Killers’ impunity

Print edition : April 28, 2017
The Bhagalpur riots and the Gujarat pogrom had common features which still persist.

THIS book is the result of dedicated research coupled with painstaking field work by two lawyers of impeccable academic credentials. Warisha Farasat, trained in law research at Columbia University, worked with the International Centre for Transitional Justice, New York, and practises as an advocate in Delhi. She led the study on the riots in Bhagalpur, Bihar, in 1989. Prita Jha, who led the study on the pogroms in Sabarkantha and Ahmedabad in Gujarat in 2002, was trained as a lawyer in Britain and worked for many years with the Centre for Equity Studies in New Delhi. It seeks to steer the efforts to secure legal justice for survivors of communal violence.

Their studies expose state participation, by action or inaction, in the killings. Small wonder that the culpability reaches the apex of power. The authors are scrupulously non-partisan. Rajiv Gandhi and Lalu Prasad acted disgracefully in the Bhagalpur riots. Rajiv Gandhi revoked the transfer of the notorious police Chief K.S. Dwivedi. The palm goes, without a contest, to Narendra Modi, aptly referred to as Nero by the Supreme Court in the Best Bakery case.

The book carries an introduction by Harsh Mander and Navsharan Singh. It is the product of a research project led by the Centre for Equity Studies and supported by the International Development Research Centre, Canada, to provide fresh insights into the accountability of state institutions in the aftermath of organised mass violence. Harsh Mander himself wrote Fear & Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre.

In Gujarat, the centre had engaged for many years in a community-based struggle for justice through the courts. The strategy, called Nyayagrah, gave a central role to justice workers, Nyaya Pathics, drawn mostly from among the survivors. Mander’s book records their work in detail. Since the centre had not worked in Bhagalpur, it had to start afresh by inviting survivors to participate as community researchers.

Given the handicap, Warisha Farasat has done a superb job in recording in grim detail the subversion of the judicial process after the outrages perpetrated actively by the police.

It began with the First Information Reports—the refusal to file them, and then record them belatedly and inaccurately. The rest was accomplished by shoddy police investigations, intimidated witnesses, prosecutors with a different agenda, and lack of legal assistance. All this was repeated in Gujarat as Prita Jha meticulously records. The judges were none too helpful. She quotes the Supreme Court’s strong censure of the Gujarat High Court. “The High Court appears to have miserably failed to maintain the required judicial balance and sobriety in making unwarranted reference to personalities and their legitimate moves before competent courts…. Decency, decorum and judicial discipline should never be made casualties by adopting such intemperate attitudes of judicial obstinacy.”

Prita Jha’s account of Gujarat mirrors that of Warisha Farasat. “We listened repeatedly to people’s pain, distress and rage for having to endure violence that was preventable. Many told us, unequivocally, that the driving force for their long relentless battles for justice was the belief that future violence could only be deterred by puncturing the existing culture of impunity.”

Bhagalpur in 1989 and Gujarat in 2002 are separated by time and space. But the crimes in both places had common features which still persist. Why? The answer is fairly obvious.

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