As news filtered in of extended life sentences for 31 persons for the brutal slaughter 10 years ago in Naroda Patiya, a working-class suburb of Ahmedabad, my eyes clouded over. I remembered my first meetings with the traumatised survivors of the massacre in the crowded relief camps in the city, a full decade earlier. I was heartsick and stunned by their stories of incredible cruelty. I wondered if they would ever heal and hope again, and how we would defend the idea of India from the assaults of hatred.
Today, 10 years later, I realise that secular democracy is never given to any people: it constantly must be claimed, and reclaimed. So many people and institutions have rallied in stout defence of secular democracy, and of much older ideas — of compassion, justice and truth.
Years ago, as I made my way through teeming crowds of broken people sheltered in the Shah Alam Camp, I unexpectedly found a sunlit corner of the dargah among the graves, ringing with children's laughter. A group of young people from Naroda Patiya had organised classes and play for the children in the camp. I sat among them, all working-class youth — auto and bus drivers, electricians, embroiderers — and heard their stories of loss and trauma. A bond grew between us. Many volunteered to work with us in Aman Biradari, as aman and nyaya pathiks, literally 'those who walk the path of peace and justice'.
They spoke of mobs led by MLA Maya Kodnani and Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi, mercilessly setting aflame children, women and men. A citizens' tribunal recorded that "the burning alive of victims was widespread... (When) 6-year-old Irfan asked for water, his assailants at Naroda Patiya made him forcibly drink kerosene, or some other inflammable liquid, before a lit match was thrown inside his gullet to make him explode within".
Initially, justice seemed an impossible mirage. The first Eid after the carnage, I went to Ahmedabad to spend it with my young friends in Naroda Patiya. I found their mothers distraught. For the one Hindu person who died in the massacre, a dozen people had been charged and arrested, including many aman pathiks. Clearly, they wanted to crush their ardour for justice.
One of them, Yusuf and his father spent four months in jail. I was worried that this would break their spirit and radicalise them. He told me later that when he was depressed, his father would console him, "Do you know who was imprisoned here in this jail? Gandhiji. If he could spend time here, who are we?" After his release, Yusuf became a bus driver like his father. But he also studied law. Today he works as an assistant with a senior lawyer in Ahmedabad, and was a resolute witness in the Patiya case.
Initial police investigations absolved leaders like Kodnani and Bajrangi from the crime. But the National Human Rights Commission approached the Supreme Court for independent re-investigation, and the highest court established a Special Investigation Team (SIT) which nailed the killers and their leaders.
Clinching evidence came from heroic police officer Rahul Sharma. He collected mobile phone records which later established that Kodnani and Bajrangi were actually at Naroda Patiya during the massacre. He was transferred and his evidence buried. But he bravely chose to voluntarily present copies of these phone records to the SIT, for which he has been charge-sheeted by the Modi government. This became crucial collaborative evidence in court of the participation of the leaders in the mass murder.
The witnesses braved penury, threats and intimidation, and spurned large sums of money offered to change their statements. Each of their testimonies painted a horrific picture of the slaughter. Farzana Pathan, for instance, described to the court how the mob "pulled away my mother and killed and burnt her in front of my eyes... My elder daughter Farhana was pulled away by a person from the mob. Her clothes were removed and ... 4-5 of them raped her". Shakilabanu spoke of how the "mob sprinkled petrol on my family members and burnt them alive. My three-month-old niece was thrown in the fire by this mob".
The Naroda witnesses were aided by Citizens for Justice headed by the indomitable Teesta Setalvad. In numerous legal battles being fought in Gujarat, witnesses are similarly supported by brave organisations. She expresses satisfaction that the court reached beyond the foot-soldiers to the instigators and organisers, establishing that none are beyond the arm of the law. Judge Jyotsnaben Yagnik described the massacre as "brutal, inhuman and shameful" and held that it was a "pre-planned conspiracy" which "cannot be mitigated by just saying that it was a reaction to the Godhra train burning incident"'. She awarded a rare 28 years imprisonment to Kodnani, and incarceration until death to Bajrangi.
"I find myself praying that Bajrangi lives a hundred years" laughs Imran, one of the nyaya pathiks.
Sharief responds soberly, "In Shah Alam Camp, when you first spoke to us of peace, justice and non-violence, I wanted to believe. But a part of me insisted that justice would come only from a gun. Today, hearing the judge, I believe. Ahimsa se hi nyaya sambhav hai."
Yusuf, peace worker, bus driver, lawyer and witness, was present in the court the day the judge announced the sentence. "I was elated," he says. "But then I saw the young sons of some of those sentenced for life weeping for their fathers. I thought of the children who lost their parents in Naroda, and how painful life is for them. These children too are innocent, even though their fathers are not. I wanted to run to the judge and plead with her to set their fathers free. How will they live 21 years without their fathers?"
I have much to learn from my young friend.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies. The views expressed by the author are personal.