Uploaded on October 16, 2017
Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam
To begin with, let me clarify that the following is inspired by the Gujarat High Court judgment (October 9) on the Godhra train burning in 2002. It does not purport to be a direct comment on it. In the fire, 59 passengers were charred to death. All of them were Hindus, mostly kar sevaks (pilgrim activists). They had gone to Ayodhya by Sabarmati Express to offer prayers at the makeshift temple built on the debris of the Babri Masjid, which was a rare specimen of Sarcene architecture.
The mosque, over four centuries old at the time of its demolition in December 1992 amid extensive anti-Muslim riots and killings, was destroyed by hundreds of thousands of angry kar sevaks from all over India as the Union and state governments, and large contingents of state police, paramilitary and army deployed to protect the mosque, chose to stay put and remain passive spectators, flouting their Constitutional obligations.
These two incidents – Ayodhya Babri Masjid demolition and Godhra incident, followed by massive anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat–stood ten years apart. A common factor between the two was the Sangh (including its front organisations like BJP, VHP, Bajrang Dal and others) orchestrated, month’s-long anti-Muslim campaign, preceding and following the two incidents.
Coming back to the judgment (after explaining the context) for a while, one must appreciate the competence, diligence and the humane approach of the honourable judges, who decided to commute the death sentences of 11 convicts (awarded by the trial court) and sentence them to rigorous life imprisonment. The reasons, as explained by one of the honourable judges in a post, were some extenuating factors that they had to take into cognizance. That the intent of the judges was noble and their stance upright is proven by both the kar sevaks’ kith and kin and those of the convicts expressing dissatisfaction with the judgment. Both sides have announced they would go to the Supreme Court in appeal.
However, most of the time when judgments are delivered in cases of mass violence against Muslims, Christians, Sikhs as well as tribals and Dalits, a certain feeling of incompleteness, even one-sidedness, of justice nags us, the non-legal sections of society, for a long time. Although this feeling is not there in this case, we are reminded of earlier instances of mass violence against the weak and the underwhelming performance of the justice delivery system. For instance, we are reminded of hundreds of cases of mass violence against minorities in the past in which known, well-identified, perpetrators walked free, aggravating the victims’ sense of injury and injustice and encouraging perpetrators to further acts of such violence in days ahead.
We still remember the perpetrators of Ayodhya-92, who went unpunished for their long campaign of mass murder of Muslims as well as mosque demolition. Instead, both in Uttar Pradesh and the Union they were rewarded with senior positions in cabinet, including positions of deputy PM and Union minister for home (responsible for law and order). By the way, that is what is meant by “hire a thief to catch a thief”!
After covering themselves with gloy at Ayodhya, the BJP-Shiv Sena set fire to Mumbai, which burnt for 15 days, virtually smoking Muslims out of Mumbai after killing hundreds of them. The state government, the police, the Shiv Sena-BJP were all complicit in it as were the state and Union governments complicit in Ayodhya-92. Then came the Mumbai blasts, which Justice Shri Krishna in his report saw as a link in the sequence of events of Ayodhya killings and demolition of Babri Masjid and the Mumbai anti-Muslim riots.
However, the perpetrators of the Ayodhya riots and demolition as well as those of Mumbai riots were let off, but those behind the Mumbai blasts were quickly put behind the bars, sentenced to death and hanged as some of them were sentenced to life imprisonment, while still others were sentenced to long imprisonments. Invariably, all those behind the blasts (as well as many suspects, who turned out to be innocent) were tortured and jailed for long periods. Why were the two sets of people belonging to two faith communities treated so differently? This is a phenomenon that dare not tell its name. And how does it reflect on India’s secular, democratic state and its justice delivery system? Well, it is up to the reader to decide.
