Victims Are Taunted, Perpetrators Go Free

After an arson attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims last year, an estimated 2,200 Muslims died in the anti-Islamic pogroms that followed. The ensuing court cases did not bring the perpetrators to justice. Bernhard Imhasly reports

In the dress code of the street gangs in the western Indian state of Gujarat, putting your shirt collar up means: "Look out – something's coming!" These days this threatening gesture is seen less on the street than in the courtrooms of Gujarat. Lawsuits are being heard in several districts representing hundreds of Muslims whose families were victims of an orgy of murder, assault and sexual violence in March of last year.

The trigger for these crimes was an arson attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims who had been to visit the Ayohdya temple in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in February 2002. Fifty-nine people died in the attack. In the anti-Islamic pogroms that followed, 2,200 died. One might have expected the trials to be sobering and shameful and to bring due process, but this has not been the case. The spectators' benches in the courtrooms have been occupied by the rowdy followers of radical Hindu parties which were responsible for much of the violence.

Threats in the courtroom

Wearing the dress code of the March 2002 perpetrators—saffron yellow headbands and a red mark of Cain on their forehead—the spectators have been verbally abusing the witnesses, who sit alone on a crowded witness stand. Female witnesses are taunted with obscene remarks about their appearance and their sexual availability.

But it is not only the audience who is enjoying this spectacle of abuse. Observers for non-governmental organizations report that they don't know of a single case in which the department of public prosecution—which represents the victims—has requested that the audience be subdued. And the judges have not asked the abusive spectators to leave the courtroom. To the contrary, the state and the justice department seem to be intent on hindering the plaintiffs' case.

Not one centence handed down

Statistics show that the state and the justice system are doing their best to compromise the victims' cases. Of the 964 cases concerning approximately 2,200 murders and tens of thousands of rapes, 500 have been heard, and not one sentence has been handed down. This is hardly astounding, however, given that the police reports on the case are so full of contradictions that it has not been difficult for the defense to repudiate them. Most of the special public prosecutors are lawyers who are tied to the Hindu nationalist party BJP or who are in fact leading members of the radical groups Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal (BD). The perpetrators responsible for attacking their fellow Muslim citizens were recruited from these groups.

The judges are also creating procedural hurdles. Rights activist Navaz Kotwal from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative reported the story of a woman named Medina from the village Eral. Her seven family members, including an 18-month-old child, were beaten to death after the women had been successively raped and their breasts cut off. The judge ordered that all 32 witnesses must be presented simultaneously at each court date at a location 70 km away—only to then be questioned individually. After one year and three court dates only four witnesses have been heard. The witnesses have been exposed to offensive verbal harassment, particularly while being questioned by the prosecution about the traumatic details of the sexual violence that occurred.

Witnesses being threatened

The witnesses do not fare any better outside the courtroom. The widow of representative Ehsan Jafri, who was murdered along with 98 members of a housing complex in Ahmedabad, was beaten by VHP members as she was leaving the courthouse. Her car was demolished while policemen looked on.

The official number of dead is 1,000. The discrepancy between this figure and the 2,200 listed in the 964 court cases results from the authorities' practice of listing many victims as "missing." According to Kotwal, the police have done nothing to stop the destruction of evidence, for example the burning of corpses. Many relatives of the victims were held back from pressing charges on the ostensible grounds that they would have little chance of succeeding without evidence. And the families of the "missing" will not have access to financial compensation for seven years. This means that thousands of them are still living in camps run by charities. The government camps have been shut down under the Orwellian pretense that it is "socially unhealthy for the victims to live in camps for a long period of time."

Most Muslims are no longer welcome in their own villages. They risk social and economic boycotts if they return. Those who file suits against their Hindu neighbors for murder und assault are themselves threatened with murder—unless they are willing to drop the charges. Those who refuse to drop charges are confronted with false claims against them and are put under arrest. Yet most Hindus charged with the violent attacks remain free and within police view, though they are listed as "unable to be located."

Even those men and women willing to risk their lives to fight for their rights eventually come up against a brick wall in a system hostile to them. This is exemplified in the "Best Bakery" case in the town of Vadodara.

Fair game by decree

Fourteen members of a baker's family were murdered by a Hindu mob on 1 March in Vadodara, two days after a televised speech in which Gujarat's head of government Narendra Modi effectively declared the Muslim minority fair game. Twenty-one men were facing heavy charges backed by witnesses. But during the trial, one by one the witnesses recanted their statements made under oath. The judge thought nothing of 37 witnesses retracting their statements. He closed the case and freed the suspects on the grounds of lack of evidence. It was only after the witnesses came under the protection of human rights groups that they dared to tell the truth. They had been threatened by middlemen and local Hindu politicians that if they were to uphold their statements their lives were in danger.

It was the statement of a young woman, Zaheera Shaikh, which brought the country out of its sleep of the just. She endured to the end, she later said in Bombay, "but when I walked into the courtroom on May 17th and saw a threatening crowd before me and only one security guard, I asked myself: Should I say the truth, or should I save my family?" She decided to live.

Nation-wide public outrage at these scandals in the justice system brought the National Human Rights Commission to petition the Supreme Court to retry the cases—outside of Gujarat. When the Gujarat attorney argued before the Supreme Court on 12 September that it was not unusual that no convictions had been made yet, and that earlier riots had produced similar results, the high judge V.N. Khare angrily replied: "Do you mean to say that the arsonists from Gujarat should not be prosecuted?"

Supreme Court judge: No faith in Gujarat state government

The judge then delivered a broadside to the Gujarat state government in which he was able to polish up the bruised image of the Indian constitutional state: "I have no more faith in the prosecution practices of the Gujarat government. If you cannot produce the culprits, then you must resign!" When the attorney replied that Gujarat has, after all, a democratically elected government, the judge countered: "Is that supposed to mean that in a democracy the guilty are to go unpunished?"

The statements made by the Supreme Court shocked the nation. Once again calls were made to remove Modi from office, and the governing BJP retreated initially in order to limit the damage done by their leader to the nation's Muslim citizens—and to the nation's image.

Reduced to Muslim identity

The systematic humiliation of the victims of one of the worst pogroms in the history of the Republic shook the national trust of India's 135 million Muslims. "Do I still feel like a citizen of this country?" asked the translator Salima Tyabji, whose upper middle-class family consciously chose India over Pakistan to become their new home 50 years ago. "In all honesty, no. I am so reduced to my Muslim identity here that I feel I can't breathe. I don't feel at home here any more."

Other middle-class Muslims have already gone several steps further—from hopelessness to acts of violence. The arrests following the bomb attacks in the past months in Bombay have brought forth suspects who are doctors, engineers, teachers—those with good reputations and who are known as moderate Muslims. Interrogations have shown that they were able to be recruited by agents in neighboring countries for the purpose of taking revenge for the violence in Gujarat.

They were joined by others: a tailor from Surat in Gujarat and an electrician recruited among the large number of Indian workers in the Middle East. The suspects had moved to Bombay to await their call by the newly founded Gujarat Revenge Force. Interior minister Lal Krishna Advani has always been proud to declare at international conferences that there are no Indian Muslims among Al Qaida —"proof of the inclusiveness and pluralism of Indian civilization." But he may soon have to revise his opinion if he continues to tolerate the persecution instigated by his protégé Narendra Modi.

Bernhard Imhasly

© TAZ/Berhard Imhasly/ 2003

Translated from the German by Christina M. White