If we accept Gujarat 2002 as something ‘in the past,' as some would like us to, we threaten the meaning of our present, and endanger our future.
Dateline: Shah-e-Alam Relief Camp, Ahmedabad, March 27, 2002:
Among the human debris scattered around the courtyard of the Shah-e-Alam relief camp in Ahmedabad, the largest with over 10,000 survivors, are Saira (age 12), Afsana (age 11), Naina (age 12), Anju (age 12), Rukhsat (age 9), Nilofer (age 10), Nilofer (age 9), Hena (age 11). They are all survivors from Naroda Patiya. And they have seen things no child should see. They know words no child should have to learn.
“Balatkar” (Rape) — they know this word. “Mein bataoon didi?” (Shall I tell you?), volunteers a nine year old. “Balatkar ka matlab jab aurat ko nanga karte hain aur phir use jala dete hain” (Rape is when a woman is stripped naked and then burnt). And then she looks fixedly at the floor. Only a child can tell it like it is. For this is what happened again and again in Naroda Patiya — women were stripped, raped and burnt.” (The Survivors Speak, fact-finding by a women's panel, April 16, 2002. P. 13)
Nothing was left of these mutilated women — no bodies, no evidence, no justice. Nothing but the scars on this little girl's mind. I still remember her face, and today 10 years later, I wonder where she is, how she is making her way through life, scarred by this macabre, twisted image of rape. I wonder where those men are, the ones who butchered so many childhoods and got away with it. I wonder, again and again, at the State, whose constitutional duty it was to protect, that colluded in the massacre of its own citizens.
Remains a wound
Ten years to the pogrom in Gujarat, I try to look back. But for me, like for thousands of survivors and activists, it is impossible. How does one look back at something that is so much a part of one's present? And so, Gujarat remains a wound that stays with me always, deep and continuous. I cried often in 2002. I still cry. And I guess that is all right. Because Gujarat should make us collectively weep. And make us truly ashamed of ourselves as a nation.
What happened 10 years ago is the kind of upheaval that refuses to be historicised. That cannot be consigned to the pages of any history book with a full stop at the end. In part because the violence of Gujarat continued for long after February-March 2002, and is continuing today in the frightened little lives lived by scores of destroyed Muslim families; in the lives of thousands of men, women and children still languishing in ‘resettlement colonies' relegated to the margins of Gujarat's seemingly flourishing towns and cities. In part, because many battles for justice are still being bravely waged in the courts, and the narrative is still unfolding. But in greatest part because the ‘meaning' of what Gujarat did to India remains contested.
People say — “move on, get a life, why do activists keep raking up this ‘unpleasant' past? It's been 10 years.” Why? Because if we settle for the past as some would like it scripted, we threaten the meaning of our present, and endanger our future. These contestations are not just about many battles in courtrooms that must be waged. The contestation is about the meaning of citizenship. It is about the relationship between citizen and State. It is about challenging State impunity. Gujarat is the battle for collective memory against forgetting because it is ultimately the battle for the idea of India.
In 1950, India made a constitutional promise to protect the rights of its minorities to live with dignity and with full rights of citizenship. Time and again, that sacred promise has been violated — in Delhi, Nellie, Meerut, Bhagalpur, Hashimpura, Kandhamal, Gujarat and most recently in Gopalgarh (Sept. 2011). In each case, innocents were murdered, maimed, sexually assaulted, burnt out of hearth and home, scattered to the winds, simply because of their minority identity, because of who they were. In each episode of targeted violence, the officers of the State acted in a biased manner, failing in their duty to protect, to prosecute, and to give justice. How long can this go on? How long will those in political power use the might of the State, the guns, and the police, and sirens against one group of citizens and get away with it? Institutional biases of the State machinery cannot be acceptable in any civilised democracy — that is the lesson of Gujarat.
The massacre in Gujarat poses many challenges to us as a nation, exposing holes in our hearts, in our social fabric, as well as in our criminal justice system, laws and jurisprudence. Now we cannot legislate against communal prejudice and hatred in the hearts and minds of people. That is a battle that we as a society and a people must wage in a million different ways at a million different moments in our collective and individual lives. But we can and we must legislate to ensure justice to the weak.
Unlike any other violent episode in India's recent history, Gujarat 2002 tested the strength and resilience of many of our democratic institutions to the fullest. The National Human Rights Commission, the honourable Supreme Court, and the National Commission for Minorities. Each came forward and acted. And yet somehow, that thing called justice still eludes the victims of Gujarat. These victims and survivors call upon us to restore equality in the working of the law for all citizens; to create a legal remedy for institutional bias by the State; to fill the lacunae in our laws and our jurisprudence that has failed time and again to ensure criminal culpability for those in command, those who are never caught with the knives in their hands, but who instruct others to lie, and kill and misuse the law for electoral gain. These are not very tall orders. For, if we get this right it will help realise, better than we have so far, the constitutional promise of justice and equality before law. And without justice, we cannot move on.
A survivor's courage
On January 18, 2008, Bilkis Bano, a Gujarat survivor who had the courage to speak of the unspeakable, withstanding over 20 days of gruelling cross-examination, found a little justice, when 12 accused who had gang-raped her, murdered and raped 14 members of her family, and smashed her three-year-old daughter to the ground during the horrifying days of 2002, were finally awarded life sentences by a Mumbai Session court.
On January 21, 2008, at a press conference in Delhi, Bilkis made this statement:
“For the last six years I have lived in fear, shuttling from one temporary home to the other, carrying my children with me, trying to protect them from the hatred that I know still exists in the hearts and minds of so many people. This judgment does not mean the end of hatred but it does mean that somewhere, somehow justice can prevail. This judgment is a victory for not only me but for all those innocent Muslims who were massacred and all those women whose bodies were violated only because, like me, they were Muslim. It is a victory because now, hereafter, no one can deny what happened to women in Gujarat in those terrible days and nights of 2002. Because now it will forever be imprinted on the historical record of Gujarat that sexual violence was used as a weapon against us. I pray that the people of Gujarat will some day be unable to live with the stigma of that violence and hatred, and will root it out from the very soil of a State that still remains my home.”
We give up on the battle for justice in Gujarat at our own peril. For in giving up on Gujarat, we give up on hope for a better India — an India that is by right home to each one of us.
(The author is a member of the National Advisory Council. Views expressed here are personal.)