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Gujarat: the Ghosts of the Past and the Future

by Mukul Dube, 1 May 2009

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To appear in Mainstream Weekly

On 27 April 2009, over seven years after the cataclysmic violence in Gujarat, the Supreme Court of India directed the Special Investigation Team (also known as the Raghavan Committee) to look into the role of Narendra Modi, then as now the Chief Minister of Gujarat, in that violence. The focus is naturally on Modi, although the SIT was asked also “to probe the roles of 62 other top ranking politicians, bureaucrats and police officers of the state”.

There have been two reactions to this. One is to say, “Der aye, durust aye:” that is, even if it comes late, the right step has been taken (a variant is a dry “And about time too.”). The other reaction is to refer to the dictum that justice delayed is justice denied.

I suggest that the second reaction is the valid one in the unusual circumstances that we are considering. The reason is that those who ruled Gujarat in 2002 still rule that state. They are widely held to have been responsible for the violence or at least to have taken no steps to prevent it or, later, to punish the perpetrators. They did nothing to ameliorate the suffering of the tens of thousands of Muslims who were reduced to living in camps. Indeed, their leader Modi was callous enough to describe the camps as “breeding factories”, and his wit was duly rewarded by the guffaws of his acolytes.

Two thousand or more Muslims were killed in the violence.1 This was justified by calling them “enemies”, “outsiders”, “Pakistanis” and “terrorists”. Muslims in Gujarat continue to be described in these terms, and they continue to be treated as aliens who have no rights, not even the right to return to their own homes. The areas in which they live ― and these have been called ghettos ― are denied the basic amenities of water, sewage collection and electricity. No banks serve them and there are no schools in them. They are in the “Hindu Rajya” yet not in it, in the “Hindu Rashtra” yet not in it. A neighbourhood in which Muslims live is labelled “Pakistan” and is treated as enemy territory. Certainly it is not part of “Shining India”, the fiction about which the Hindu Right cried itself hoarse.

Time is the great healer, they say; and then there is the excellent idea of “forgive and forget”. We have before us the relatively recent example of South Africa, where literally millions of the gravest crimes against humanity were exposed and then buried in the name of “truth and reconciliation”. It is truly sound reasoning to look not at the past but to the future; but there are compelling reasons why that cannot be done in the instance of Gujarat.

“I doubt that that woman’s wounds will ever be healed who was raped, whose husband and brother were killed before her eyes, whose unborn foetus was held aloft on the point of a sword, whose house was destroyed with exploding gas cylinders.” This is what I wrote two years after the Godhra railway carriage fire (‘Answer to a Question’, published on the Internet on 28 February 2004). The truth of it has since been underscored by something I had not foreseen: for all these years, killers and rapists have swaggered about, free as air, and have each day held up the threat of repetition ― no less real for being unspoken ― to their victims. And the prisons of Gujarat have, over this entire period, housed without trial many hundreds of victims whom a criminal state apparatus has declared criminals.

Those people can forgive and forget, they can let bygones be bygones, who have recovered from a trauma and who are leading normal lives once again. There is much evidence to show that the Muslims of Gujarat are weighed down today by the very forces that ran them into the ground over seven years ago. The ghosts that torture them are not only of the past but also of the present. They do not lead normal lives, not by a long shot. The memories of Gujarat 2002 are daily renewed. The genocide of seven years ago is not an event of the past: it remains a lived reality.

Some people ― blinded, I assume, in their cocoons of security and freedom from basic concerns ― go so far as to describe the crimes of Gujarat 2002 as “old hat”, matters which no longer deserve to be thought about or written about. Among them are sections of the media which have shown themselves to have both short memories and a talent for making absurdly tall claims about their imagined achievements.

Mercifully, the Supreme Court is not so blinded. After seven long years, seven years of a daily grinding of humanity into the dust, there is a ray of hope for the survivors of the Gujarat Genocide. It is obvious that, in ordering the SIT to look into “old” crimes, the Supreme Court had in mind the established principle that there are crimes to which the statute of limitations does not apply.

It remains to be seen, of course, just how the Supreme Court characterises the crimes of Gujarat 2002 and just what kind of punishment and compensation it will see fit to order, assuming that the process beginning with the SIT ends in the identification of criminals and victims.

