Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Book of Memory and Forgetting

Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat by Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha; New Delhi: Three Essays Collective, 2016, pp 221, Rs 500 (paperback).

Does anyone even remember the communal violence that tore apart Bhagalpur in Bihar in 1989?  According to official estimates, around 250 villages and 50,000 people were affected.  The official death toll was estimated to be over 900 although the unofficial toll was higher.  It was familiar story because it had happened before.  And since then it has happened again.  And will do so in the future.

The partition of India after the British left is now history.  But every day there are partitions taking place in independent India, where people who have coexisted, tolerated difference, even celebrated it, are now being forced into separate territories, their differences highlighted and exacerbated by a dominant politics that has given a new twist to the old divide and rule policy of the British.

Why is it important to record these divisions, these conflicts that recur with such worrying frequency?  Would it not be better to erase these memories and look ahead? 

The writers of this book demonstrate convincingly why incidents of mass violence must be recorded and followed up.  If they are not, then history will only remember the version of the victors while the victims will continue to remain voiceless, unheard, without justice.

In this regard, the book under review serves an important purpose.  It is a record of the communal killings in Bhagalpur in 1989, and in Gujarat 2002. But instead of going over familiar ground, the authors help us understand the legacy of such mass violence.  These recorded memories show us the costs of a broken criminal justice system and the price that victims of mass violence continue to pay for decades.

Although a great deal has been written about the mass violence in Gujarat in 2002, not that much is known about Bhagalpur. Yet, this is a good time to remember it as the issues that triggered the violence are alive today, and are likely to be ratcheted up in the next two years leading up to the next general election in 2019.  In fact, with the Supreme Court having ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to speed up hearings in the two cases on the destruction of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, the central controversy over the building of the Ram temple on the site of the demolished mosque will remain alive.

Fertiliser of Communalism

Bhagalpur happened before the Babri Masjid was destroyed.  It was one of the many incidents of rioting triggered by the frenzy that the Sangh Parivar built up by mobilising Hindus on the Ram temple issue.  While the embers of the communal killings in Bhagalpur were still glowing, L. K. Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched a rath yatra to build up support for the temple in September 1990. It culminated in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 when thousands of kar sevaks converged on the Babri Masjid and carried out their well laid plan to destroy it even as senior BJP leaders, including Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati stood by watching and even cheering.

The commission of inquiry set up by the Bihar government to look at the Bhagalpur riots in 1990 concluded that the Ram temple movement was the trigger that set off the killings and that it was "acting as a fertiliser to give nourishment to the soil of Indian communalism" (p28-29).  The commission also noted the failure of the district administration and the police to control the fraught situation in Bhagalpur.

One of the authors, Warisha Farasat, a trained lawyer, visited Bhagalpur in March 2011, 22 years later, to find that the "wounds are still raw, the hearts charred" (p 31).  Farasat sought out men and women who remembered what happened, who had witnessed the killings, who had attempted to seek justice through the legal system, and who were left only with bitter memories. As in other similar situations after a communal massacre, some of the victims decided to go back to their own villages while others moved on, fearful of returning to a place where even trusted neighbours had turned on them.

The exercise of looking at Bhagalpur and Gujarat together establishes several common threads. Irrespective of the party in power in the state or the centre, the system followed a similar pattern. At the time of the Bhagalpur killings, there was a Congress government at the centre headed by Rajiv Gandhi and a Congress government in Bihar headed by Satyendra Narayan Sinha.  In Gujarat in 2002, when the communal violence occurred, the BJP was in power in the state with Narendra Modi as Chief Minister and a National Democratic Alliance government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee was at the centre.  In both instances, the party in the state and the centre were the same.

Yet, whether it was a Congress government or a BJP government, the state machinery was equally irresponsive. In both Bhagalpur and Gujarat, the cases filed after the riots by the victims mostly failed and were delayed for so long as to lose any meaning. In both places, victims had similar experiences in the course of seeking justice. For instance, they had a hard time getting FIRs recorded by an unsympathetic police.  Even if they succeeded, they would find later that the information in them was either wrong or incomplete. There were several instances of omnibus FIRs that clubbed the complaints of several victims together even if individually, these men and women had identified their killers by name, as they were people known to them.

Indifferent Prosecution

Many cases were closed because an indifferent prosecution did not put forward a convincing argument while the accused had private lawyers with the ability to browbeat and intimidate the witnesses.  Even where cases were reopened, through the intervention of civil society groups as in Gujarat, or by a different state government as in the Bihar under Nitish Kumar, many of the original witnesses had either turned hostile and were unwilling to testify, or had died, thereby weakening the cases. 

In both Bhagalpur and Gujarat, the story of inadequate compensation for loss of life and property is virtually identical.  In many cases, the information that should have been in the FIRs was simply not there because the police had not recorded it.  There were no surveys to assess damage apart from loss of life, and no one informed the victims of the processes they needed to undertake to access the compensation.  As a result, only a small percentage of the affected actually received the compensation to which they were legally entitled even if these amounts were far from sufficient and did not compensate for the real losses that they had incurred.

