Is 2002 Gujarat, 1984’s Delhi?

Is 2002 Gujarat, 1984’s Delhi?

The Naroda Patiya verdict isn’t about providing “closure”. It’s about whether people can get away with mass murder.

By Indrajit Hazra

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In March 2008, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had visited Vellore Central Jail and met Nalini Sriharan, a conspirator in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. It had been a private visit, a meeting that the media saw as Priyanka “forgiving” one of her father’s killers serving a life sentence. Priyanka had later clarified to the media her reason for meeting and wanting to “forgive” Nalini and then changing her mind: “For very personal reasons”, she had told CNN-IBN. “Initially when I went, I felt the need to forgive. When I reached there I realised I am no one to forgive. Because she has suffered just as I have. And I think people when they do things like this, they do it out of suffering. They don’t do it out of the intention of hurting other people. They do it out of their own suffering”.

Priyanka’s desire to forgive Nalini may have sprung from the former’s belief in the tenets of Buddhism. But she missed out on one key point as to why she was “no one to forgive” Nalini. The law has its own terms and conditions, and until India comes to practise Buddhist law, Nalini continues to serve out her sentence. The same reasoning applies for those grappling with the aftermath of the Gujarat riots a decade ago.

On Saturday, June 30th a special court hearing the 2002 post-Godhra Naroda Patiya massacre case is scheduled to deliver its verdict on the 62 accused. (On June 30th, it was announced that the judgment has been deferred to August 29, 2012.) The intervening ten years have made the killings of 98 people by a mob in the Naroda Patiya locality of Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002, so much a part of India’s macabre urban legend that to repeat the case – one of nine 2002 Gujarat riot cases (including the equally news-tracked Gulbarg Society massacre in Ahmedabad) that was investigated by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) formed by the Supreme Court – is to repeat a horrific cliché.

And as is the case before any such court proceedings, the question again veers towards the role of Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat when the massacres took place in 2002. And chief minister of Gujarat when judge Jyotsana Yagnik is scheduled to deliver her verdict on June 30, 2012. On Saturday, the question will specifically move to what such a verdict – of guilt, of lack of guilt, or of innocence – means for the victims and the perpetrators of the Naroda Patiya massacre today.

Much has been made of “the need to remember” the 2002 Gujarat riots. From the other side of the fence, much has been made of “the need to move on” since 2002. There have been Muslims, the main targets of the post-Godhra murderous sprees, who not only stayed back in Gujarat but have also thrived in it. They have, with reason, argued that instead of “dredging up the past” constantly, they be allowed to live “normal” lives, out of the reach of professional justice-seekers and bounty hunters who pop up on national television refusing to let sleeping dogs lie. If Delhi is not breaking into epileptic rashes at the thought of a Congress Sikh Prime Minister 28 years after the Congress orchestrated anti-Sikh massacres (and rationalised by the husband of the present Congress president), why fixate on Narendra Modi’s murderous crime of commission or omission now?

These voices are legitimate and bear much credence as it is their owners – and not the “national” upholders of communal justice – who continue to live in Gujarat, in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat in self-described peace. But then there are the actual victims of the riots themselves, many of whom seek vengeance in the form of justice for the wrongs done to them. Some may point to the state of fear they live in – fearful of a reprisal, of being threatened by people who stand to be buried by justice if the law nails them for a decade-old crime. But for them, “not forgetting” is non-negotiable, even if it is because they have very little left to lose and at least something to gain. On the face of it, “moving on” seems a more proactive and practical way of dealing with the bloody anomaly that followed the fiery anomaly of the Godhra murders in 2008. It avoids scratching sores at a time when Gujarat is seen as a model state of development, governance and law and order even for its minority citizens, especially at a time when Modi, prior to the assembly elections in the state later this year, has told his party-men to actively woo Muslim voters to counter any red carpet leading to any Congress soup kitchen.

And yet, the whole business of “moving on” or “remembering” is a besides-the-point sideshow. Priyanka Vadra may have come to terms with one of her father’s killers and stopped wishing her any ill-will; but Nalini is still in prison. Mehmet Agca was “forgiven” by Pope John Paul II after the Turkish assassin tried to kill the pontiff in 1981. But he spent 19 years in an Italian prison, 17 years after the pope had visited him in prison “forgiving” him. (Upon release from prison in Italy, Agca was imprisoned again in a Turkish jail till his release in 2010 for another earlier crime.)

If someone wishes to “forgive” Mayaben Kodnani, the local BJP MLA from Naroda Patiya who is accused of leading murderous mobs on February 28, 2002 and was made Minister of State (Women and Child Development) in 2007 by Modi, that’s up to the “forgiver”. If someone else wishes to “forgive” Kodnani’s personal assistant Kirpal Singh, accused of distributing lethal weapons to the mob, that is also a private matter. There can be some who wish to “move on” by not dredging up the matter of how former Bajrang Dal leader, Babu Bajrangi boasted how he ripped out a nine-month foetus from a pregnant Kaiser Bano’s stomach. But such “forgiveness” – within the grasp of many, beyond the grasp of many too – is a separate activity from proving the guilt or otherwise of those accused and sentencing them, if found guilty, according to the law of the land. “Moving on” from 2002 Gujarat has already happened, as has “moving on” from 1983 Nellie in Assam (the official report of the massacre reportedly implicating both the state Congress and Asom Gana Parishad still remains “classified”) and from 1984 Delhi. And thank the lord for that. “Forgiveness” too has been given in the form of electoral support – whether out of genuine support towards a BJP government by Gujarat’s Muslims or to Congress governments by Assam’s Muslims and Delhi’s Sikhs – or by a “hafta” (protection) rationale and by other means that refrain from making a grisly past constantly come in the way of the present.

But the verdict on the Naroda Patiya case has nothing to do with either “forgiving” or “moving on”. It simply has to do with establishing whether people can get away with – and indeed be rewarded for committing – mass murder. The 2002 Gujarat riots is always pitted against the 1984 Delhi riots as a political tu-tu mein-mein, the classic hyphenation that is brought up each time the Congress and the BJP want to jump on to a higher moral hobby horse when faced with a “law and order-related crisis”.

The truth is more banal and far less circuitous: the 1984 Delhi riots and its continuing “non-aftermath” provided the model for the 2002 Gujarat riots. The Naroda Patiya verdict will enable us to know whether 2002 Gujarat can become the model for a future politically-fuelled massacre-spree and provide those precious tips on how to get away with it.

Is 2002 Gujarat, 1984’s Delhi?