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Gujarat's Victims Completely Isolated

By Harsh Mander

Times Of India
23 November, 2003

In a recent television interview, deputy prime minister L K Advani dismissed the claim that there has been an extremely grave and deliberate subversion of justice in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage in 2002.

He suggested that whatever failures occurred were the routine outcome of the general collapse of the criminal justice system in the country, and that there was nothing distinct in the experience of Gujarat.

The fact, however, is that after the riots, the state authorities in Gujarat have mounted a systematic assault on the rights and security of a segment of its citizens, on a scale and with an impunity that is unmatched in independent India, barring the dark months of the Emergency. Of the 4,252 cases registered after the carnage, 2,107 have already been closed on the grounds that there is not enough evidence even to submit a charge-sheet to the courts. In 36 cases, the courts have acquitted the accused. In no case have the accused been punished.

The haste with which almost half the cases have been summarily closed without even submitting these for the scrutiny of courts, within the short span of one-and-a-half years, is the direct result of the exercise of state authority. Across Gujarat, the police authorities themselves filed FIRs, claiming that violence was perpetrated by anonymous mobs, frequently instigated by the victims themselves. FIRs by the victims that named the mob leaders were debarred. Investigations were frequently entrusted to police officers who, according to the victims, had themselves abetted or participated in the violence, and were, therefore, deliberately shoddy and partisan.

The prosecution was placed in the hands of members or office-bearers of the sangh parivar. The mala fide intent of the state authorities is evidenced most in the openly discriminatory application of POTA exclusively against the minorities. After the carnage, of the 240 people held under POTA, 239 are Muslim and one is a Sikh. Not one person in Gujarat from the majority community has been charged under POTA. Muslims are also being widely arrested under serious sections of the IPC. In all these cases, the bail pleas of the Muslim accused have been strenuously opposed by the state authorities, whereas people who led the mobs are left free to intimidate witnesses and subvert investigations. This partisanship of the state began immediately after the carnage, because for the first time in free India, a government refused, as a matter of policy, to provide relief and rehabilitation to segments of its own people, internal refugees who survived what was virtually a pogrom.

In every major incident of sectarian blood-letting in the past, the state has always established and run relief camps. In the makeshift camps established by the crushed community, the government in Gujarat refused even to provide basic facilities, security or a survival stipend. In the run-up to the elections, even these austere private relief camps were forcefully closed, and their tens of thousands residents, still too terrified to return to their homes, were left to fend for themselves.

Contrast this with the situation in which for internal refugees escaping the terrorist violence in the Kashmir valley, relief camps have been appropriately established and run by the state authorities in Jammu, Delhi and elsewhere for well over a decade. The human tragedy of the affected Kashmir people is prodigious, but at least state authorities have extended them relief in a responsible fashion, according to inter- national standards, including payment to camp residents of a monthly stipend. There is absolutely no reason why these same standards should not have been applied to the internal refugees in Gujarat. This injustice has been enabled also by unconscionable delays at the highest levels of the justice system.

There are four major petitions pending before the highest court in the land filed by several respected writers, artists and activists of the country, seeking redressal of precisely the numbing range of injustices mentioned ear-lier. Unfortunately, even after a year and a half, there have not been substantive hearings on these petitions, except the NHRC referral on the Best Bakery, by the Supreme Court. Instead, state authorities have succeeded in inordinately delaying substantive hearings by the Supreme Court. As a direct result of the delays, many of the reliefs sought have become infructuous.

It is too late for the courts to order the state authorities to establish relief camps, and ensure minimum facilities; it is too late to prevent them from mercilessly disbanding the camps; it will soon be too late to impose non-discriminatory standards for compensation and its assessment. As people struggle to rebuild their homes and livelihoods without state support, it will soon be too late to ensure soft loans and other state succour and rehabilitation. In no instance in the history of independent India have the state authorities so openly treated a segment of its citizens in such a discri-minatory and partisan manner, in defiance of every acknowledged principle of justice, rule of law and judicial accountability.

We cannot permit this metamorphosis of the state from an institution for the justice and security of its people, into one that victimises as state policy a section of its population. Too muh is at stake: Justice, our safety, our pluralistic heritage, and indeed our very survival as a humane and democratic society.