Holding Gujarat rioters accountable

Holding Gujarat rioters accountable

The police stood by as Hindu mobs slaughtered nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in massacres that evidence suggests were an election-year ploy by the Gujarat state ministers to garner votes.

Mothers were skewered, children set afire and fathers hacked to pieces. That was 10 years ago. A decade later, the riots in the state may be remembered less for the horrors they unleashed, however, than that such sectarian carnage, which once struck India as often as a heavy monsoon, has not been repeated since. There are many reasons for this astonishing quiescence, but technology has played a crucial role. The killers made cellphone calls, and records of those calls became evidence.

After years of dithering, India’s creaky justice system lurched into action. Hundreds of rioters have been convicted, and more cases are pending. Last week, a judge trying 61 defendants – including a former state education minister – delayed issuing verdicts until August 29 in a case that involves some 94 deaths. A total of 327 people testified, but the crucial evidence, again, was the phone records contradicting claims by some of the accused that they were nowhere near the scene of the crimes.

Tipping point

Indeed, those same records continue to be examined for any role played in the riots by the office of the chief minister, Narendra Modi, who is among India’s most prominent politicians. But even if Modi is never charged, the political calculus behind stoking sectarian clashes – long a staple for winning elections here – has fundamentally changed, political analysts say.

“We reached a tipping point,” said M J Akbar, author of ‘Riot after riot.’ “This is the first time that India’s judicial system has actually worked to hold people accountable for rioting. In the past, the guilty never got punished.”

India was once the world’s wellspring of religiously inspired massacres. As such violence rages across the Middle East, the bougainvillea sprouting from Gujarat’s charred buildings offers hope that even societies steeped in blood can curb the self-perpetuating logic behind such clashes. Shakeel Ahmad, chairman of the Islamic Relief Committee in Gujarat, said that he is optimistic. Some 1,50,000 people were displaced by the rioting in 2002.

During a lengthy interview in his office at the edge of a Muslim neighbourhood, Ahmad could not suppress a triumphant smile. “There is a ray of hope,” he said, his white hair and beard swirled in cigarette smoke. “For the first time in Gujarat, we have seen demands for justice.” To be sure, India’s politics are still vicious and violent, its society riven by religious, cultural and caste divisions that feed ongoing discrimination. Gujarat’s Muslims have never entirely recovered from the riots, and the state’s population is more religiously segregated than ever.

The riots began on Feb 27, 2002, when a train filled with Hindu pilgrims who had just visited a disputed shrine rolled into Godhra, a small city in eastern Gujarat, and was attacked by a Muslim mob. A fire started, and at least 58 Hindu pilgrims burned to death. Their charred bodies were brought to Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, and laid out in public, an act that all but guaranteed more violence.

Massacres began immediately. Some 20,000 Muslim homes and businesses and 360 places of worship were burned. Later that year, Modi’s party was overwhelmingly re-elected. Mayors in the US are thrown out when too much snow clogs streets; Modi let his streets be choked with blood and won election overwhelmingly.

Modi was following a familiar script. In 1984, Sikh bodyguards assassinated prime minister Indira Gandhi, and Hindu mobs in Delhi killed thousands of Sikhs in retaliation.

The Congress party, whose members encouraged the rioting, was rewarded later that year with a huge majority in Parliament. Commissions were formed to investigate, but there were few arrests and fewer convictions. Commissions were impaneled after the Gujarat riots as well. A top state official told one panel that Modi ordered officials to take no action against rioters. That official was murdered.

But in 2004, the Supreme Court intervened, acting on petitions from human rights groups. The court ordered that more than 2,000 dismissed cases be reopened, a special police team be created and some trials be transferred out of Gujarat. The wheels of justice began to turn, leading more victims to press claims. The disc contained records of every cellphone call made in Ahmedabad during the worst of the rioting.

The records allowed advocates to construct precise timelines of the movements of many rioters, timelines that often dovetailed with the accounts of riot victims but contradicted those of the accused.

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