizens of India, including the one charge- sheeted as the main conspirator. Their innocence , perhaps, was not worth the price of an insane afternoon.

That afternoon had marked a decisive rupture in the life of Godhra compelling it to enter the precarious fate of entering a perennially hyphenated existence. Godhra was to lose its individuality and was, then onwards, to be known as Godhra-Gujarat, as if it was no longer a part of the state it was at least geographically located in.

Over the course of a few hours of that fateful afternoon, it ceased to be the name of a place full of, real people required to attend to real, mundane demands of everyday life. Godhra did not belong anymore to the mother's waiting for their kids to return from school anymore, fathers going to buy vegetables for the evening meal of the family or even the retired elders enjoying a lazy evening of gossiping around. The communal commonsense, the lifeline of Bhartiya Janata Party(BJP), the political party ruling Gujarat then and even now, was to rechristen it with a complete new identity of being a place belonging to the conspirators, the other, or the enemy within.

Being dubbed so destined Godhra for imminent tragedies of its own. After all, the tragedy that had struck that particular coach of Sabarmati Express was not going to get over with that much grief, not with the fanatics in power at least. Rather, it was to reach Godhra and almost all other towns of Gujarat. So it did. It came back to Godhra in the form of murderous crowds being led by the members (and sympathizers, or members of fraternal organizations) of the political party ruling the state. These crowds were hell bent on avenging the murders of their cohorts and therefore and bringing the perpetrators of that crime to justice. This justice, then, was to be different from what one thinks of the idea of justice in a democracy. This time it was going to be instant. It was going to be, both, delivered and executed by the mobs putting even Kangaroo courts to shame.

Forget that it was a crowd, controlled and being led by a political party. Forget that the police or any other law enforcing agencies decided not to stop these crowds. Forget that all this happened in a sovereign, SECULAR, socialist REPUBLIC. Forget that Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the state had decided to look away and give these crowds a field day by asserting that the Gujarat Pogrom of Muslims was nothing but a Newtonian reaction to their (Muslim's) action adding, for a good measure, that Muslims of Godhra had ‘criminal tendencies'. Forget the sheer banality of such statements accusing a whole community of having criminal tendencies.

This was just a beginning of a new phase in the life of the Republic the phase of doing away with its pretensions. It had finally started treating ‘different' people differently. Worse even, it was going to use the category of religion to define the difference, despite the constitutional guarantee of equality before law coupled with the Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth as enshrined in Article 14 and 15 of Indian constitution. Not that India had not witnessed large-scale communal violence before Godhra-Gujarat, on the contrary, it has had many them. Neither to suggest that the state machinery has acted as according to its constitutional mandate in all of them, quite on the contrary, many of them like the 1984 carnage of Sikhs in Delhi have taken place with the earth shakes when a big tree falls like of rhetorical justification.

Yet, Godhra was way too different from all of them. The difference was rooted neither in the brazen attempts of the political players digging votes out of the graves of the dead, nor in the defiance of the law of that land by the state administration its attempts of flaring up Godhra part of the tragedy while playing down Gujarat.

Now there were too tragedies vying for attention, redressal, compassion and justice, in short everything. The question, now, was not about justice but competitiveness. Godhra had not only become a metaphor for politicizing and trivializing a tragedy to extract electoral successes but also an experiment, an advanced and successful one on that, for the right wing Hindu fanatics in chasing their dream of a Hindu Rashtra as against the idea of a secular Indian nation.

