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PUCL March, 2006

Gujarat after four years

-- By J.S.Bandukwala, Vice-President PUCL

The Best Bakery, with all its twists and turns, has become a symbol of Gujarat 2002. In all 14 people, including three Hindus were burnt alive. All of them were poor. Many more people were killed in places like Naroda Patiya and Gulbarga Society. Yet a number of factors combined to make this case the mirror of the tragedy of Gujarat. Oddly the most important was the determination of Zaheera Shaikh to bring the culprits to book.. The Bakery belonged to her family. She lost an uncle and a sister on that fateful day. In the immediate aftermath, she pledged that she would never marry until the culprits were punished. She filed the original complaint that named all of those who were finally convicted.

The Gujarat police and judicial system were equally determined to prevent any conviction. Prosecutors were appointed from the VHP. The police investigation was deliberately most sloppy, to the extent that the district administration did not even know how many people died in the burning of the Bakery. This careless attitude led the then Chief Election Commissioner, James Michael Lyndgoh to describe the Vadodara District magistrate as a joker. Narendra Modi responded by describing Lyndgoh and Sonia Gandhi as Christians defaming Gujarat. Incidentally this district magistrate came from a hard core RSS family, and belonged to the state administrative Service. He was promoted by Modi to the IAS and given the sensitive posting . The same was true of the Police Commissioner, who belonged to the State Service, but was promoted to the IPS, and made the police chief of the city. In both cases many senior IAS / IPS officers were bypassed. Needless to say these two worthies were staunch Modi loyalists, from whom the riot victims could expect absolutely no support.

In similar manner the trial judge was pulled out from retirement to preside over this vital case. He watched in silence as the prosecutor and the defence became one. Key prosecution witnesses were deliberately not called to testify. The court room was filled up by highly aggressive VHP men. Most witnesses turned hostile. The minimum the trial judge could have done was to clear his court room of all outsiders, and honestly tried to find why the witnesses were turning hostile. Instead he conducted a kangaroo trial, acquitting all the accused, and went on to blame Nehru’s industrial policies, the reservation system and even the communists for the communal riots. On appeal to the High Court, the acquittals were confirmed, with two judges, to the eternal shame on the higher judiciary, describing those helping the riot affected as anti national and anti social. This farce only confirmed that it is impossible for one community to get justice in the Gujarat of Narendra Modi.

No wonder there was a nation wide outrage, that led the Supreme Court to order a retrial outside Gujarat. As usual Modi called it an insult to the five crore people of Gujarat. Yet the persistence and idealism of Teesta Setalvad, combined with excellent special prosecutor and judge in Mumbai, saw the wheels of justice grind once again. The witnesses who were deliberately not called in Vadodara, agreed to testify in Mumbai. They identified the accused. For the VHP, the only hope lay in winning over Zaheera Shaikh, the original complainant. Even during the original trial, Vadodara was full of rumours of a BJP MLA, making fantastic offers to Zaheera. Later Tehelka.com ,in a sting operation got this MLA to admit that he paid Rs. 18 lakhs to Zaheera , to become hostile in the Vadodara trial. To regain her credibility, Zaheera flip flopped, joined Teesta in Mumbai, and accused the BJP MLA of threatening her. The next flip flop came just prior to her Mumbai deposition. She changed into a five star avatar, living in posh hotels and driving the best cars. She stood totally behind the accused and the VHP, declared piously that she would never lie during Ramzan, and went on to charge Teesta with kidnapping her to Mumbai. The poor slum girl was now a page three socialite. But her frequent flip flops destroyed her credibility totally.

The Best Bakery conviction is a huge relief for all those who value justice. Yet there is no happiness at the conviction of the accused. After all they are all from poor families. Their families will be ruined. They were provoked to a frenzy by political leaders, desperate to win the Gujarat Assembly elections. In every case examined, we have found that the fuse was lit by politicians, who cleverly vanished as soon as the violence began. They won the election by a huge margin, but the price was paid by the poor Muslims who were killed, and by the equally poor Hindus who are being convicted for that offence. Further there is hardly any mention of VIP’s in the category incitement to mob violence. A totally communalized police force saw to it that their political masters were not mentioned in any FIR.

