18 December 2002

Beyond the Ballot: The issue in Gujarat is Justice

18 December 2002
The Times of India

Beyond the Ballot
The Issue in Gujarat is Justice


Moral philosophers may shake their heads in bewilderment but future historians looking back at the spectacular victory recorded by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Gujarat elections of 2002 will see striking parallels between the triumph of Narendra Modi and the manner in which the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi swept the polls in December 1984.

In both cases, the victorious party won decisively despite being accused of allowing, or even instigating, the massacre of innocent citizens. In 1984, the victims were Sikhs, in 2002, Muslims. In both cases, nearly 40 per cent of the electorate decided to abstain. Of the remaining 60 per cent, half evidently did not see the taint of complicity as a disqualification. They either decided to vote on the basis of other factors, did not know the full facts, went into denial, or — as in Panchmahals, Dahod and Vadodara districts, where the BJP won every riot-hit seat — got overwhelmed by the high-decibel communal propaganda.

In 1984, the Congress dismissed the mass killing of Sikhs as a regrettable "public reaction" to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and then fought a campaign in which her martyrdom and the pro-mise of saving the country from the menace of "Sikh extremism" were strong components. Taking a leaf out of this strategy, Mr Modi and the BJP played down the carnage that followed Godhra as "unfortunate" and built their election strategy around the spurious slogan of saving Gujarat from "Islamic terrorism".

Before the assassination of Indira Gandhi and before Godhra, the Congress nationally and the BJP in Gujarat had hit rock bottom in political terms. Staring defeat in the face and with no real accomplishments to point to, the ruling party in each situation was forced to divert the attention of voters with violence. In a perverse way, that violence was then marketed as an accomplishment, a sign that the ruling party could be counted upon to teach the supposed 'enemies' of the nation 'a lesson they would never forget'. But if 1984 saw subtle appeals by the Congress to a 'Hindu' identity that was still in the process of being created, the BJP-VHP appeals to religion were more direct. In both cases, however, an attempt was made to legitimise the mass-acres by turning the public at large into accomplices — and to close, through the ballot box, a chapter that belonged not to the realm of politics but to that of law and justice.

Morally and legally speaking, however, a dramatic election victory cannot imbue a crime with legitimacy. According to the Indian theory of kingship, a ruler has legitimacy only when he provides security to his people. And without dharma and justice, there can be no security. Just as 415 seats in the Lok Sabha could not cleanse the stain of 1984 from the Congress, the Gujarat violence is destined to become a part of the BJP's past that will not pass.

As on election eve, the biggest question confronting India today is not the sterile debate over 'Hindutva' and 'secularism' but the future of the rule of law. The fate of our democracy revolves around whether those responsible for the violence in Gujarat — from the perpetrators of the Godhra train attack on kar sevaks to those who killed more than 1,000 Muslims across the state — get away scot-free or are punished regardless of their official rank or political affiliation.

In any democracy, it is a frightening thought that a whole coachload of train passengers can be set alight and that 1,000 people can be eliminated in a matter of 72 hours without the law coming down heavily on the perpetrators. How can any civilised society tolerate such anarchy? 'Justice to all, appeasement to none' is what Mr Modi said he stands for. Why is it, then, that his administration has done nothing but appease those among his political supporters who put Gujarat to the torch?

Many would argue that Mr Modi is not bothered about punishing the guilty for obvious reasons. But from the experience of Maharashtra — where the Srikrishna Commission recommendations on the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 remain unimplemented — and the way the Congress ran its campaign in Gujarat, it was clear that a Congress-led government in Gandhinagar would have also swept the issue of justice under the carpet.

It is a bitter lesson but the victims of Gujarat are realising today what the victims of 1984 realised some years ago: In India, if you are a victim of mass violence, votes will be sought in your name and any number of inquiry commissions set up. But justice will never be done and you will never be compensated or rehabilitated. Just ask the Kashmiri Pandit refugees still living in squalid camps in Jammu 12 years after fleeing their homes.

Today, BJP supporters will be jubilant at Mr Modi's victory and Congress supporters despondent. But from the point of view of the victims, the struggle for justice and rehabilitation was always an uphill one anyway and that struggle needs the widest possible support. We need to ask ourselves whether we want to live in a society where the police can turn against the victims of violence, and killers capable of the most heinous crimes are free to roam the streets.

Whether we support the BJP, Congress or any other party, this is a question we all have to answer.

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