Soon after the mobs led by Hindutva zealots started the state supported pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat Ashok Singhal, the president of Vishwa Hindu Parishad came up with a chilling statement. Speaking at a rally held at Shivala Bhaiyan temple in Amritsar he asserted that he did praise and support Gujarat. To put this in his own words, he said “ People say that I praise Gujarat. Yes I do. Gujarat has been a successful experiment. Godhra happened on February 27 and 50 lakh Hindus were on the streets the next day." He claimed Gujarat to be a victory for Hindu society, the first one on that. Then came the unthinkable. He exhorted his followers to ‘repeat Gujarat' all over India. (See a brilliant article by Prem Shankar Jha discussing that particular statement on this link http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?217289 )

No criminal proceedings were initiated against Singhal and his cohorts. Maybe this open call to incite violence did not involve any elements of criminality as per the understanding of the then secular(?) Punjab government of Punjab led by Amarinder Singh of Congress. Neither were there going to be any actions taken against the ‘trishul diksha (distributing tridents to Hindus) programme spearheaded by the VHP soon after. Despite disapprovals coming from all quarters, strangely including Advani, the then deputy PM, VHP was not to stop arming the Hindus in order to its stated goal of repeating Gujarat everywhere. Thinking of government inaction on that in hindsight, it seems that maybe tridents were too sacred to be subjected to law enforcement agencies' gaze, especially of the central government led by a party which has championed the cause of Hindutvaas its main electoral plank. Moreover, for a party that has come to power with the promise of clearing the road for building a temple for lord Rama at his ‘birthplace' offending VHP in its sacred mission of repeating Gujarat everywhere could be an act of sacrilege, especially after Singhal had thundered in July 2004 that “ "What happened in Gujarat after the Godhra carnage had the blessings of lord Rama." 

Muslim residents of Godhra, unfortunately finding themselves on the wrong side of this peculiar version of secularism, were not this fortunate. Followed closely by the Hindutva zealots, they were now to be visited by the the uniformed authorities of the state slapping the charges of criminal conspiracies on them. Ostensibly, it was done for booking them under the provisions of dreaded and draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), later revoked from the annals of Indian law for its sheer unconstitutionality.

They were not to be helped by anything, not even by the facts. For example, the fact that the POTA was invoked on the alleged ‘conspirators' on 3 rd march 2002, some 5 days after the tragedy struck the train was to be meaningless. Forget that the charges of conspiracy under section 120(b) were invoked even later, on 9 th of March. Forget that it was apparently a post thought by the police for the fact that an act of arson could not be termed as an act of terror in absence of an element of conspiracy!

They were not to get bail even after the Central POTA review committee recommended revoking POTA from the accused as it found that the incident was neither a conspiracy nor an act of terrorism. State government was to contest this and so it did. Forget that the Supreme Court upheld this recommendation in 2008. Forget that the Gujarat High Court upheld the decision even later in 2009. They were, unlike the Hindutva fanatics, were to rot in jails.

They were to be denied of even the right of mourning their dead. The grief in Godhra has ceased to be a personal occasion of calmly remembering the dead and reliving the pain in order to achieve some sort of catharsis. It had now become an occasion for the police to plot conspiracies for both taking revenge through extralegal means and for the political leaders, then, extracting political mileage out of them.

Knocks at their doors had acquired a meaning altogether different from what it used to be. The knocks now meant visits from the police and imminent arrest and not the visits of relatives, family members or even neighbours. Even worse, one did not need have committed a crime to get arrested; being Muslim was ‘crime' enough for that. What else could explain the arrests of minors, physically challenged including one completely blind person, and elderly?

The politicking over the issue has only added to their woes. The conflicting report of two different commissions of enquiries reaching at diametrically opposite conclusions with each other first, and with the recent court order exposed the process that had turned these human beings, citizens of India, into pawns. Yet, it was not the end. The travesty of justice was to reach extreme heights when they were denied bail even after Gujarat High Court upheld striking down POTA from them. most of the accused of actively participating in anti-Muslim Gujarat riots, unlike them, have gotten bails and were already out celebrating their ‘exploits' on camera as brought out by a sting operation of Tehelka , a reputed weekly news magazine.

Even the fact that Tehelka sting has caught two of the ‘eyewitnesses' of the ‘conspiracy' naming 41 of the accused accepted that they were nowhere near the scene and their testimonies were for ‘serving the cause of Hindutva' was to fail in getting them bail. What if they had already spent almost 5 years behind bars because of those fabricated testimonies and were to serve 4 more! That the court has discarded all 9 testimonies from these BJP men is not going to give them back their nine years. (http://www.tehelka.com/story_main35.asp?filename=

Compare their plight to the proud proclamations of victory by Babu Bajarangi caught on camera in the same sting operation. While stating that “ the VHP is an organisation… a Hindu organisation… Our politics should be limited to killing Muslims, beating them up…” he went up to say “ I came back after I killed them, called up the home minister and went to sleep…” ( http://www.tehelka.com/story_main35.asp?filename=Ne031107After_killing.asp ). Needless to say is that the zealous protectors of rule of law are still to catch up with this side of conspirators.

But then, the law is still to catch up with many other things. In fact, borrowing the Newtonian logic of Modi, far from being the action Godhra could equally be dubbed as a reaction to the demolition of Babri Mosque in 1992 and the communal riots that followed the demolition. The demolition then was carried out by the Karsewaks (rechristened later as Ramsewaks) led by the top brass of BJP and its fraternal organizations. The sequence of the events culminating in the demolition had started from a ‘rath yatra' undertaken by L.K. Advani, who was to become deputy prime minister of India later. The mosque was brought down by the mobs in front of these leaders, some of them visibly cheering the crowds. The case is dragging on in courts ever since with the latest development being the CBI challenging the UP high court's order in supreme court against dropping of the charges of conspiracy against the saffron leaders including Advani and M.M. Joshi among others. As of now, they are being tried for delivering inflammatory speeches with no element of conspiracy while the karsewaks are being tried for the conspiracy part as if the karsewaks reached Ayodhya from faraway places on their own with no one leading them.

Conspirators, apparently, can only belong to one ‘particular community' as the Muslims are referred in the media parlance of secular India.Good then that the recent judgment seems to be in consonance with the changing ethos of the republic. A basic prerequisite for a functioning democracy would demand compatibility between its different organs and what can fit the bill better than the presence of an ‘understanding' judiciary. Modi had made a successful attempt of communalizing political culture in Gujarat by discussing the ‘criminal tendencies' of Muslims of Godhra. He would have never expected, though, that the judgment on Godhra would revisit this question, that too reinforcing his views!

Why else the court would first ask a question ‘Are some Muslims Ghanchis of Godhra communal minded' and then answer it by recording the history of communal riots there from 1965 to 1992? After all, Godhra is not the only place with a long history of sectarian strife. But then Godhra is not ‘any place'!

Maybe, forgetting the facts of the case, the citizenry should be thankful to the court for the sheer fact of acquitting 63 of those accused. After all, if it could uphold the charge of conspiracy even while acquitting the ‘main accused' who was found guilty by Nanavati Commision, it could have convicted all as well. Or maybe it was convinced that in these, changed times, conspiracies can take place even without the existence of a conspirator!

One may wonder how far the court was from upholding Modi's theory of action-reaction when it observed that ‘for Godhra, this is not the first incident of burning alive innocent persons belonging to the Hindu community'. That, the court used this argument for upholding the conspiracy theory put forward by the prosecution speaks volumes about the quality of evidences. The only question that remains unanswered is why it stopped short of legalizing revenge killings, especially in places with ‘communal-minded' people and a history of riots.

Till it actually does that we can cherish the independence of judiciary, especially the lower judiciary in this great quote from same Babu Bajrangi.. ‘To get me out on bail, Narendrabhai changed judges thrice'. ( http://www.tehelka.com/story_main35.asp?filename=Ne031107To_Get.asp )

The statement shows that functioning or not, we are no more a democracy. Not as a sovereign, secular, socialist republic at least as envisioned by the constitution.

Avinash Pandey Samar is a Research Scholar, JNU, New Delhi.


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