by Qazi Umar (World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 13, Rajab, 1424)
Narendra Modi, chief architect of the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat last year, concluded a four-day visit to Britain from 17 to 20 August, on an arrogant note. Modi’s first trip abroad since the anti-Muslim pogrom was organized by a group of expatriates calling themselves Friends of Gujarat (FOG), described by FOG’s Manoj Ladwa as "a consortium of British Indian and Gujarati organizations." Modi explained why he was in Britain: to launch Gujarat’s biggest-ever overseas marketing drive. However, he refused to make any significant comment on the massacre of over 2,500 Muslims and the destruction of Muslim properties, resulting in damage of more than $1.5 billion during state-sponsored violence engineered by Modi himself.
Modi was invited to speak on August 17 at a Hindu conference in London, organized by the overseas friends of BJP and VHP in Britain. During his address Modi dismissed last year’s Gujarat massacres as irrelevant. Asked whether the international criticism of his past activities would hamper his ongoing appeal for foreign investments in Gujarat, Modi said: "Yet no one else asked this question to the USA after 9/11. If it does not matter to the USA, why should it matter to Gujarat?" Modi’s absurd comparison of the anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat with the attacks in the US drew criticisms from many quarters; people contrasted it with deputy prime minister L. K. Advani’s abject apology for Gujarat in London last year. However, Modi stuck to India’s protocol statement: "Whether we liked it or not, the terrorist threat...had divided the world into two camps: One has India, which is against terrorism and one is for Pakistan."
On August 13, the Council of Indian Muslims UK organized a picket of the conference, supported by leading Muslim and non-Muslim organizations including the Muslim Relief Organization, to protest against the atrocities inflicted on Muslims in Gujarat. The Muslim Relief Organization has been involved in the rehabilitation and resettlement of the Gujarat massacres’ victims.
Addressing the British business and industrial community at a dinner hosted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) on August 19, Modi proclaimed that India would be a leading industrial power in the twenty-first century. Stating that Gujarat would be the gateway of India’s prosperity, chief minister Narendra Modi said that those investing in the state’s infrastructure, energy and technology projects would benefit greatly because of Gujarat’s corporate and professional ethos. He said not a word about the ‘anti-Muslim ethos’ being put into practice in Gujarat by his government.
Modi’s efforts to camouflage the brutalities that still continue in Gujarat are likely to backfire sooner or later. In June leading Muslim scholars in Gujarat were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) without charge and tortured. Those arrested included Maulana Khanpuri, Mufti Abdul Qaiyum Mansuri, Maulvi Anjum, Mufti Rizwan, Maulana Shaukat Alipuri, Mufti Imtiaz Ahmed, Maulana Ahmed Patni and Mufti Yahya Mastan.
Since the genocide Muslims in Gujarat have suffered various indignities. After the initial massacres, they were also stripped economically; many were left destitute and homeless. The atrocities still continue as threats, harassment and tortures: eyewitness accounts are being manipulated and post-genocide investigation reports distorted.
Zahira Sheikh, the key witness in Vadodara’s ‘Best Bakery’ murder case, has created a stir in the media by raising questions about the judicial process with respect to the genocide in Gujarat. She emerged from hiding after a high court judge freed all 21 defendants because of "insufficient evidence". The ‘Best Bakery’ case is one of the first to be tried in the ‘fast-track courts’ set up to deal with the perpetrators of the violence in Gujarat.
Zahira lost two members of her family when their bakery was burned in the violence that rocked Gujarat after the Godhra train incident on February 27 last year, in which fourteen people were killed. The police complaint was based on her statement, in which she identified several people who took part in the destruction of her family’s business. From her home, above the bakery, she had seen the mob reduce the family’s livelihood to ashes. But in court she denied her police testimonies, saying that she had seen nothing, then left the courtroom, escorted by Madhu Shrivastav. So why has she emerged again, now that the verdict has been passed? "I lied in court because I was under pressure," she said at a press conference in Mumbai; "I was intimidated by the BJP MLA, Madhu Shrivastav and Congress Councillor, Chandrakant. He threatened to kill my family if I spoke the truth. I want the case to be tried again outside Gujarat," she said.
A day before the press conference on July 6, the Indian Express interviewed Zahira’s mother Sehrunissa, who was also a witness in the case. Explaining how Shrivastav intimidated her family, she said, "Several times he sent threats through others. He called us to threaten us as well. He warned that if we told the truth in court we would be killed, and that Zahira would not be allowed to reach the court. In fear, we retracted our statements."
