Echoes in Britain

Print edition : May 01, 2002

FOR Britain's 70,000 Gujarati Muslims, Chief Minister Narendra Modi is the most hated figure - a man they hold directly responsible for the scale of communal violence which has claimed the lives of many of their relatives and friends in Gujarat. The families of three men from Britain - Mohammed Aswat, Saeed Dawood and Shakil Dawood - who were brutally killed by a mob near Ahmedabad have launched a campaign for the prosecution of Modi on charges of "crimes against humanity".

There is a move to file three separate cases against him in courts in Britain, Belgium and the International Court of Justice at The Hague; and the charges will include complicity in murder and genocide. The families claim that they are working with the British government, but a Foreign Office spokesperson told Frontline that it had not been approached so far. "They have not approached us, though we are helping them with their search for the missing persons," she said. But when asked whether the government would support such a move if a request was made, she said she would not like to comment on what might happen "down the line".

Clearly, the government is not and - perhaps, for diplomatic reasons - would not like to be formally involved in what the Foreign Office made clear was a "private matter", but it seems that the families of the three victims have been assured of all moral support at the highest level. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose parliamentary constituency of Blackburn has a significant Gujarati Muslim population, has repeatedly and publicly expressed "concern" over the events, and there are strong reasons to believe that the "leaks" from the British High Commission's report (some very damaging excerpts from it were leaked to the BBC even after the Indian government's angry protests) were not accidental. The findings of the British team are seen to have lent greater credibility to the case against Modi and his administration.

Several Labour MPs are reported to have offered "full support" to the proposed legal action by the victims' relatives, who have been greatly encouraged by Straw's concern that the culprits must be brought to justice. "We have been assured that we will get whatever support we are entitled to as British citizens," a source close to Mohammed Aswat's family said.

Documentation to back legal action is in an advanced stage, and the cases are expected to be filed in a couple of weeks. The "evidence" is said to include eyewitness accounts, personal testimonies of victims and video-tapes allegedly showing the complicity of the local administration. Besides charging organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the cases would name individuals alleged to be involved in rioting. "Specific names" would be mentioned, according to an informed source.

Sulaiman Qazi, the solicitor who is preparing the cases, is quoted as saying that there are "hundreds of eyewitness accounts with verifiable names, addresses and contact numbers" adding up to a "watertight" case. Habibullah Akudi, another lawyer, said: "Our own findings have been corroborated by other independent inquiries such as those by the British High Commission, the European Union and Germany."

The first of the cases, seeking the extradition of Modi, is expected to be filed in the British High Court within three weeks. It will also name Gujarat Home Minister Gordhan Zadafiya and Revenue Minister Haren Pandya, both of whom are alleged to have "stoked" the "backlash" against the Godhra killings. "We have eyewitnesses who say they saw Zadafiya moving around and egging on the mob," one lawyer working on the case said. An arrest warrant for Modi would be sought so that he can be arrested if he tries to enter Britain. "We will arrest him the moment he lands here," he said.

Questions have been raised about the jurisdiction of British courts over "crimes" committed outside the United Kingdom, but Akudi said that if British citizens such as the Hinduja brothers could be "forced" to appear before courts in India there was no reason why Modi could not be forced to appear before a British court. "The charges here are far more serious and the crimes have been committed against British citizens," he argued.

Irrespective of the outcome, the families would go ahead and file a case in Belgium, where courts have extensive jurisdiction over human rights issues and there is no bar on individuals approaching them. They are hopeful that the precedent involving Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against whom Belgian court officials recently held hearings would help them. Approaching the International Court of Justice at The Hague, however, might not be easy because the court entertains only state-sponsored cases. It is here that the British government's support would be crucial.

In cases to be filed in Belgium and possibly at the ICJ, the top BJP leadership including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani are proposed to be arraigned for allegedly presiding over an "organised pogrom" against the minority community in Gujarat. "By not removing Modi, the Central government has abetted the anti-Muslim pogrom," Munaf Zeena, chairman of the Council of Indian Muslims (U.K.), said.

THE three cases arise out of the "unprovoked and premeditated" killing of Aswat, Saeed and his cousin Shakil who were on holiday in India, and travelling from Agra to their native village in Gujarat. Imran Dawood, who was with them but survived the attack, is said to have given a chilling account. According to him, their vehicle was stopped by a "murderous mob" at Prantij, about 100 km from Ahmedabad. First the driver was dragged out and hacked to death. Then the others were pulled out and the first to be killed was Aswat even as he shouted that he was a British national and waved his passport. Then the other two were killed. So far only Aswat's mutilated body has been found. Their families say the State government has given them little assistance, and when they visited India their request for an escort to take them to the scene of the "crime" was turned down. "Our case is that these were not isolated killings but part of a sinister pattern in which some 2,000 people were killed contrary to official claims of less than 1,000," one family member said, quoting "extracts" from an European Union report likening it to "ethnic cleansing" and spoke of the involvement of the state machinery. The case of a former Congress Member of Parliament Ehsan Jafri who was burnt alive even as he desperately sought help from Ministers would be highlighted to underline the fact that what happened in Gujarat was "organised killing in which the State government not merely abetted but took active part".

There is a view that even if the cases fizzle out eventually, the petitioners would have the satisfaction of "naming and shaming" the men behind the communal violence. And at least for some time Modi would think twice before taking a flight out to Europe, and he will have company in Sharon who, years after the alleged massacre in the refugee camps of West Asia, still avoids European shores.

Meanwhile, leading Muslim organisations have demanded a ban on the activities of the VHP and the RSS in Britain. A dossier on their role in the Gujarat violence is being prepared, and would be submitted to the Foreign Office to back the demand that these should be declared "terrorist" organisations.

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