The book records the Gujarat government's shocking decision to differentiate between the victims of the Godhra train fire, all Hindus, and of the subsequent killings, all Muslims.  While the families of the former were given Rs 2 lakh, the families of the killings that followed Godhra were given only Rs 1 lakh.  Only after an uproar and civil society intervention did the government concede that both should receive equal amounts, fixed at Rs 1.5 lakh.

In Bhagalpur, where civil society presence was minimal and only one human rights group, the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) sent a team to study and record the incidents of sexual violence, the fate of the victims was even worse.  In moving testimonies recorded by Farasat, we hear the hopelessness of people who have lost everything -- members of their family, their homes, the tools of their trade -- and given practically nothing by way of compensation. 

In the chapter titled, "The Unhealed Wounds of Bhagalpur", Farasat relates the case of Ali Ahmad of Shahpur Tamouni.  Both his parents were killed by a Hindu mob.  Seven months later, he received a cheque of Rs 3,500 as compensation. "That was the value the state put on two human being killed", writes Farasat (p 89).  Nothing was given to him for the 20 cows and bulls, the agricultural machinery and other valuable and household items that they had lost.

When the Bihar government under Nitish Kumar reopened some of the Bhagalpur cases in 2006, people did receive higher compensation.  But many missed out on this as they did not have the requisite paper work, nor did they know what they should do to avail of the higher amount.  The state too did not help as much as it could have. For instance, even though the government's policy acknowledges that an FIR is not the only proof of murder, and that other evidence must also be taken into account, in compensation cases for loss of life, only the FIR is accepted.  This is despite knowing that in communal riots, police simply do not register FIRs.

The strength of this book is that it does not depend only on secondary information.  It is a follow up to an earlier study by the Centre for Equity Studies based on legal documents, several obtained through Right to Information (RTI) applications.  They looked at Nellie, 1983; Delhi, 1984; Bhagalpur, 1989 and Gujarat, 2002.  This information was assembled in the book "On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India" (Chopra, Jha, 2014). The book under review goes further by including the testimonies of the victims of Bhagalpur and Gujarat recorded by the authors. 

Role of Judiciary

An important point that Prita Jha makes in her section on Gujarat is the role of the judiciary.  Not all judges were hostile, as victims told the writers.  In fact, many felt that the only people sympathetic and willing to listen to their story during the court hearings were the judges as the police was usually hostile, the prosecutors unhelpful and the defence aggressive. 

Jha mentions the remarkable judgment delivered on 29 August 2012 by Jyotsna Patnaik in the Naroda Patiya case in which 97 Muslims were killed in one day.  Patnaik convicted 32 people, including Maya Kodnani, a minister in Modi's government, and Babu Bajrangi of the Bajrang Dal. In her historic judgment, Patnaik calls 28 February 2002, the beginning of the Gujarat violence, as "the day of a cyclone of violence, one of the black chapters in the history of democratic India when violation of human rights and Constitutional rights was publicly done by the assaulters on the victims" (p 167).

In the course of the trial, Patnaik was aware of the problems victims faced in registering their cases with the state machinery and intervened often to ensure that victims would be able to speak instead of being bullied by the defence.  In doing this she was implementing the spirit of the 2004 Supreme Court directive in the Best Bakery case relating to the killing of 14 Muslims. Both the trial court in Vadodara and the Gujarat High Court had absolved all those accused, as the main witness had turned hostile. After going through the proceedings of the courts in Gujarat, the apex court ordered a retrial in a fast track court in Maharashtra headed by Justice Abhay Mahadeo Thipsay, who recognised that the investigation into the case had been defective.  He convicted nine of the accused.   

In its 2004 judgment, the apex court criticised the Gujarat High Court judge who heard the case and also the investigation and prosecution of the case by the state machinery. Justice Arijit Prasayat's observations on the role of a judge in a criminal trial are as pertinent today as they were when the judgment was delivered.  He said,

"If a criminal court is to be an effective instrument in dispensing justice, the presiding judge must cease to be a spectator and a mere recording machine by becoming a participant in the trial evincing intelligence, active interest and elicit all relevant material necessary for reaching the correct conclusion, to find out the truth and administer justice with fairness and impartiality both to the parties and to the community it serves. Courts administering criminal justice cannot turn a blind eye to vexatious or oppressive conduct that has occurred in relation to proceedings" (p 165).

There is a great deal of thoughtful material in this slim book and given the times we live in, what it contains becomes all the more relevant.  Apart from the way in which complicit state authorities have permitted these incidents of mass violence to rage on, the criminal justice system and an unsympathetic state machinery revisits violence on the people who have already suffered it.  This has to be fixed.


Chopra, Surabhi and Prita Jha, 2014; On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India, New Delhi: Three Essays Collective.