THE recent verdict by the Gujarat court on the case of Naroda Patia is, to say the least, revolutionary, in its content. This verdict has brought a new confidence in the minds of victims and activists about judiciary in secular India. The Judge Jyotsna Yagnik has enhanced the prestige of judiciary, especially through her observation that communal riots are like poison in secular India. One rarely hears such a remark in written judgements these days.
It must be admitted that it is after a long time, and almost for the first time in independent India, such severe punishments have been meted out to the perpetrators of the communal violence. Both, Dr. Kodnani who subsequently went on to become minister of women and child development, ironically after killing 35 women and 30 children brutally, and Babu Bajrangi, were confident that they would be fully protected by their bosses. Babu Bajrangi had boasted of this in a sting operation carried out by Tehelka on the eve of last Assembly elections.
But, howsoever powerful a person he or she cannot control everything, and despite such assurances these perpetrators of brutal violence could not escape the long hands of law. In many riots earlier, the perpetrators could escape for various reasons like, partial and incomplete or careless investigations by the police under pressure from political bosses and their own communal biases.
It’s not that Narnedra Modi allowed honest investigations, but because the scale of violence in Gujarat was for the world to see. Activists like Teesta Setalvad, Advocate Sinha, and several others, made it difficult for the accused to escape the law of land. The Gujarat police had earlier closed more than 300 cases saying no evidence was available. It was Supreme Court which ordered for the cases to be re-opened. Additionally, the Best Bakery and Bilqis Bano cases had to be tried outside Gujarat to get justice to these victims.
We must also salute, as Teesta Setalvad said, the women from Naroda Patia who had seen the killings but showed rare courage in giving evidence, despite threats to their lives and also allurement of money. They were reportedly offered Rs. twenty million to change their statement.
The recent clashes in Assam between bodos and Muslims, and the terror they spread in other states, shows just how vulnerable is our country to communal violence. Communal forces can set this country on fire any time they like. The way these forces set rumors afloat against innocent people of North East working in different parts of India was scary. So much that these north easterners took the first available train back home. Assam violence was like Gujarat violence, only difference being the scale. In brutalities it was like another Gujarat.
It was after Gujarat riots that Congress promised people of India, in its manifesto for 2004 election, to bring a law on communal and targeted violence. It also drafted one, but it was terrible weak. We protested against it, held many consultations and eventually forced the Government to redraft it. Sonia Gandhi took up the matter and set up a sub-committee to her advisory committee to suggest a new draft. Thus a new and effective draft was prepared and given to the government. However, the BJP and some of its allied attacked it so severely that Government simply abandoned it.
Had that Bill been adopted, I am sure Assam violence would not have taken place. Unless effective laws are not made and implemented riots would continue to take place. The provisions of the Bill are such that it would be difficult for perpetrators of violence to escape the law. It also holds accountable the people who are in charge of the law and order situation. Above all, there is a fair provision for reparations and relief. Today in Assam, more than 400,000 refugees are rotting in relief camps not knowing what will happen to them and their families tomorrow.
The communal and targeted violence Bill provides for all that. Government has totally neglected this Bill. Well, it can be slightly amended to make it acceptable. Allthough, there is nothing that makes this Bill objectionable. The word community could be replaced by group to take care of sensibilities of parties like BJP. This Bill is highly needed to prevent future Gujarats and Assams.
(Dr Asghar Ali Engineer is a reformist-writer and activist. He is known for his work on liberation theology in Islam. He is also a leading voice against communalism in India and South Asia.)