By Asghar Ali Engineer
The recent verdict by the Gujarat court on the case of Naroda Patia is, to say the least, revolutionary, in its content. This verdict has brought a new confidence in the minds of victims and activists about judiciary in secular India. The Judge Jyotsna Yagnik has enhanced the prestige of judiciary especially through her observation that communal riots are like poison in secular India. One rarely hears such a remark in written judgements these days.
It must be admitted that it is after a long time and almost for the first time in independent India that such severe punishments have been meted out to the perpetrators of the communal violence. Both Dr. Kodnani who subsequently went on to become minister of women and child development ironically after killing 35 women and 30 children brutally and Babu Bajrangi –both were confident that they would be fully protected by their boss and that no one will touch them. Babu Bajrangi had boasted of this in a sting operation carried out by Tehelka on the eve of last Assembly elections.
But howsoever powerful a person he/she cannot control everything and despite such assurances these perpetrators of brutal violence could not escape the long hands of law. In most of the riots before the perpetrators could escape for various reasons like partial and incomplete or careless investigations by the police under pressure from political bosses and their own communal biases that these perpetrators of violence easily escaped.
Not that Narendra Modi allowed honest and careful investigations for catching up with the criminals but because communal violence in Gujarat had reached such tremendous proportions that whole world was watching what was going on in Gujarat and activists like Teesta Setalvad, Advocate Sinha and several other human rights activists that it became very difficult for these accused to escape the stranglehold of the law of land Actually the Gujarat police had closed more than 300 cases saying no evidence was available. It was Supreme Court that ordered these cases to be re-opened. And the Best Bakery case and Bilqis Bano case had to be tried outside Gujarat to get justice to these victims.
Also we must salute, as Teesta Setalvad said, the women from Naroda Patia who had seen all the killings who showed rare courage and stood form to give evidence despite threats to their lives and also allurement of money as reporte4dly Rs. Two crores were offered to them to change their statement. We must inde3ed salute these brave women.
Again recently what happened in Assam between Bodos and Muslims and the terror it spread in the country shows how vulnerable is our country to communal violence. The communal forces can set this country on fire any time they like. Also the way these forces set rumours afloat against innocent people of North East working in different parts of India was very scary. These north easterners were so scary that they took the first train available to go home. Assam violence was like Gujarat violence. Only difference was of scale. In brutalities it was like another Gujarat.
It was after Gujarat riots that Congress had promised people of India in its manifesto for 2004 election to bring a law on communal and targeted violence. It also drafted one but it was so weak that it was worse than the remedy. We protested against it, held many consultations and forced the Government to redraft it. Sonia Gandhi took up the matter and set up a sub-committee to her advisory committee to suggest a new draft. Thus a new draft which was much more effective was prepared and given to the government. However, the BJP and some of its allied attacked it so severely that Government simply abandoned it.
Had that Bill been adopted I am sure Assam would not have repeated. Many more riots would take place if an effective law is not made and implemented. The provisions of the Bill are such that it would be difficult for perpetrators of violence to escape the law. Also it holds those who fail to maintain law and order responsible and in case, they cannot maintain peace will be punished. And above all there is fair provision for reparations and relief. Today in Assams more than 4 lakh refugees are rotting in relief camps and do not know what will happen to them and their families.
The communal and targeted violence Bill provides for all that. Government has totally neglected this Bill. Well, it can be slightly amended to make it acceptable by all though there is nothing that really makes this Bill objectionable. However, the word community could be replaced by group to take care of sensibilities of parties like BJP. This Bill is highly needed to prevent future Gujrats and Assams.
Asghar Ali Engineer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.