The Naroda Patiya verdict shows that certain things do work
It appears that the process of closure to the Gujarat carnage 2002, in which nearly 1,200 people, mostly Muslims, died has begun. The special court hearing various cases of rioting during the two-week madness in Gujarat has pronounced its verdict on the Naroda Patiya (a lower middle class Muslim locality in Ahmedabad) incident in which 97 Muslim men, women and children died in a night of sheer terror.
The importance of the verdict lies in the fact that not only a case pertaining to communal violence has reached fruition, it has held well-known political leaders responsible for the massacre and has sentenced them for life. The then member of the Gujarat legislative assembly, Maya Kodnani (who after the carnage became the minister for women and child welfare in Narendra Modi’s government; as a reward, perhaps?) has been sentenced for 28 years, while a militant Hindu outfit Bajrang Dal’s leader Babu Bajrangi has been sentenced for life. He will have to remain in prison for as long as he lives. In addition to these two, 30 other people have been convicted and handed out life sentences ranging from 31 to 14 years.
The fact that following the bloodbath, of the 4,252 cases registered in Gujarat, more than 2,107 were closed within months without even filing of the chargesheet, reinforces the importance of Naroda Patiya. That the Supreme Court had to intervene and order re-opening of 1,602 cases, of which nearly 500 were closed again for want of evidence and witnesses, reflected the intentions of the state government determined on protecting itself even at the cost of long-term internal insecurity. Today, Gujarat is a classic case of a gleaming body with decayed organs.
Reports abound on how victims were persuaded to withdraw the cases in lieu of returning to their homes. It is only a short-sighted politician who believes that his security can be bought by the collective silence of the victims. Till the Naroda Patiya judgement came, Gujarat did look like a state building tower of wealth on the bones of those it had silenced. At least, in that respect, the Special Court’s verdict would be a scream of conscience through the silence of the complicit.
It may happen that the Special Court’s convicts get acquitted at the higher level. But that is no longer important. The fact is, despite several misses, with the Supreme Court intervening to get cases transferred out of Gujarat fearing miscarriage of justice, a special court in the state has convicted its former minister. And not merely convicted, the judge Jyotsna Yagnik, called the Naroda Patiya incident “the black chapter in the history of the Constitution. The climax of this inhuman and brutal act of violence was reflected in the murder of a 20-day-old infant.”
By invoking the Constitution, Yagnik raised the level of the case from mere criminal to gross violation of everything that defines India. It is fashionable to call India an idea of a nation. Maybe it is an idea, but what it certainly is, is an embodiment of the collective ideals and aspirations of those who decided to call it home, irrespective of religion, race, caste and creed. Incidents like Gujarat are a direct assault on that, as it tries to rupture what was so painfully sutured in 1947 by burying political differences, personal preferences and religious proclivities. And verdicts like Naroda Patiya tell us that all is not broken, that victims will not remain victims forever.
Unfortunately, over the years, we have come to accept communal violence as an unpleasant reality, blaming it on the ‘other’. We have learnt to live with it, so much so, that we do not hesitate to build our own fortresses with like-minded or like-‘religious’ people, keeping the others out. We don’t realise that by doing so, even without violence we are constantly creating ‘others’; people who are not like us. Nothing could be more catastrophic than this. This growing ‘otherness’ and acceptance of this ‘otherness’ is creating islands of hatred which will get increasingly difficult to bridge, as over time imaginary narrations of past persecutions become truth.
There are many lessons to be learnt from Gujarat; least of all that law does catch up with the offender sometimes. The biggest lesson is that communal polarisation may deliver votes at the polls, but it creates so many enemies within that the national fabric becomes extremely fragile. We can build the highest walls to keep the outsiders out, but what about those who we make outsiders inside the wall. It does not require genius to understand that unless your home base is safe, you can never be truly secure.
Despite the trauma of the Partition, we started our journey in relative strength. But over the period of time, out of sheer political myopia, we have constantly been whittling down our own defences. We don’t realise that India is too vast and too diverse to be a monolith country governed by one narrow ideology. And certainly not the ideology which asks the citizens to prove their citizenry every time they step out of their ghettos.