Justice Buried in Gujarat, India

The reports of at least eight skulls being recovered lends credence to the fact that the state administration and the police secretly buried Muslim victims in a bid to protect their political masters and shroud the magnitude of the violence.  The remains are suspected to be of the 21 victims of the anti-Muslim violence in Pandarwada in Panchmahals on March 1, 2002 who were described by the police as missing.

Social activist Teesta Setalvad, who has been involved with the Gujarat riot victims, has said: “it’s shocking that the families (of the victims) had to do the digging. They have been after the authorities for nine months now. We were directed to wrong places four times. It was the fifth time that we came here and found the bodies. Isn’t it a shocking state-of-affairs?”

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) that has played an active role in tracking the riot cases has asked the police and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to comment on the report within two weeks. A CBI forensic team is in Gujarat to conduct DNA tests.

As expected, chief minister of Gujarat Narender Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) do not seem to be too concerned about the exhumation.  The first reaction of the Gujarat government following reports of the recovery was to deny the findings, saying that the police burnt the bodies in 2002, as there was nobody to claim them. The state police, meanwhile, are strengthening their case against villagers who dug out the bodies. Police officials claim that according to criminal procedure code, no one can exhume bodies without permission from the local administration.

Indeed, the recovery of the bodies adds another chapter to the macabre crime in which more than 2000 people, mostly Muslim, were killed four years back by fanatic Hindu mobs. There were accusations of large-scale abetment of violence by the state government headed by Modi who remains at the helm. The US, though, has banned him from visiting the country.

The violence in Gujarat has been described as the most extreme demonstration of rightist and fundamentalist ideology of Hindu majority rule. What made it worse was that soon after Modi became the poster-boy of the BJP and its affiliate parties with even former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee backing him.

“If a conspiracy had not been hatched to burn alive the innocent passengers of the Sabarmati Express (in which the pilgrims were traveling) at Godhra (where the incident took place),” Vajpayee told a party meet in Goa on April 12, 2002, “the subsequent tragedy in Gujarat could have been averted. But this did not happen.” The developments that followed were condemnable, he said, “but who lit the fire?” In a sense, it was justifying killing for killing. Others in the BJP talked of the well-orchestrated plan to execute the murder of the pilgrims using jehadi elements with the complicity of Pakistan and its intelligence agencies.

The BJP has had to pay a price. One of the main reasons for the BJPs dismal performance at the general elections last year was Vajpayee’s failure in Gujarat. Today, the party is at a crossroad with the hardline elements still rooting for an aggressive Hindutva agenda while others such as L K Advani, who pushed the Ayodhya cause in the 80s, wanting a moderate line for the party’s long-term survival.

Justice, however, continues to elude the victims of the Gujarat riots. The BJP’s twisted justification was turned on its head by a damning report, released earlier this year, which said that the fire that engulfed the pilgrims in Sabarmati Express was an accident and not due to a Muslim mob.   “Available evidence with the committee (headed by Justice U C Banerjee) found it unbelievable that kar sewaks, (pilgrims), to the extent of 90% of the total occupants armed with trishuls (spears, which are traditional weapons of the Hindus), would allow to get themselves burnt without a murmur by miscreant activity like a person entering S-6 coach from outside and setting the coach on fire,” Banerjee observed. The report ruled out the possibility of use of inflammable liquid (petrol): “as there was first a smell of burning, followed by dense smoke and flames thereafter. This sequence is not possible in case the fire is cause by inflammable liquid.” Instead, in his report, Justice Banerjee indicates that fire may have started due to cooking inside the train. “Some evidence of cooking inside the coach by kar sewaks was also given before the committee,” he says.

Fingers can be pointed at Banerjee who was appointed by the incumbent Railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose politics as the regional satrap of the state of Bihar, revolves around forging caste alliances and an anti-BJP and pro-Muslim equation. On the other hand, some of the logic that has been used by Banerjee, who has a very distinguished record, is quite impeccable and has been corroborated by a team of independent forensic experts, as well as reports and voices emanating from Gujarat.

Meanwhile, investigations being conducted by the Modi-led Gujarat government, which has been at pains to establish the conspiracy angle, smack of non-complaint police officers being summarily transferred, witnesses withdrawing their statements, of enormous amounts of money changing hands as well as reports of victimization by the authorities.

The Modi government has been single minded in its line of reasoning — that the attack was the handiwork of Muslim terrorists due to which the genocidal reactions of the Hindus that followed can be justified. The logic being, in a country where Hindus are the majority, such a reaction is inevitable if a minority community such as the Muslims (who number close to 150 million) dares to mess around.

Indeed, the sequence of events on the Gujarat case have smacked of the political masters in the state of Gujarat following a sinister game. In the first charge sheet filed by the police in May 22, 2002, there was no mention of terrorism in Godhra. Seven months later formal charges were made under POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), an Act that now stands repealed, with the pending cases continuing to be heard by the Central Review Committee (CRC). In March 2003, the investigating officer sought to withdraw the case under POTA due to insufficient evidence, which was subsequently reserved by the state government.

Then Justice (retired) S C Jain in his capacity as chairman of the CRC on POTA ruled that the Godhra incident did not occur as part of a conspiracy envisaged under the provisions of POTA. Jain said that a difference has to be made between a terrorist and an ordinary criminal. He said, “every terrorist may be a criminal but every criminal cannot be given the label of a terrorist only to set in motion the more stringent provisions of anti-terrorism legislation.” The immediate effect of this ruling should have been that the 89 Godhra detenus must now be freed of the terrorist charges.

However, the Gujarat government opposed the ruling. “Not only is there prima facie case under provisions of POTA, but there is more than sufficient material and evidence to attract provisions of POTA. I request the court to proceed against the accused for the alleged offences,” the government counsel said.

The recovery of the bodies is another grim reminder that a lot still remains to be done for justice to be delivered to the kin of the people who died in Gujarat, whether Hindu or Muslim. Can it be possible with Modi as chief minister, is the big question.