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Who Are the Guilty?: Punishment and Confidence-Building in Gujarat


The Hindu, Apr. 2, 2002

Narendra Modi's eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Prime Minister was really quite a mild affair. Mr. Vajpayee upbraided Mr. Modi, but in the mildest manner possible. He was not even rapped on the knuckles! Instead of pulling him out of his chair, the Prime Minister suggested a variety of confidence-building measures to the errant Chief Minister. He was asked to construct homes for those affected, find them jobs, give them armed escorts, get businesses to contribute to their relief and rehabilitation, and so on. Not once was it mentioned that the Government of India would use all its powers to punish the guilty - and that this also included Mr. Modi.

Unfortunately, the demand to punish the guilty is not on the agenda of the Opposition either. All they want is the removal of the Chief Minister. This is really political gamesmanship. Of course, Mr. Modi ought to go, but if he sinks alone and is not weighted down by those other criminals who killed, burnt, maimed and looted then he might emerge as a political martyr. To bring credibility to Mr. Modi's ouster, he needs to be punished along with all those who are actually red in tooth and claw. This includes those who torched the railway coaches in Godhra as well as those who stalked and killed Muslims in Ahmedabad, and elsewhere in Gujarat, in recent weeks. It is indeed a sad reflection on the politics of our times that the Opposition has not come out with such a demand.

This is not the first time that a Government is directly implicated in fomenting and leading communal riots in the country. The 1984 killings of Sikhs is a cruel predecessor of what happened recently in Gujarat. The way the civil liberties groups mobilised in 1984 was, however, quite remarkable. Instead of doing social science and discovering caste and class antagonisms behind the killings, the People's Union for Democratic Rights (P.U.D.R.) and the People's Union for Civil Liberties (P.U.C.L.) jointly conducted a first rate social forensic study and brought out a report entitled Who are the Guilty?

The data in this little booklet were compiled on the spot by P.U.D.R. activists in Delhi even as they went about trying to bring relief to the besieged Sikhs. This booklet named those who were directly involved in the murder and mayhem, it gave evidence of responsible politicians leading mobs from the front, and it also carried authentic eye-witness accounts. This booklet sent shock waves all the way up. Though a thousand maneouvres were dreamt up by the Government in power, the fact that the perpetrators of the killings were named made it very difficult for even these people to emerge again as legitimate political actors.

Who are the Guilty? should indeed be a prototype of how citizens can respond to riots in this country. It is obvious that citizens can no longer sit on the sidelines when communal carnages occur in the belief that the state machinery will do its job and punish the guilty. Most of those in state administration see themselves as Government servants and not as servants of the public. This is why they are not as mindful of citizens' interests as they are of the wishes of the Government in power. In such a situation the public must assert itself and demand the names of individuals who led and participated in the communal killings, regardless of which community they may belong to. It is only by putting such people on trial that confidence can meaningfully be restored in Gujarat.

This will also send warning signals to all would-be rioters in the future. As Justice Verma, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, recently commented, police inaction in Gujarat is tantamount to police complicity. If the guilty are tried and punished then this will also expose another lie on which communalists thrive. The popular assumption is that these sectarians are as willing to kill for a cause as they are to die for a cause. This is a complete fallacy. None of the hotheads of the R.S.S., or Bajrang Dal or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad will ever die for a cause. In which case, why are they so willing to kill for a cause? The answer to this is very simple. It is because they know that no harm will come to them as they enjoy active or tacit protection from the Government of the day. It is cover of this sort that makes sectarian activists appear so frightening. Take away Government support and they will all expose themselves as paper tigers.

It is time now to remember how Jawaharlal Nehru handled the R.S.S. and the Hindu Mahasabha when he was at his best. Partition had just happened and Hindu sectarians were having a field day, even in the city of Delhi. Nehru did not reason and plead with them. He locked them up in jail whenever they broke the law. When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, Nehru again acted swiftly and unambiguously. He banned the R.S.S. and other allied organisations and exposed their shallow bravado.

The leaders of the R.S.S. made several overtures to Nehru (and Patel) to lift the ban against them. Golwalkar even tried to curry favour with the Government by promising to fight communism. In a letter to Nehru he said the ban on the R.S.S. should be lifted so that the swayamsevaks could help the Government in ridding the country of the red menace. No mention now of the Muslims, nor of any other religious minority. When that did not work the R.S.S. tried satyagraha, which was again a flop. Eventually the R.S.S. leadership had no option but to agree to a written constitution as demanded by the Government. This constitution had to clearly state that the organisation would treat all faiths with equal respect and would refrain from entering politics and resorting to violence.

Nehru was clearly not intimidated by the rhetoric of these sectarian Hindu activists and simply called their bluff. It was Nehru's uncompromising stand against communalists that allowed the Congress to win election after election, from the perfervid post-Partition days right up to 1967. The best way of fighting communalists is not by tiptoeing around them in the hope of letting sleeping dogmas lie, but by taking them on frontally every time they break the law.

Mr. Vajpayee would like Mr. Modi to find jobs for the devastated, get industrialists to donate money, Bhuj style, hold hands with the aggrieved families, even set up goodwill marches, and so forth. All sweet talk and a few pieces of silver! What the Prime Minister has cleverly sidestepped, and what the Opposition has not pressed upon him, is that nowhere has he asked of Mr. Modi: Who Are the Guilty? Without raising this issue, no amount of relief and goodwill missions will help in restoring confidence in Gujarat. If the guilty are not punished by the due process of law then this might engender cynicism, and, what is worse, vigilante-style reprisals - both of which are deleterious to the well being of the country as a democratic republic. As citizens we have the right to demand that the guilty be punished first! And Mr. Modi is not the only one we are thinking of.