Although catastrophic communal massacres recur from time to time, the Indian State has never appointed truth and reconciliation commissions. Instead, in the political heat that follows major communal and caste massacres, governments often appoint judicial commissions of enquiry, headed by serving or retired judges. Although commission recommendations are not binding, their findings can, if conducted with fairness, carry moral weight. The Justice Srikrishna Commission that investigated the 1992-93 Bombay riots is a shining example of this. The report established the criminal role of both the Shiv Sena and police officers in the carnage. It is another matter that successive governments took no steps to punish those indicted by the commission, but still the report remains a highly credible source of truth-telling.
However, for the greater part, complicit governments deploy several devices to subvert the important democratic instrument of judicial commissions for communal riots. The first is to appoint compliant and ideologically compatible judges to these commissions. The second is to delay the proceedings of the commissions inordinately. The third is to not place the report of the commission in the legislature or Parliament, by which strategy the document remains secret and cannot be accessed by citizens. The Gujarat government deployed all three strategies after the 2002 carnage. It appointed a commission with judges close to the political leadership, the judges took 12 years to present the report, and there is no sign of the report being placed before the legislature, so we have no idea what it contains.
The judicial commission headed by Justice Vishnu Sahai appointed after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal violence that left more than 60 people dead, and displaced more than 40,000 people, seems to score better than this. Its report was submitted in two years, and the state government tabled it in the legislature expeditiously. However, a reading of the 776-page report reflects instead how such commissions can actually subvert both truth and justice. It legitimises the majoritarian Hindutva communal version about the events and causes, and frees the political leadership from any culpability for the violence and displacement.
The popular imagination about the Muzaffarnagar communal violence remains that it was sparked off by the sexual harassment by a Muslim youth at Kawal in Muzaffarnagar of a Jat girl. According to this version, the brothers of the girl killed the Muslim boy Shahnawaz to protect their sister’s honour, and the Muslim villagers avenged this by brutally lynching the two Jat brothers. BJP MLA Sangeet Som circulated a video of this alleged slaughter, which fuelled further anger against the local Muslim population. After a massive maha-panchayat 10 days after the killing of the three men, enraged Hindu mobs went on a rampage, setting the homes of their Muslim neighbours on fire, and killing several of them.
The Sahai Commission admits that this version was a fabrication. The report confirms that the police complaint filed by the Jat boys’ family made no allegation of any teasing or harassment by the Muslim youth of the Jat boys’ sister. The dispute arose instead from an accident of the motor-cycles belonging to the Muslim and Jat youth. In revenge, the Jat boys went to Shahnawaz’s home and stabbed him to death. Angry Muslim neighbours caught and killed the two Jat youth. The report also accepts that the video of the two youths being killed by a mob was of a lynching in Pakistan, and that it was mischievously circulated widely with posts including from MLA Som claiming that the youths being lynched mercilessly were the Jat brothers. This inflamed communal tempers feverishly among the Jats against the Muslims. It also accepts that false rumours were deliberately circulated before the maha-panchayat of September 7, 2013, that hundreds of Jats had been slaughtered by Muslims and thrown into a canal, that communally provocative speeches were made in the maha-panchayat, and that the widespread arson and slaughter of Muslims started after this.
This should have established clearly the culpability of the BJP and Hindutva organisations for raising communal tempers with criminally circulated falsehoods against the local Muslims, and the communally charged speeches. Instead the commission chooses to give equal, actually greater weightage, to the version of the Hindu Jat majority.
The judge accepts without evidence the charge that while Shahnawaz did not know or tease the sister of the Jat brothers, tensions were high because Muslim youth in general did tease Jat girls. He also accepts (again admittedly without evidence) that Muslim leaders made communally provocative speeches, and also provoked Jat anger by attacking them as they gathered in large numbers for the September 7 maha-panchayat, and also after they dispersed. He ignores completely official and fact-finding reports that the Jat mobs were raising threatening slogans asking Muslims to go to Pakistan or the cemetery and attacking them in large numbers, and the few acts of violence by Muslims had to be seen in that perspective. In this way, the commission mostly accepts and reproduces the Jat and Hindutva narrative of what caused the Muzaffarnagar massacre.
In general, apologists for communal violence by Hindus always build up a similar narrative, that Hindus by nature are peace-loving. It is Muslims who create trouble by harassing Hindu girls, making communally provocative speeches, and unprovoked acts of aggression. Hindu violence against Muslims is always retaliatory and defensive acts, against pervasive Muslim aggression. The Sahai commission succeeds in endorsing precisely this majoritarian rationalisation of Hindu violence against Muslims in Muzaffarnagar.
It goes further by never once in the report even reflecting on the role, let alone indicting the political leadership of the state government for its criminal mishandling of the communal carnage. Even the local administration is let off by the commission with a rap on its knuckles for minor lapses. The commission suggests that for the most part, the administration did all that was possible to control the violence.
This is a shameful falsehood, entirely unbecoming of the office of a judicial commission that is expected to fearlessly and impartially hold up the light to the truth. With fair and decisive handling, the violence could have been prevented, by forcefully quelling rumours that the Muslim youth was killed for harassing Jat girls or that Muslims had slaughtered hundreds of Jats, by acting firmly and fairly in arresting the killers on both sides, and by preventing the series of panchayat gatherings that roused to fever pitch communal tempers against the Muslims. It did none of these. Instead, at every stage, the state administration of Uttar Pradesh tried to appease and accommodate the Hindutva activists, and after the violence also appease Muslim political and religious leaders.
But the commission never once holds the state leadership accountable for these indefensible failures that led to communal killings, permanent displacement of thousands of Muslims from the villages of their birth, and estrangement of the two communities not just in western UP but across the state.
If judicial commissions will not tell the truth about who and what was responsible for communal massacres, who will?
Harsh Mander is convener, Aman Biradari
The views expressed are personal