According to the investigation reports of the National Human Rights Commission [NHRC], the entire system is working against the genocide-affected. Initially the police refused even to take down statements. When they did register complaints, the police did not include all the details given by witnesses. They did not record the names of people accused by witnesses. Moreover, the police filed group FIRs (First Information Reports) instead of separate ones for each complaint. The police have already closed around half of the 4,252 cases, claiming that there is a lack of evidence to prosecute anyone. These cases will not now be tried in any court.
Fraudulent police investigations have ensured that the few cases that did make it to court have ended in acquittals. Witnesses to Ahmedabad’s Chamanpura massacre, for instance, are appealing for cases to be reopened and reinvestigated. They allege that the police did not take down their testimonies properly, deliberately omitting details and names of suspects. At least 67 people were burned to death in the massacre.
The police have closed several cases without investigating them at all. In Randhikpur village, a mob mass-raped and killed 18 members of a family. The culprits are yet to be apprehended. The sole survivor of the massacre is a 19-year-old girl. She was raped (she was pregnant at the time) and her two-year-old daughter was killed. Although she testified, naming the rapists and murderers, the police closed the case because of "insufficient evidence". They also said that the mental condition of the witness was "unstable".
Witnesses who dared to name powerful leaders have been put behind bars. Twelve residents of Naroda Gaam in Ahmedabad testified that BJP MLA Dr Maya Kodnani and VHP president Dr Jaideep Patel had roles in one of the worst massacres in Gujarat. The police jailed all 12 witnesses as implicated in a murder that occurred in March 2002. When the case was filed, the names of the deceased and the dozen suspects were not known. Two of them have still not been able to secure bail. The police have also failed to arrest several other suspects in various cases; the records say that they are "absconding". They are really roaming around in the villages, harassing Muslims.
"If the government really wants to, it can do a lot. It can seal the property of all the accused who are `absconding’, like they did in the Godhra case," says Mihir Desai, a victim of the genocide. "Why should witnesses turn hostile? Why can’t they ensure their safety? The law allows judges to threaten hostile witnesses with a jail sentence. They can make use of this as well. But what justice can one expect when the prosecutors, many of whom are VHP members, are siding with the accused?"
In Panchmahal district, where some of the worst violence took place, all 26 cases tried by February resulted in acquittals, Narsimha Komar, Superintendent of Police of Panchmahal, has admitted. In the Pandharvada village massacre, in which 21 people were murdered, all 15 defendants were acquitted. In the Limbdia Chowkdi case, 12 people were arrested for burning to death 15 persons who were trying to escape from an attack on their village. The court acquitted them all.
Public prosecutors could scarcely care less about the victims, or about justice. In the Kalol court a public prosecutor fell asleep during the second half of a trial. It is difficult enough for witnesses to show up at all; when they do, crowds jeer while witnesses narrate incidents of rape or murder. In the trial of the Eral village massacre in Panchmahal, the judge insisted that all the 32 witnesses appear at the same time, or else the trial would not continue. Getting to the court is intimidating enough for the victims, and having to travel 60 kilometres to the court more than twenty times is sheer torture. In Gujarat most victims remain in hiding, still threatened by the "absconders". It is very rare that a Zahira will dare to speak out in such a predicament.
A significant intervention by the Supreme Court in the ‘Best Bakery’ and other Gujarat riot cases, on a petition by the National Human Rights Commission, has raised the hopes of victims for fair trials. The Supreme Court Bench, comprising Chief Justice V.N. Khare and Justices S.B. Sinha and Arun Kumar, heard the NHRC’s petition on August 8, and directed the Gujarat government to provide protection for the witnesses and their families, and inform the court of the steps it had taken to do so, and the action taken against those who had allegedly threatened the witnesses. Only time will tell whether these measures are sincerely offered and intended to be effective, or not.
For sheer arrogance there could be nothing in recent years to match Modi’s recent letter to president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. "Provoked" by the decision of the NHRC to petition the Supreme Court over the acquittal of all the defendants in the ‘Best Bakery’ carnage, Modi wrote in evident resentment to the president deploring the effort by vested interests to block Gujarat’s "path of progress" by "exaggerating... stray incidents".
Modi’s pranks continued on the independence day celebrations in Gujarat on 15 August, when he introduced the performance of Sahasralinga Puja and Shiv Tandav Nritya, which are purely Hindu rituals, into the official programme: a clear sign of his continuing anti-Muslim position and prejudice. The next day he went to London to project Gujarat as the "gateway of prosperity of India in the 21st century". However, the chief minister of Gujarat did not bother to comment on the deteriorating situation of the millions of Muslims living in this "gateway".