Big blow to Narendra Modi
A Gujarat judge has struck a blow for the victims of the communal carnage of 2002 by convicting 32 people for the Naroda-Patiya massacre. Prominent among them are lawmaker-former minister Maya Kodnani, and Babu Bajrangi, who deluded himself that he acted like a war hero by leading violent mobs.
Kodnani, a confidant of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, was the lynchpin in the premeditated killing of 35 innocent children, 32 women and 30 men, who were targeted for no other reason than that they were Muslims. A gynaecologist who knew the Patiya neighbourhood well, she identified the victims and distributed arms and kerosene to the rampaging mobs.
Seen in perspective, Kodnani's crime was no less than that of Ajmal Kasab, who with a fellow-terrorist, gunned down 58 people in Mumbai. Both knew the victims were innocent.
The awarding of 28 years' imprisonment to Kodnani -- including 10 years for causing grievous hurt, followed by 18 years for murder, conspiracy, etc -- and of life terms to 31 others, sends out a message: violence won't be rewarded even in Gujarat. Society won't condone the Naroda-Patiya brand of politics.
The Indian judiciary is slow to deliver justice. But in the present case, it showed a determination to enforce the rule of law against important political figures -- despite police support for them.
With Naroda-Patiya, as many as 117 persons stand convicted in Gujarat for various cases of barbaric anti-minority violence. The convictions happened even though the police didn't file accurate FIRs or collect enough evidence. More convictions are likely.
The number of convictions is small in relation to the magnitude of the butchery, but impressive given that there have been very few convictions in India in communal violence cases for 40 years, including the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and the post-Babri demolition violence.
Although nobody has been punished for mass rape, the Naroda sentences do deliver partial justice. They also reaffirm secularism, and restore the citizen's faith in democracy and the state's ability to defend rights.
These convictions couldn't have come about without the Supreme Court's intervention under the pressure of secular public opinion. This implicitly acknowledged that the Gujarat violence was a national disgrace and a crime against humanity.
That intervention, including the appointment of a Special Investigation Team (SIT), became possible only because more than 40 inquiries by citizens' commissions and eminent intellectuals documented the involvement of high state functionaries in instigating or permitting the violence.
Civil society activists like Teesta Setalvad and Mukul Sinha indefatigably pressed the state not to brush the pogrom under the carpet. They doggedly pursued various cases.
Although partial, justice for the Gujarat victims represents a civil society triumph. Credit is also due to conscientious bureaucrats and policemen such as Rahul Sharma (who prepared a CD logging mobile-phone calls made by prominent people).
However, the SIT was a disappointment. It produced a reasonable preliminary report indicting numerous state functionaries. It dismissed Mr. Modi's "action-reaction" rationalisation of the violence. But its final report declared that there was no evidence to prosecute the functionaries, including Mr. Modi.
So contradictory was this that the Supreme Court appointed senior lawyer Raju Ramachandran to evaluate the evidence independently. He found strong evidence that Mr. Modi instructed his officers to allow the "revenge killings."
The SIT played yet more mischief in the Naroda-Patiya case by not submitting, in defiance of Judge Yagnik's orders, a full report on politicians' and policemen's role in the violence.
Now, the telephone log, selectively used to establish Kodnani's presence in Naroda-Patiya, also clearly implicated other high functionaries, including then junior home minister Gordhan Zadaphia and Chief Minister's Office (CMO) personnel.
The log records four phone calls between Kodnani and the CMO on February 28 and March 1, with duration between 75 and 179 seconds. There were calls between her and Mr. Zadaphia and several police officers too. The SIT ignored this.
Logically, such evidence must be assiduously collected and used to punish state functionaries entrusted with the responsibility of protecting citizens' fundamental rights. Mukul Sinha is planning to do just this and put various functionaries on trial.
The case could get uncomfortably close to Narendra Milosevic Modi -- just when the Gujarat Assembly elections are barely 100 days away, and he faces opposition from within the Sangh Parivar and the powerful Patel community because of his autocratic behaviour, and refreshingly, from the Congress, which is reportedly becoming combative at least on election promises.
One thing is clear. The Naroda-Patiya judgment is a big blow to Mr. Modi, not merely because his close associate Kodnani, whom he appointed as minister for women and child welfare, has been found guilty of mass murder.
More important, the verdict is a political game-changer. It will strengthen the demand for accountability and justice in communal violence and empower secularists and Gujarat's humiliated Muslims.
Mr. Modi will find it impossible to wash away the blood stains from independent India's worst state-sponsored pogrom. His image will remain sullied no matter how many Sadbhavna campaigns he organises to soften up Muslims and in how many interviews he declares his love for them and says that he too should be punished if found guilty.
India failed to punish Mr. Modi politically for the 2002 pogrom. The Vajpayee government refused to impose central rule on Gujarat despite a manifest breakdown of constitutional order there. The opposition didn't run a sustained campaign demanding his dismissal.
Mr. Modi was twice returned to power in a communally polarised situation. Big Business, on whom he showered favours, lionised him as an ideal "development"-minded chief minister. Many others urged the public to let bygones be bygones.
Ten years on, the ghosts of 2002 have returned to haunt Mr. Modi. He remains a deeply divisive and singularly nasty figure, who faces opposition from within the Parivar and BJP allies like the Janata Dal (United). One can only hope that the opposition scuttles Mr. Modi's bid to play a role in national politics.