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Ten years after the Gujarat killings, a special court in Ahmedabad has found 32 people guilty of premeditated violence in the massacre of 99 Muslims in Naroda Patia, one of the many murderous sprees that made up the pogrom of 2002.
This is a landmark judgment because in India the instigators of murderous communal violence are almost never held to account. A decade is a long time, but given that three decades have passed since the organised murder of Sikhs in 1984, in which time some of the principal accused died unpunished, ten years from murder to conviction begins to seem like judicial alacrity. Even those who consider the judgment an inadequate accounting for the pogrom, who feel that justice requires the conviction of the authorities accused of colluding in the killings, must see this as a sustaining victory in the long struggle for the truth.
The judgment holds out the hope that the endless, attritional battle to establish the facts about the killings of 2002 wasn’t futile, that India’s judicial system is still capable of reminding the powerful and their clients that total impunity is not theirs to command.
Over the last ten years, apologists for the BJP government in Gujarat on whose watch the pogrom occurred, have refined an argument in extenuation. In this narrative, the killing of Muslims was a form of spontaneous blowback for the murder of Hindu pilgrims in Godhra. The state was not complicit, the police did not take instructions from their political masters to look the other way and each year that passed without members of the Sangh Parivar being held to account for the violence, became an argument for their innocence. Time itself seemed to depose in defence of the likes of Babulal Bajrangi of the Bajrang Dal and Maya Kodnani, a serving BJP MLA who served as minister in the Gujarat government after the pogrom.
As the passing years bleached the blood shed in 2002, the pogrom began to be cast as a natural convulsion that was to be regretted for the destruction it wrought, but not raged against. The men and women who persisted in their determination to petition the apparatus of law and order and the courts for justice were represented either as incorrigible bleeding hearts or political partisans determined to pick at scabs on old wounds to keep them from healing. This, we were told, was perverseness because India needed to 'move on', to bury recrimination about the past and look to the future where the economic miracle of Narendra Modi's Gujarat beckoned.
This message found a receptive audience. People who would otherwise be appalled by communal violence, began to see in the failure to legally establish guilt and convict the pogrom's agents, a reason to acquiesce in the 'move on' narrative. In a parody of the South African attempt to combine 'truth and reconciliation' to find closure on the historical wrong of apartheid, the pogrom's apologists wanted to turn the page on its violence without recognising the suffering of its victims or the guilt of its perpetrators.
The court's judgment reminds us that Gujarat's 2002 tragedy was not a natural calamity, that there were real victims and identifiable killers. It reminds us that in Naroda Patia nearly a hundred Muslims, mainly women and children were murdered in ways so grotesque as to beggar the imagination. Babu Bajrangi and Maya Kodnani were found guilty of criminal conspiracy, murder and attempt to murder, figures publicly associated with the organizations of the Sangh Parivar.
Why is the political affiliation of the guilty significant? It tells us something about the ideological context of the violence but crucially, it gives the lie to the narrative that cast the pogrom as an unfortunate eruption for which no one was responsible. Babu Bajrangi, who had bragged to a news magazine about organising the killings and Maya Kodnani, three time BJP MLA from Naroda, a gynaecologist who was convicted by the special court of arming the mob to kill, symbolise, in their now-established guilt, the political pre-meditation that lay behind the Gujarat pogrom.
The Gujarat government distanced itself from Kodnani arguing that since she wasn’t a minister in the Gujarat government, the state government didn’t share collective responsibility for her actions. This is a fact but it sets the stage for the memorialisation of a larger, more telling fact: that Maya Kodnani, who in the aftermath of the Naroda Patia massacre was widely believed to have organised the killings of Muslim women and children (a belief legally borne out by the verdict), was appointed by the chief minister in 2007 to the post of minister of women and child development.
It's hard to think of a more grotesque appointment, even harder to understand the sensibility that would vest someone who had conspired in the murder, amongst others, of a pregnant woman, with the responsibility for the 'welfare' of women and children. Far from wanting to move on from the pogrom, the Gujarat government was happy to flaunt impunity. Maya Kodnani resigned from her ministerial position only when she was arrested in 2009.
The court's judgment is a landmark because it highlights the enormity of the evil of 2002 and it demonstrates how close we were to endorsing the political class's sense of murderous entitlement by being prepared to look the other way and 'move on'. In a country that claims to be democratic or civilised, there should be no talk of peace for the living till we account for the dead.
The writer is an author, academic and critic.