Coming back to the decision of the Gujarat High Court once more, the judges, to their enduring credit, have also remarked that the state government, the Railways and the Union of India were also found to be negligent of their duties. That is, had they been mindful of their duties the disaster could have been averted. In the polite, dignified language of the judiciary, the censured entities (and those running them) were guilty of dereliction of duty by their acts, or sins, of omission. What actually occurred was more sinister than the judges choose to describe as “negligence.” That is a benign way of describing something malign.
What had happened at Godhra could have been checked had the state government, Railways and the Union government taken into consideration the dangerous build-up of anti-Muslim hate and hysteria all over India, particularly in Gujarat. Over the entire week kar sevaks had been abusing and attacking Muslim passengers and vendors at Godhra station and brutalising fellow travelers to Ayodhya if they looked like Muslims. This had been going on regularly for past several days. One day, they threrw a Muslim family out of the Sabarmati Express on way back from Ayodhya to Gujarat between Faizabad and Lucknow. The Muslim husband and wife survived the beating and being thrown out of the train, but their child died when he was thrown out. From there, the train burning was only a few days away. Even at that point the negligent entities preferred not to do anything.
Around that time the VHP, particularly its leader Ashok Singhal, used to boast about the “successful Gujarat lab experiment,” referring to Godhra train burning and subsequent statewide anti-Muslim pogrom. What did it mean? That they had built-up anti-Muslim hysteria, particularly in Gujarat, for days on end before the train burning and taken that incident as an excuse to unleash a well-orchestrated statewide pogrom against Muslims? Was everything pre-planned, not by Muslims, but the Sangh?
To get back to the judgment once again, it was not just a sin of omission of the state and Union governments as well as the Railways as the judgments suggests, but a sinister and heinous sin of commission of the Sangh, whose front, the BJP was ruling both the Union and state. This was a far more wicked and culpable act than mere negligence. It was orchestrated and staged violence.
Not only that the state, the Union and Railways had refused to take note of the daily dose of provocation and brutalisation of Muslims right from Railway platforms in Gujarat all the way through in train compartments up to Faizabad (Ayodhya) and back, but these entities helped rioters, instead of checking them.
More than a dozen independent enquiry commissions, including by the British high commission, European Union, a Commission of retired judges of higher judiciary as well as enquiries by civil society organisations found that the massive anti-Muslim riots that followed on the heels of the train burning would have happened anyway, whether there was a train burning incident or not. The riot was pre-planned. Over the previous several weeks LPG gas cylinders had been reported missing in their thousands (to be used in riots for setting homes of victims on fire). The hoarding of gas cylinders had been going on since weeks before the train burning incident. In the light of the Gujarat Laboratory boast, it was certainly a planned event, planned not by Muslims, but by their sworn enemies. This line was also supported by all the independent enquiries referred to above. This also shows that Muslims were merely entrapped in a cleverly-laid net by others.
Unconfirmed reports also said that the combustible material used in the train burning was also used in the following riots. Even in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar anti-Muslim riots the same material was said to have been used. Other features of Muzaffarnagar riots, too, were found to be similar to those of Gujarat riots.
Instead of controlling the Gujarat riots, the BJP government provoked mass Hindu sentiment against Muslims by parading the charred bodies of the train-burning incident victims. Two top Gujarat dailies poured petrol into the anti-Muslim fire by printing false news like Muslims cutting breasts of Hindus women. The chief minister’s and his cabinet colleague’s openly anti-Muslim speeches provoked great violence.
To conclude, there is far more in favour of mitigating the punishment of Muslim convicts than the judicial convention has allowed the judges to take into cognizance. Let us hope that the apex court takes into account all these, instead of accepting the police narrative as gospel truth. In fact, the entire state machinery had failed at that time and police neutrality had been compromised, making its case inauthentic.
PS: In an address to India Today Conclave Bill Clinton told the participants (via videoconference from New York) that India would not grow in the right direction if the accused in Godhra train burning and those in Gujarat riots were judged differently. He had said it amid reports that the Gujarat rioters were being protected by the state.