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India: The search for justice after the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat

Truth Does Not Die When A File is Closed

by Shiv Visvanathan, 4 May 2009

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Asian Age, May 4 2009

The ethics of duty and drama in times of riot

Two events have hung on the conscience of modern India because we, as a society, have not responded to it. It is not easy to respond to violence either as a mnemonic or as a continuing process. Witness and victim almost become irritants testifying to our passivity.

In fact, when one sees the prime agents of ’84, one realises that as tigers they are toothless. The late H.K.L. Bhagat, even Sajjan Kumar, had better claims to an old-age home than prison. It raises, then, the question of whether we should pursue these people into dotage.

Even more, it confronts us with the question — should society forget and go on?

There is a therapy in forgetting, a hygiene that does not allow old wounds to fester. But there is a sense of history as convenience which a society cannot allow. Also, denial produces its own pathologies. For instance, the Israeli satora’s contempt for the Holocaust Jew was so blatant that camp documents were sold as pornographic literature. The denial of violence comes back as a new form of destiny. Sociologists also banalised the ’84 riots with writers like Emma Vidal pursuing a ruthless ethnography of how widows exploited the situation. While competent as sociology, this form of work blunted the sense of justice by treating the victims as entrepreneurs of their own misfortune. What Ms Vidal forgot is that not all memory can be commoditised. All trauma does not graduate to the circus as a "monster".

The 2002 riots were a bit different from the riots of 1984. The first major difference was that, in ’84, civil society and especially academics, university students, groups like the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) rose to the occasion to provide succour to the victim. The state, in Gujarat, treated the victims as recalcitrant citizens of a development process. The riots were seen as part of a logic of development, of an old city sulking in its ethnicity. Worse, there was a blatant sense of exterminism. The local society, in general, wanted not just to terrorise the victim but also to eliminate him. This psychology, in fact, contributed to the carnivalesque mode in the aftermath of what was genocide.

What kept memory alive, apart from the efforts of the survivor, was not the media but the defiance of dissenters. One thinks, in particular, of Teesta Setalvad and the defiant testimony of Sri Kumar before the Nanavati Commission. It was partly because of their efforts that the court established the Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe into the Gujarat riots.

The entry of the SIT was an extraordinary event. It came at a moment of cynicism about law and justice. It worked quietly, almost invisibly. Yet, its very adherence to protocols, its readiness to listen, its determined patience created a sense of the law as an occasional oasis of hope. Just like with Sri Kumar in the earlier phase, for R.K. Raghavan enactment of protocols has become iconic of the processes of a decent society.

In a performative way, faith in justice is going to depend not merely on what SIT unearths but on how Mr Raghavan, in his role as SIT head, behaves. He has to perform the drama of legal interrogation and investigation and he has to do it with immaculate correctness. In an odd sense, Raghavan has to play Raghavan to be convincing. He has created an everydayness about the interrogation, playing the unflappable Jeeves to a legal system that often tends to be empty-headed. As CBI director, Mr Raghavan embodied professionalism and honesty. His was a respected career.

But when, on April 27, the SIT opened the file on 41 new cases, something new was signalled. A pandora’s box of question marks exploded to emcompass police officers, IAS officers including chief secretaries, and even a few ministers. It was an electrifying moment. A new set of expectations has been created. The demands for justice as procedure, as ritual, as performance and as meaning has reached a new high.

Mr Raghavan is not merely a person. He is now a persona. His new role demands an immaculate performance as the circle of suspicion tightens around an elite bunch of officers. Tacitly and explicitly, he has to define what duty is. Is one loyal to a chief minister or the Constitution? Is duty clerical adherence to procedures or following one’s conscience? Is silence punishable? Is a request for transfer an adequate form of dissent? Is duty doing things right or doing the right things?

This drama does not belong to Gujarat alone. It is a truth commission of a different sort, asking why officers meekly follow unjust orders. In a psychological sense, we will have to face the idea that obedience is not enough. Following the psychologist Stanley Mulgram’s questions, one then asks why people obey indiscriminately and what differentiates the ethics of duty from the ethics of obedience.

Mr Raghavan has to enact this entire pedagogy and compress it into a report. If he succeeds, he will become an icon and if he trembles, it is the bureaucracy that will turn iconoclastic, dismissing the SIT as a partisan or incompetent body. It is ethical high drama enacted within the procedural domain. If the rituals are completed with fidelity, then a new generation of bureaucracy will face new standards of truth and propriety. They will realise that truth does not die when a file is closed. Mr Raghavan has enacted the first move by summoning one of the members of SIT itself for interrogation. But the SIT drama is also a challenge to society.

One of the fragments of violence one has lived with is how ordinary people kill and live with themselves. The question is what happens to a society that allows murder as a permissible occasional ritual.

The SIT drama should now be seen as more than a cat-and-mouse game, a record of which bureaucrat got caught and which did not. One sympathises with the families of officers under scrutiny. Communities get ungenerous at these moments. But justice, or rather the search for justice, can help cleanse our society. We owe the SIT a debt of gratitude for this moment of ethics.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist