Exactly a decade after an estimated 97 people were killed in a massacre at Naroda Patiya area of Ahmedabad, during the 2002 Gujarat genocide, a special court has sentenced 31 people to life imprisonment. The highlight of the sentence is that the guilty include sitting BJP Member of Legislative Assembly and former Minister in the Narendra Modi government, Maya Kodnani. It should be recalled that she was appointed minister for Women and Child Welfare just two months after supervising the rape and murder of nearly a hundred women, children and men!
The Special Investigating Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court has been probing nine Gujarat communal killing cases. So far there have been verdicts in five of these. There have been 107 convictions on murder charges as of now. In these cases, as many as 110 people have been awarded life sentence.
Many of the guilty have been punished, and even a former minister has been convicted. At the same time, the higher-ups who commandeered the operation are still scot-free, as the victims and various people involved in the decade-long struggle for justice point out. Many investigative reports have provided undeniable proof that the Chief Minister, other Ministers in the then Cabinet, the higher level officers in the Gujarat police and the state reserve police have all been directly or indirectly responsible for the gruesome massacre. In fact, crucial testimonies of many top police officers against their seniors and ministers have nailed the latter’s complicity.
Many organisations and activists, including Lok Raj Sangathan, have been consistently demanding that all those guilty of organising communal violence be punished, including the major episodes in 1984, 1992-93 and 2002. So far, nobody in any position of authority within the then ruling Congress Party, the central Home Ministry or the Delhi administration has been convicted for the genocide in 1984, when an estimated 3000 Sikhs were killed in cold blood in the capital city alone. The situation is no different with respect to the mass killings following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, when the Congress Party ruled in New Delhi and the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. The Naroda Patiya verdict is a shot in the arm for all those who have persisted in the struggle for justice for the victims of communal violence.
The central government has been promising for years that it will initiate an effective legislation for Parliamentary approval, to prevent the recurrence of communal violence. A draft of the Prevention of Communal and Targeted violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2011, has been prepared by the National Advisory Council. This draft Bill, which claims to be an instrument to prevent communal killings, does not even establish any effective mechanism to punish those who organize such monstrous crimes against humanity. How can any kind of organised crime be prevented if the guilty parties know that they can escape punishment?
What should be the principles that should guide the framing of a law to prevent such political crimes against any section of our people in the future?
Any dispassionate observer has to acknowledge that the experience of our people since 1947 shows that inflaming communal and sectarian passions, and organizing violence against people of specific religious or national minority communities, has been a preferred political tactic of various parties. Parties represented in Parliament have organised communal violence as part of their effort to stay in power, or as part of their effort to come to power.
A serious analyst will also acknowledge that organizing communal and sectarian violence serves to preserve the status quo. It serves the powerful elite to keep the people divided and disoriented. Inflamed by passions or by real security concerns, people’s attention gets diverted from their common grievances against the authority. Their anger is turned against one another. Communal tension and sectarian strife serve the ruling establishment to ensure that the broad masses of people who are marginalized from political power remain so.
After each major communal crime the predominant official propaganda, supported by government appointed enquiry commissions and sometimes by the courts, is that the people of this or that sect or community were responsible for perpetrating the crimes. The key organizing role of political party leaders and the complicity of officials of the state machinery are kept in the shade. The truth is turned on its head. Genocide is called a “riot”. Victims are portrayed as being communal while the authority is presented as the saviour who will restore “communal harmony”.
Any law to prevent communal violence, if it is to have any credibility at all, must be based on the principle that the responsibility for protecting the lives of all members of society, without exception, belongs to the State, which means that those in positions of power have command responsibility for failure to protect any life.
The perpetrators of the communal massacres in the Naroda Patiya case could not have done so unless some high level official force was backing them and providing them protection. In 1984, the voters’ list of houses in Delhi, marked as Sikh households on the basis of surnames, were distributed to the organizers of the massacre, and material was supplied for arson and murder through the party machinery. Lists of Muslim households were provided to the killers and looters in Gujarat in 2002, ostensibly with the connivance of the ruling party. Similar things have occurred in all cases of state organized communal massacres in different regions of the country.
Communal violence is a political crime against the people and their unity. It cannot and must not be treated as a collection of ordinary crimes perpetrated by one or more individuals, subject to the normal legal process requiring a First Information Report (FIR) from eye witnesses of individual acts of violence. Political crimes require political parties to be put in the dock, especially their leaders, and not merely the hired goons who carry out the massacres. The principle of command responsibility requires the senior most officials of the administration and police forces to be put in the dock, including the bureaucratic and political executives in charge. There must be no immunity for anyone in any position of authority.
The Naroda Patiya judgment is an important step forward because it shows us that persistent and united struggle can finally produce some result, albeit partial justice. The challenge now is to put it to good use, to spur the struggle forward – towards full justice to all victims; and the enactment of a law that recognizes communal violence as a political crime and affirms the principle of command responsibility for failing to protect people’s lives.
This struggle is an important component of the struggle of the people for political empowerment. In the final analysis, it is only when we, the people, have power in our own hands can we rid ourselves of this plague of communal violence, by making sure that the guilty are punished so severely that no party or group will dare to organize such crimes ever again.