By Saeed Khan, Ahmedabad:
Four years after Gujarat’s communal violence numbed India, thousands of Muslims and Hindus await justice amid persisting complaints of indifference against Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Early on Feb 27, 2002, a coach of the Ahmedabad-bound Sabarmati Express was set on fire – or, according to the railway ministry, caught fire – at Godhra, until then for most of India a little known town some 140 km from here.
The blaze killed 59 Hindu passengers, a majority of them members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) returning from the temple town of Ayodhya, and triggered one of the worst communal orgies in the country leaving 1,169 Muslims and Hindus dead, thousands homeless and creating a terrible societal divide. === Four years later, with hundreds of complaints lodged with the police and over 40,000 affidavits filed before an inquiry commission set up by the government, a large number of families who faced the wrath of rioters and arsonists still wait for justice.
Barring stray cases, no one has been convicted for murder or rape or vandalism. Many were forced to leave their villages and neighbourhoods for good. With a number of witnesses turning hostile and the prosecution in some cases failing to nail the guilty, there is plenty of disappointment.
"The discrimination is apparent in the arrests of the accused from majority and minority communities," said Mukul Sinha, a Hindu lawyer with the rights group Jan Sangharsh Manch who is arguing on behalf of the violence victims before the state government’s inquiry commission. "More than 1,000 people were arrested in the cases of communal violence, mainly from the Hindu community. Most of them have been released on bail even in major cases of massacres."
The Godhra violence was blamed on a mob of local Muslims. Much of what followed in the days and weeks to come has been perceived to be linked to supporters of the VHP and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi’s government was accused of failing to put down the violence and later turning a virtual blind eye to the suffering of the thousands.
Some incidents were so gruesome that they are still talked about with a shiver.
At least 30 people, including former Congress MP Ehsan Jaffery, died after a mob attacked his apartment block called Gulbarg Society in eastern Ahmedabad March 1, 2002. At Naroda Patiya on the outskirts of the same city, another mob killed at least 89 people a day earlier. "Almost all the people detained under POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) are Muslims. Due to the provision of the act, they cannot get bail and have been languishing in jails for years," lawyer Sinha told IANS.
The Gujarat police had closed down 2,020 cases after filing a summary, but following persistent efforts of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) the Supreme Court asked the government to set up a review committee.
Of the 1,965 cases reviewed, 1,594 were adjudged fit for reopening. Thirteen new cases were registered apart from 41 prior cases against police officials for negligence or connivance when mobsters ruled the streets. Some activists argue that compromise and reconciliation – on the lines of the reconciliation commission’s work in South Africa – should be encouraged. "We have made a proposal for compromise. This is to promote harmony between the Dalits and Muslims," said Sinha, referring to low caste Hindus who took part in the arson.
"Most of these cases are related to minor offences. For the sake of peaceful co-existence we have made a proposal to identify those cases where no serious crime has taken place. Most activist groups agree to the formula," he added. This can expedite the much-delayed rehabilitation of riot victims too, the activists feel.
Allegations persist that victims’ families have not been given adequate compensation for the massive losses they suffered. Many lost almost everything they had.
"The 263 families in our village have been paid only Rs.500 as compensation for the destruction of the property though the total damage is more than Rs.8 million," said Anwar Malek of Ode village, about 60 km from here. On March 2, 2002, 27 Muslims were killed and their houses torched there. Hindus also suffered in many places in retaliatory violence. "The government had declared a compensation of Rs.150,000 ($3,380) for every life lost. We did get Rs.90,000 immediately, but we don’t know about the rest of the amount which is going to be paid in the form of government bonds. Officials said that there was no money," Malek added.
The Muslim families of Ode village fled their homes and lived in the nearby towns of Anand and Bhalej for almost two years. Some returned following official assurances, but most still live in fields outside the village. "The CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) regularly visits the village every week. But the state police take our security very casually," complained Khairunnisa Saiyad of the village.
"As the hearing may begin soon in the (Ode village) case, those accused of murder and still wandering around here on bail keep on threatening us. It is not easy for us to live here," said Malek. "They (the accused) propose a compromise, and are ready to pay Rs.2.5 million. But how can we arrive at such a compromise after watching our beloved ones die before our eyes? "We are fighting to seek justice. Let the trial begin, we know the culprits will be punished," he added.
According to an activist, there are around 10,000 families who are dislocated four years after the communal strife.
"In Ahmedabad and in its surroundings, about 5,000 families are dislocated. People from some villages still live in the city and are not ready to return to their homes out of fear," said Rafi Malek, a peace activist. The VHP blame rights activists for the delay in the delivery of justice. "Fifty-nine karsevaks (activists) died in the carnage, but the culprits are yet to be punished. This should have been over by now," complained Shambhuprasad Shukla, a VHP organiser in Godhra."The police and the government have done a good job in arresting the accused. But there are ways to get out of the clutches of law," he added.
On Friday, however, there were rays of hope when a court in Mumbai sentenced to life imprisonment nine of the 21 accused of burning to death 13 people in a bakery in Vadodara, 110 km from here, on March 1, 2002. A court in Gujarat had acquitted all the accused after most witnesses turned hostile. But the Supreme Court directed a rare retrial of the case, outside the state of Gujarat.
But clearly, most survivors have a long way to go