Naroda Patiya acquittals: A disturbing pattern emerges

Tushar Gandhi

April 26, 2023

“Justice is like a debt which has to be discharged.”

MK Gandhi, Harijan, October 12, 1937

Unfortunately, India is piling up the bad debts, much more so in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s New India. Recently, there was another shocking acquittal by a special court of those previously convicted of the massacre in Naroda Patiya during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. This follows closely the early release of men who raped Bilkis Bano and murdered her family, including her infant daughter. What a mockery of justice! All the murderers and rapists were “sanskaari”, if we are to believe the Bharatiya Janata Party legislator who was among those who facilitated the convicts’ early release and feted them when they emerged from prison.

It is not as if India hasn’t witnessed justice delayed or wrecked previously. In most cases of communal riots, the guilty escape prosecution.

The accused in the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and North India have not been punished. None of those guilty of the nationwide murder and arson during the Ram Janmabhoomi “mandir wahi banayenge” movement and the riots after the Babri Masjid’s demolition have been prosecuted. The killers and arsonists of the riots in Mumbai in 1992-93 roam free. Even before that, there has been a shocking deficit in justice delivery or justice being seen to be done.

In the present time, justice delivery has become a rare phenomenon in India. You can blame the backlog of cases and the slow progress but, in most cases of communal violence, it is the lack of political will that has denied justice to victims and survivors and saved the guilty from punishment – more so because of the political protection they enjoy.

In the Gujarat carnage of 2002, justice was denied or aborted to save the then chief minister and the current prime minister. The government on its part has sent a clear signal to even those proven guilty: “if you keep silent, we will save you.”

The present Home Minister Amit Shah told a court that he met Dr Maya Kodnani in a hospital while the Naroda Patiya massacre was unfolding while innumerable witnesses testified that they had seen her leading the rampaging mobs and egged them on to kill. So many convicts in cases related to the 2002 carnage are out on bail enjoying their freedom. So, it’s not surprising that Zakia Jafri, wife of Congressman Ehsan Jafri who was slain in the attack on Gulbarg Society, is yet to get justice. Also, the fearless champion of the 2002 Gujarat riots victims’ cause, Teesta Setalvad, was jailed on trumped up charges. The message is clear.

It’s not as if a miscarriage of justice has happened only in matters related to the Gujarat riots. In recent times, justice in India is more observed in its miscarriage than in its delivery. Student activist Gulfisha Fatima, imprisoned under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, is still languishing in jail. Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap, arrested for their ‘connection’ to the infamous Elgar Parishad case along with many other intellectuals, are in jail too. Father Stan Swamy, a septuagenarian arrested in the Elgar Parishad case, died in prison. They even refused to provide him a sipper to enable him to drink water. The National Investigation Agency has been dogged in its prosecution of the activists but doesn’t seem to be as bothered about the killing of our soldiers in Pulwama and Poonch.

Asif Iqbal Tanha, Jamia Milia Islamia student, was arrested on charges of inciting the Delhi riots and he too is still in prison. Shifa Ur Rehman, president of the Jamia Milia Islamia Alumni Association, remains in prison on similar charges and is not being permitted to even consult with his lawyer. Umar Khalid, the most celebrated student leader of Jawaharlal Nehru University, remains in prison as if he is one of the greatest threats to our nation. Student activist Sharjeel Imam was arrested from his home in Jehanabad, Bihar, for an ‘inflammatory’ speech made during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

Journalist Siddique Kappan was locked up for more than two years for doing his job. Aasif Sultan, a popular journalist from Kashmir, has been languishing in jail since his arrest in 2018 for exercising his right to an opinion. Activists Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal are also in jail; the Delhi police has filed multiple cases of ‘inciting violence’ against them.

All those I have mentioned here have not been charged with murder, rape or with torching anyone’s home. They have been imprisoned on vague allegations instead. Meanwhile, those convicted of mass murder, gangrape and mob violence walk free. This is a conspiracy. A conspiracy to subvert India where the rule of law reigned supreme once.

Meanwhile, Hindutva hatemongers roam free and enjoy privileges in proportion to their ability to incite hate and violence. For instance, the Union home minister gets away with a campaign speech boasting that “people who indulged in rioting were taught a lesson in 2002 and have not dared to raise their heads since”. This seems to be a very genuine attempt at reconciliation in the eyes of the justice delivery system of New India.

So, while the murderers of social activist Narendra Dabholkar, communist leader Govind Pansare, scholar MM Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh are yet to be prosecuted, the one who incited his followers with the slogan “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko” remains a Union minister. One who boasts of teaching the Muslims a lesson they will not forget in 2002 remains the Union home minister.

Jaago, Bharat!

Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: