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Naroda Patiya Verdict: The Buck Stops Here?


SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, August 29, 2012 16:24
Tags : naroda patiya massacre verdict |

Social Anthropologists have always debated the role of justice delivery system in the process of alienation of minorities in democratic societies. In fact, quite a few of them assert that while other institutions can afford to be lax, the margin of error for the justice delivery system is closer to zero. The question is, why so?

Experiences suggest that in a multicultural democratic society like India, it is not at all abnormal that there are religious and ethnic strife. It is also not abnormal that law enforcement agencies, like Police, will often take sides in such conflict. In overwhelming occasions, they will take side with the majority community. Even in the first world, such partisan actions are not uncommon. The role of mostly white police against African American agitations in 50s, 60s and the most part of 70s is a case in point. We have had similar experiences in Northern Ireland too where Catholic Irish groups often bore the brunt of disproportional use of force that was often systematic. Agreed, the role of Indian Police in similar circumstances is much worse, but as it is evident, it is hardly surprising. But the case of Judiciary is different. And the Gujarat riots and its aftermaths have shown why it is so.

Any democratic nation in its transition has had to grapple with the problem of a parallel justice delivery system. Almost all the big cities in the US had Mafioso who doubled up as justice deliverer for the respective minority ethnic groups they had roots in. So for a painfully long period in the history of modern United States, it was much easier for an Irishman or an Italian to look for justice as the Mafioso Avenue than the established courts of the land. The over dominance of the majority in judiciary made it impossible for the judiciary to remain impartial leading to the emergence of such cheap, affordable parallel justice delivery system. In India, it was no different.

So when a private magazine did a damning sting operation implicating lawyers and other elements of judiciary trying to sabotage several cases pertaining to Gujarat riots, it came as a rude shock. For years, when the judiciary was confronted with accusation of slow progress of cases and almost nil conviction in the cases related to communal riots, the defenders used to say that since the ratio of overall conviction in India is low, the same is reflected in the communal riots cases as well. But that sting operation changed everything. It proved beyond reasonable doubt how public prosecutors, police, and other elements of lower judiciary collaborated to sabotage the conviction of people who were directly related to the ruling BJP or its Chief Minister Narendra Modi. While for the Police it was just another day, for the judiciary it was a crisis of faith. And it only grew worse.

The role of SIT was later also exposed and it started to become clear that there was negligible chance that the cases will reach its logical conclusion. The recommendation of amicus curiae was not only disregarded time and again, it became evident that the team's primary motive is to save Narendra Modi's skin. And it managed to do it successfully. Needless to say, the faith in judiciary hit the nadir.

And then came the verdict of Naroda Patiya. A trial court in Gujarat Wednesday convicted 32 people in the Naroda Patiya massacre case. And in what can be termed as a real blow to the ruling disposition, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from Naroda, Maya Kodnani, and Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi, are among those found guilty. Kodnani, who is the first BJP leader to be convicted in a riot case, was the sitting MLA when the massacre happened.

Before this verdict, in all the cases, it was only small fish who were convicted while the real conspirators and perpetrators, many of whom were members of the ruling disposition, went scott free. But Naroda Patiya verdict will serve as the missing link in the chain of command. It can be expected that this will not be the last such conviction.

But is it time to rejoice? Has the judiciary restored minorities' faith in itself? In my view, it is too early to call. It is evident from the previous verdicts that the heart is not at the right place. In the case of Naroda Patiya, the evidence was so stark and damming that the court would only had undermined whatever little credibility and faith it commanded had its verdict been different. So, as much as I want to believe, Naroda Patiya verdict is still a far cry from being a watershed verdict. It has the potential to become one if similar conviction follows. If not, it will go down as a one off verdict where an ex-MLA, who had become more a liability for the party than a utility, was sacrificed as a red herring.

Will this verdict send a message to the rich and powerful that come what may, you won’t be able to get away with your crimes? Again, that depends if this is followed by similar verdicts in future. Otherwise, the only signal it will send is, if you want to organize a massacre, make it sure that you remain useful for the party till the day you die your natural death. If your utility expires midway, you can be used as a consolation prize.

Will this verdict help judiciary win minorities away from illegal parallel justice systems or extreme measures that they take on personal level or from the clutches of extremist organization who convince them to join ranks as the democracy, especially judiciary, has failed them? Again, too early to call.   

Naroda Patiya was a mixed habitation locality. The massacre here was the single largest. I met many Muslims from the locality who said that they were outnumbered and killed simply because it was a mixed locality. It wouldn't have happened in ghettoized Muslim localities like Juhapura and Kalupur, as it was proved in the riots, they claim. More than the loss of life, the biggest tragedy of Naroda Patiya is that it pushed Muslims from mixed localities to ghettos once again. The hard work of decades was lost in less than an hour. Will the verdict restore this? Never.

While there is lot to rejoice about the verdict today, it is not the culmination point. For once, if the buck stops here, it will be a travesty of justice.     

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the blog are that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Sunday Indian)
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017