Where does Gujarat go from this stage? Obviously the first focus must be on the large number of remaining cases, particularly the big ones, such as Naroda Patiya and Gulbarga Society. The cases must be handed over to the CBI, and tried outside Gujarat.

It is also time to expose the role of the leaders of Gujarat society , whether in Government, business, intellectual elite, Gandhians , the media and even religious figures. The then Governor did not even send a mandatory report to the President, on the breakdown of law and order in the State. The then Prime Minister went to Ahmedabad after a month of mayhem, advised Modi on his rajdharma, and then three days later at Goa, did a perfect flip flop and blamed Muslims for the killing of Muslims. Cabinet Ministers sat in police control rooms to prevent any help reaching the victims. The language press, particularly Sandesh reduced itself to the level of gutter journalism, to keep the frenzy against Muslims alive. Many Gujarati intellectuals justified the attacks on Muslims, and came out with homilies on the need to civilize the barbarian Muslims. The less said about religious leaders the better. Swaminarayn sants blessed the trishuls given out by the VHP to the rioting killers.

Jain munis ,who normally become very disturbed when people eat eggs, kept quiet, while trishuls were inserted into the private parts of women , before being killed. Even so eminent a figure as Ela Bhatt, a Magsaysay award winner, publicly declared twice, that no rapes have occurred in Gujarat. The attack on the Muslims of Kawant was started from the nearby Gandhian Ashram of Harivallabh Parikh, considered a close disciple of Vinoba Bhave. Leading businessmen and industrialist respondd to the call of the VHP for an economic boycott of Muslims. No wonder today it is difficult to find a Muslim in Nirma.

Yet there were rays of hope in the darkness of Gujarat. Chunibhai Vaidya , Narayan Desai and Jagdish Shah, kept the Gandhi spirit alive. Kirit Bhatt, Indu Jani, Rohit Prajapati, Mukul Sinha and Gagan Sethi , Teesta Setalvad and their countless, silent friends, fought the forces of darkness ,at great risk to their lives. Eminent Gujaratis like Dr.I.G.Patel, Manubhai Patel and Jinabhai Darji wept at the madness that had engulfed their community. Their sense of remorse will ever live in our hearts. Nation wide, the media, senior lawyers, judges and progressive forces did everything in their power to see that Gujarat comes back to its senses. In a vital show of inter faith unity, our Christian brothers, particularly Father Cedric Prakash played a leading role in bringing Gujarat to the attention of the world .

Today the Muslims of Gujarat have substantially emerged from the trauma of 2002. Grace be to God, that instead of withdrawing into their shells, they opened out to the outside world. There has been a sharp increase in education among Muslims, particularly girls. The demand is for quality education, especially in the subjects of English, Maths and Science. The community no longer looks upto crime dons as their saviours. There is an increasing realization that we have to live with our Hindu brothers and sisters, and as such we must avoid hurting their feelings. That is a huge step forward. Further there is an awareness that Muslims have to generate wealth, through business, as the only way we can come out of poverty.

There is a healthy cynicism about political leaders. The Congress policy of soft Hindutva is widely resented. In particular the widely held notion among Gujarat Congress leaders that Muslims have no choice but to vote for them,; as the other side is saffron, touches a raw nerve among all Muslims. It was this belief that led the Congress party to avoid even a hint of identification with Muslims, all through the worst phase of 2002. It is in the vital interests of Muslims and even of Gujarat, that they be not viewed as a captive vote bank of any political party. Muslims must learn to view politics beyond their immediate concern for security. They are a part of the country, and must give greater priority to social and economic issues that touch their lives.

Most important Muslims must recognize that it is in their paramount interests that a dynamic secular India must succeed. That alone can provide impetus for an Islamic renaissance ,both within India and throughout the world..The twenty first century belongs to those who can bridge the divide between the Muslim and the non Muslim world. By Grace of Allah ,Indian Muslims are rightly positioned for this historic role.

People's Union for Civil Liberties, 81 Sahayoga Apartmrnts, Mayur Vihar I, Delhi 110091, India. Phone (91) 11 2275 0014