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Indian Justice Inches Closer To Chapters Of Violence

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
source: http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20100426/ZNYT03/4263015/-1/NEWS03?p=all&tc=pgall

Indian Justice Inches Closer to Chapters of Violence

Published: Monday, April 26, 2010 at 5:17 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 26, 2010 at 5:17 a.m.
NEW DELHI — On Oct. 31, 1984, two Sikh bodyguards gunned down Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in her garden. In the three harrowing days that followed, more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed by enraged mobs seeking to avenge her death.

Eighteen years later, 58 people, most of them Hindu pilgrims, died in an inferno on a train in Gujarat, in western India. The fire was blamed on Muslims, and within days 1,000 died in widespread riots.

These two spasms of horrific sectarian bloodletting have stood as direct challenges to India’s status as a democratic, secular state governed by the rule of law. In both instances, senior officials of the party in power were accused of looking the other way or, in some cases, even orchestrating the bloodshed. In both cases, a mere handful of the killers were ever convicted. In both cases, the political fortunes of politicians accused of fomenting the violence flourished in the aftermath.

But that pattern of official impunity may be changing. In the past month, two senior politicians have found themselves in the cross hairs of legal action that could, after all these years, force them to face accusations that they egged on killers in the two mass killings.

As investigators and prosecutors move in on these officials — a former member of Parliament for the governing Congress Party, and a chief minister and one-time rising star of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party — hope is rising that India might at last be ready to face up to some of its darkest moments and deliver justice for crimes that undermined the core of its national identity.

The changes that wrought this turn of events are not sudden or obvious; in India they rarely are. But analysts, lawyers and human rights advocates here say there has been a slow, inexorable drift toward demanding justice for these crimes. Relentless news media coverage, international embarrassment over allegations of human rights abuses and increasingly activist courts have conspired to advance long-stalled investigations of high-ranking officials.
"Something has shifted," said H. S. Phoolka, a lawyer who has been working for two decades to prosecute the killers in the anti-Sikh violence that followed Mrs. Gandhi’s death. "No longer will it go down in history that such a large-scale massacre happened and nobody paid a price. People realize that if it is not checked, then nobody is safe."

Sajjan Kumar, a former senior Congress Party official member and former government minister, is currently facing trial on charges that he led mobs that slaughtered Sikhs in 1984. He has denied any wrongdoing, and is not accused of killing anyone himself, but witnesses say that he and other Congress Party officials incited hordes of people who rampaged through the streets of the capital, setting upon any Sikh they could find.

Late last month, the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, was grilled for 10 hours by a special team appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate the 2002 riots. Human rights groups say he allowed, or even encouraged, Hindu mobs to tear through Muslim neighborhoods, leaving more than 1,000 dead.

Mr. Modi and his supporters say the charge that he encouraged rioters is ludicrous.

But the fact that either official has even been questioned represents a major step toward justice, said Teesta Setalvad, an activist who has been working to bring the organizers of the Gujarat riots to trial. "People finally realize that it is important to prosecute crimes of this magnitude," she said. "You must acknowledge some among your community have committed a heinous crime and get justice for it."

Governments in New Delhi have been reluctant to even acknowledge, much less punish, acts of mass violence. There is no grand memorial, for instance, to the hundreds of thousands of victims of the bloodletting between Hindus and Muslims that broke out when British India was split in two in 1947.

Regarding the violence in 1984 and 2002, the government created endless blue-ribbon panels to produce doorstop-thick reports on each episode, but none have produced convictions or even administrative sanctions against the most senior of the accused. Indeed, mass killings have been treated as the kind of regrettable but ultimately understandable tragedies that are inevitable in a diverse nation.

When asked about the killings in the streets of New Delhi shortly after his mother was assassinated, Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her as prime minister, gave an answer whose meaning is still debated. "When a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little," he said.

Similarly, when Mr. Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, was asked about the killings of Muslims in 2002, he responded with a verbal shrug, paraphrasing Newton’s law of action and reaction. Many accuse him of inviting the violence by insisting that the bodies of the train victims be brought into Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s already-tense capital, for a day of mourning.

In both cases the police either stood by or actively helped the rioters, according to multiple investigations by commissions and government panels.
Victims say they are hopeful that political leaders may soon pay a price for the killings.

"We have waited a long time for this," said Nirpreet Kaur, who was 16 years old when she saw her father, a prosperous Sikh taxi stand owner, torched and beaten to death by a mob in the 1984 riots. "Whenever riots happen, they happen with the help of government. But until today, nobody has gotten justice."

Even as cases proceed, victims and their advocates say they have little faith that the most powerful will face justice.

Timid courts, Mr. Phoolka said, have pitched in by allowing endless delays. Jam-packed dockets mean that a continuance ensures a delay of at least six months. In this manner the years float by, the accused remain out on bail and the victims wait.

But the Gujarat riots served as a wake-up call, many here say, a reminder that the failure to punish those who carried out the 1984 riots reinforces a culture of impunity. Making the same mistake in Gujarat would cement that message as unmistakable truth.

"It is a big blot on our country," said R. Singh Chatwal, an activist for the victims of the anti-Sikh riots. "We made a lot of sacrifices for our independence. This cannot stand if we are to live up to our ideals."



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