II

Not long after the Gujarat Genocide, K.G. Kannabiran (Hindu, 25 March 2002) called for a special Indian law against genocide. He argued that the existing laws were inadequate to cope with a phenomenon that was qualitatively different from the general run of criminal acts, including rape and murder. That this is not a hasty, ill considered view becomes clear when we consider that the United Nations General Assembly had adopted, on 9 December 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of which I reproduce Article 2:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • (a) Killing members of the group;
  • (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • ( c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

If these are the features of genocide, then there can be no doubt that Gujarat 2002 was genocide. India does not at this time have a special law against genocide, and various reasons seem likely to keep it from applying the U.N. Convention to Gujarat. It remains possible, though, for the ends of justice ― responsibility, punishment, compensation ― to be tailored to the exceptional nature of the crimes and the suffering which characterised that example of genocide.

The violence cannot but be described as being of the “rarest of rare” variety, and if all the evidence already before us is any guide, the existence of conspiracy will become clear. This is the thought that comes to those many who would like Modi to be hanged.

The “eye for an eye” expression of justice, however, will do nothing to help the victims forget how they were wronged, it will do nothing to make their now miserable lives liveable. That is the function of compensation, which ideally should lead to rehabilitation.

In the ordinary dispensing of modern justice, there is no link between offender and victim. The State punishes the one and compensates the other. It may be legitimate to argue, though, that the crimes of the Gujarat Genocide call for a different approach.

If offenders are identified, then economic consequences should accompany imprisonment or death, whichever is awarded. If this happens, then would-be offenders would be shown clearly that the path to riches is another one. More important, it is my belief that monetary compensation would mean more to a victim if it is known to have come from the coffers of the wrong-doer.

This is no more than an idea, and I know that it may seem an outlandish one. Whether and how it is to be given practical expression must be worked out by those who have the necessary knowledge and skills. My sole ― and sufficient, I believe ― justification for thinking on these lines is the unusual nature of the crime of genocide. When the crime is exceptional, there is no compulsion to stay with ordinary punishment and compensation: and there is every reason to consider whether punishment and compensation of unusual kinds will not better serve the ends of justice.

The enormity of the crime of genocide cannot and must not be forgotten. A petty thief cannot and must not be let off with a slap on the wrist if he decides, or if he is fooled into believing, that some Higher Purpose calls for him to rape and murder a child.

III

Aiming to buttress my argument with facts and figures, I searched the Internet for the words “Modi” and “compensation” occurring together. For the reader’s amusement and edification, here are four pages that came up early. They do not need to be explained.

1. http://www.gujaratglobal.com/nextSub.php?id=3769
- 2008-03-12, Gujarat Global News Network, Gandhinagar
The state government has announced a compensation of Rs.50,000 for the infant who was killed in an incubator accident this morning.

2. http://www.rediff.com/news/2003/aug/22godhra.htm
- August 22, 2003. Gujarat riots: Rs. 300,000 damage, but Rs. 100 compensation...
- Mehrunissa Sheikh, a resident of Mehendi Kuva area of Madhavpura ... before the Nanavati-Shah Commission...

3. http://infochangeindia.org/Agenda/Migration-Displacement/In-Gujarat-s-ghettos.html
- In Gujarat’s ghettos by Deepa A
- The question of compensation remains a grey area in Gujarat. The state government returned Rs. 19 crore sent by the Centre for riot victims, claiming that it had completed all its rehabilitation work.

4. http://indianmuslims.in/relief-for-gujarat-riot-victims-justice-still-eludes/
- Mohib Ahmad
- [The] Indian government took one step ... for the victims of [the] Gujarat violence today by announcing a $77 million compensation package .... [Gujarat] Health minister and government spokesperson Jaynarayan Vyas [reacted thus]:
- “...this package is discriminatory. Between the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and 2002 Godhra riots, many riots have taken place in the country. Why such kind of compensation have not been given to the other riot victims?” Vyas asked.

[foot-note / end-note]

1. There are different estimates of the number of people killed in the Gujarat Genocide. I propose an easy way to get the real figures. It is known that the rapists and murderers who were let loose ― some of them apparently “experts” brought in from outside Gujarat ― were rewarded on the basis of their individual scores: so much for a “kill”, so much for a “kill plus”, etc. Someone must have kept the records of the gala sports meet and of the cash prizes awarded. Gujarat cannot have achieved success in the mercantile field without good munims. And careful organisation was in evidence during the mayhem: for example, the marauding bands had print-outs identifying Muslim localities and even Muslims’ houses and Muslim-owned businesses in other localities.