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Dismembering truth

By Jyotirmaya Sharma

A half-hearted attempt at bringing about reconciliation between communities based on mendacity and self-deception will not help assuage the feelings of the victims of the Gujarat riots.

AMIDST THE excitement and anticipation over the recent Assembly election results and the annual budget speech, an event on February 28 went unnoticed. A group of citizens, under the umbrella of an organisation called Janandolan, gathered to stage a dharna at the Town Hall in Ahmedabad at 5-30pm. The reason for coming together was to "call upon the people to join the struggle for peace and reconciliation and build a new relation of communal harmony."

The choice of date for the dharna was not entirely fortuitous. It was on this day, three years ago in 2002, that Gujarat witnessed the post-Godhra communal carnage (the train massacre in Godhra happened on February 27). Neither was the language of the message sent to people to join this attempt at peace and reconciliation suspect in the first instance. It spoke of "grievous" wounds "refusing to heal." It warned of the dangers "festering wounds" could cause to the social fabric. The time for "pious thinking" was over, stressed the note, and people had to take concrete steps to build confidence among communities and remove mistrust.

Just as one begins to bask in the nobility of Janandolan's effort, the suggestions made by the organisation as part of the first phase of the plan to bring about peace, justice and reconciliation come as a shock and jolts one out of any initial illusions about the soundness as well as motives of the entire exercise. The operative paragraph needs to be quoted in full: "All riot-related cases except those which involve murder or rape/molestation, shall be compounded by agreement and all accused in such cases should be discharged. Any legal hurdle in achieving this goal should be overcome by amending the law. POTA charges should be withdrawn from all left-over cases." The note goes on to discuss in some detail the modalities of riot-related compensation.

If the recommendations made in the paragraph quoted above were to be taken seriously, it would, firstly, exonerate hundreds of leaders and activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who systematically engineered and participated in the riots that followed the Godhra carnage. The complicity of the Narendra Modi Government in the post-Godhra carnage has been confirmed by successive judgments of the Supreme Court. The Janandolan's suggestions would conveniently absolve the Gujarat Government of any responsibility in compromising the rule of law in the aftermath of Godhra.

Even more dangerous is the suggestion that cases be dropped, and if this cannot be done under the current framework of the rule of law, then, the law itself ought to be amended. This virtually amounts to destroying the criminal justice system and also goes against a series of judgments passed by the Supreme Court; the apex court went to the extent of calling the handling of the post-Godhra cases in Gujarat a "travesty of truth and a fraud on the legal process."

It is worth remembering that under pressure from the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission, the Government of Gujarat had admitted in an affidavit to the Supreme Court that out of the 4,256 riot cases registered, 2,108 cases were instances where summary investigations and closures happened. In its judgment of August 17, 2004, the Supreme Court had ordered the re-examination of 2,000 cases of summary closure of riot cases. Until these cases are re-examined, there is no way to determine whether individuals in these cases are ultimately to be found guilty of murder and rape. The Janandolan's argument ignores these cases and legitimises the wilful compromise of the rule of law by the State machinery in Gujarat.

Neither is the argument to drop POTA cases a way to bring about justice and reconciliation. In fact, this is a tacit admission on behalf of the State Government that POTA might have been misused to implicate innocent individuals from the minority community. If the rule of law is to stand and be counted, then it should neither pander to majority communalism nor to minority communalism. In other words, the perpetrators of communal violence and hatred from any community ought to be brought to book and punished. Arguments in favour of dropping cases in Gujarat are really an admission of the complete perversion of the rule of law in that State in favour of promoting jihadi Hindutva and its divisive agenda.

If peace, justice and reconciliation were to be built on such a flimsy foundation, then, the VHP State general secretary named in a first information report for instigating and carrying out arson and looting in Naroda Patia would go free. So would two BJP legislators named in another FIR filed in Naroda Gam. Why? Because they are accused of aiding and abetting collective violence but have not been convicted of murder or rape? This is the logical conclusion emerging out of the Janandolan's scheme of things.

The Janandolan note has just one line to say about the Government of Gujarat. It is in the form of a mild lament about "authorities in the State of Gujarat [have] done very little to give justice to the riot victims and heal their wounds." As the narrative proceeds, even the word "justice" is dropped in favour of just "peace" and "reconciliation." The more notable aspect of the document is the complete absence of the word "truth." This is where the problem lies. It is an attempt to construct peace and reconciliation by giving short shrift to truth.

The truth about Godhra and its aftermath have implications for the future of the Indian polity and the effectiveness of instruments of the State to deliver justice and security to its citizens. No half-hearted attempt at bringing about reconciliation between communities based on mendacity and self-deception will work. It is easy, therefore, to invent a world riddled with well-meaning terms such as peace, justice and reconciliation, but difficult to construct this world on the foundation of truth. Self-deception helps build a less painful but unreal world.

Justice based on truth makes the oppressor accountable and the oppressed gain a sense of self-respect and sense of agency. The solution suggested by Janandolan frees the oppressor from the burden of the past through a sordid compromise on the part of the victims. This is not to suggest the way out lies in forever condemning the victims to a sense of victimisation. Nor does it lie in promoting the self-righteousness of the victims. The first step is to work for an effective, formal, and impersonal rule of law to place the truth about Godhra and its bloody aftermath before the world. Emotional de-escalation can happen only after truth and justice are firmly in place.

What is significant about the post-Godhra carnage is that public memory tends to consign such genocidal events to distant memory. And when such events are recalled, in this instance by the Janandolan initiative, they serve a purpose that has little to do with the sense of urgency and emotional trauma felt at the time of the incident. More often than not, recalling them serves an instrumental purpose. Slowly and steadily, people begin to question the enormity and intensity of such an unfortunate event. In an age where the fleeting images on television screens hardly offer an opportunity to reflect, Godhra and the riots that followed become yesterday's news, significant only to historians and a handful of "concerned" individuals.

This is the greatest strength of the oppressor. Simon Wiesenthal recounts instances of SS militiamen in Nazi Germany taunting their victims in the following manner: "However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world will not believe him. There will perhaps be suspicions, discussions, research by historians, but there will be no certainties, because we will destroy the evidence together with you. And even if some proof should remain and some of you survive, people will say that the events you describe are too monstrous to be believed... "(From The Murderers Are Among Us, McGraw-Hill [1st edition], 1967).

Peace and reconciliation without truth and justice will only lead people to disbelieve that in 2002, State power, in a developmentally advanced part of India, backed by ideology and helped by a largely pliant bureaucracy and police force, almost succeeded in approximating for itself the Nazi ideal.

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