The Naroda Patiya verdict comes as vindication for all those who resist. It is a hard-won victory with hard-won messages
By Shoma Chaudhury
THIS FEBRUARY marked 10 years since the Gujarat riots of 2002. There was a temptation to meet that milestone with silence. What possibly was there to say? The animal violence; the memory of the dead still waiting justice; the ache of the survivors; the subversion of every ethical reaction; the malafide of the State; the dark questions lying unanswered: all of it had been articulated ad nauseam. The retelling of it only evoked fatigue now in listeners; a revilement; advice to ‘move on’, a deepening of the deafness.
Yet, all of it still lay there heaving below the surface, a scar on one’s conscience. In TEHELKA’s cover that week, then, we decided to focus instead on the resistance. On the small band of crusaders — civil rights activists, lawyers, journalists — who had persevered doggedly in the search for justice long after it made sense to persevere. What drove them to it? What made them stay? Every crusader in the world knows the sick midstream moment of self-doubt. Was there any efficacy — any meaning — at all to one’s work? Was the labour, the extreme isolation, the sacrifices worthwhile? Was the idea of the good fight merely an illusory bauble one had yoked oneself to? Why should one not move on like everyone else had?
The Naroda Patiya verdict this week comes as vindication for all those who resist. It is a hard-won victory, with hard-won messages. The conviction of Maya Kodnani, a former minister in the Narendra Modi government, and Babu Bajrangi, a favoured man in the Sangh Parivar, is the first time that the slow eye of justice has looked higher than the foot-soldiers; the first time it has singed the planners and conspirators of the riots. It brings hope that if the fight is resolute enough, justice can be had. It preserves the idea of India.
But the Naroda Patiya convictions should not be lightly spoken off as proof that all is well with the justice system of Gujarat — or indeed India. Without the resistance — vociferous, steadfast, unyielding — there would have been no automatic triggers. Without the fight, there would have been no recompense. Ten years after the riot, in this moment of moral reprieve, it is important to dwell on that for a moment. And draw from it to fortify for other long battles elsewhere.
In the Gujarat riots cases — and their sprawl is labyrinthine — apart from the survivors themselves, there is one crusader who has fought more doggedly than most: Teesta Setalvad. Setalvad has felt the bruising, corrosive, humiliating toll of tautology — of reporting a story long after everyone has tired of it. She has been dismissed as boring, shrill, motivated, self-seeking. She has had stories concocted against her; had her reputation blackened. Yet, she has stayed her ground. Without her, the survivors may have given up long ago. Without her, their despair may have looked for other instruments of anger.
In this fight for justice, TEHELKA too has played a part. In 2007, Ashish Khetan undertook a risky and pathbreaking investigation that caught the perpetrators of the riots on camera, detailing how they had raped and killed; how the police had turned a blind eye; how political leaders had given verbal orders for mayhem; how the State had swung later to protect them. Initially, this investigation was met with the most demoralising fate for a journalist: silence. This was followed by retributions: ugly whisper campaigns, conspiracy theories, false propaganda. Three months after the investigation, TEHELKA — still a fragile enterprise — lost a 10-million dollar commitment from a Silicon Valley investor with business interests in Gujarat. It almost shut down.
But — perhaps for the first time in the history of Indian journalism — the TEHELKA tapes also went on to become one of the most crucial pieces of corroborative evidence in the Naroda Patiya and Gulberg Society cases. For the midstream bouts of self-doubt, this verdict comes as a balm. Whatever its costs, the journalism is worthwhile.
Too much remains undone. Many incriminating questions about Modi in the TEHELKA tapes remain unanswered. There are innumerable other victims waiting for justice. Modi was not just the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002; he was also its home minister. The police were reporting directly to him. Why do rioters across the board claim the police looked away? Why did Modi reward officers who failed to control the riots and penalise those who did? These are just the start mark: the full question trail can stack a mountain. The Sikh riots of 1984 would have deserved the same resistance.