No victors in riots, only victims

Sep 15, 2011, 11:25 IST | Ranjona Banerji

There is no party quite like the Bharatiya Janata Party when it comes to hysterical exaggeration

There is no party quite like the Bharatiya Janata Party when it comes to hysterical exaggeration. So many leaders begin their statements "Never in the history...", "Never before in a democracy �" displaying not just a fine sense of bombast but also a very strange idea of both history and democracy. But then we know that the rightwing component of the Indian political space would so very much like to change our history to suit their prejudices.

But to the matter at hand: what exactly is the victory which Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi has won? The Supreme Court has asked a local court to look at a petition filed by a victim of the riots about the culpability of the chief minister. There is, sadly, no victory for democracy here. It still means that a court will have to examine a petition filed by a private citizen against a sitting chief minister. Not very salutary, that.

In the eye of the Storm: The apex court left it to a trial court to decide
whether Modi can be prosecuted for his alleged role in the 2002
communal riots in Gujarat

The Gujarat riots were horrific and as one who lived through them, as I did, they remain a nightmarish memory. Bad as the post-Babri masjid demolition Bombay riots were, they did not -- or were not allowed to carry on -- for months. Even if the police were prejudiced, the entire state machinery was not specially geared to allow rioters a field day, the chief minister was changed and a new chief minister was sent from Delhi. The people of Bombay were also not united in support for the rioters, driving up in their fancy cars to loot shops and restaurants which belonged to Muslims.

Gujarat was a whole different story. Regardless of how many times we have riots in India -- and they all have political and state patronage -- and how few are ever caught or convicted, the fact that riots are a shame, a blot, a bleeding wound, does not change. This political one-upmanship -- mentioning 1984 and the anti-Sikh riots whenever Gujarat comes up -- is sickening.

The official death toll for Gujarat is about 1,000 but the true figure may well be closer to 2,000. For a state administration to deny all responsibility is not just callous, it is appalling and it is here that the BJP's defence of Modi has to be called into question. No one suggests that Modi did it himself. But what did he do to stop it? Screaming loudly about democracy does not take away a government's duties. There was a severe failure here. Even worse, what shame that the Supreme Court appointed a special investigation team, moved some cases out of Gujarat and made it clear that the government was not to be trusted to run a fair investigation. That may be a true victory for democracy but certainly not as far as the Gujarat government and Modi are concerned.

Al Gore called global warming an inconvenient truth. The Gujarat riots are more like an unpalatable truth. They call to us to look at our deepest prejudices and examine our commitment to a secular polity. The stain and shame of riots in India is spread across the years since 1947. But none of that makes them acceptable.
It is childish in the extreme to behave as if a mention of the riots is a victimisation of Modi. The fact is he was chief minister and mass murder happened under his watch. There is culpability of some sort or the other here. Brazenness is not a substitute for courage or, in the deepest desires of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, "manliness".

Riot convictions are dismal in our country and Gujarat may well follow the same path. Look at the irony in Mumbai where the blasts which followed the riots have seen sentencing but the riots cases are all but forgotten. But even that does not vindicate those responsible or allow them to behave as if they have won something. Their crimes are the worst against humanity - hatred, dereliction of duty, cowardice and inability to accept your wrongdoings. Anyone else would be ashamed.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist

Go to top