What do 1984 and 1948 have in common?
Assassination, of course.
But something else as well — the play of the Indian Evidence Act.
If ours is a liberal state that is committed to the rule of law, our uncompromisingly fair judiciary relies on the Evidence Act with a passion. And that Act itself, born in 1872, is unbeatable for its stubborn reliance on proof.
Lack of evidence linking Sajjan Kumar to the pogrom following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 has led to the former Congress MP’s acquittal.
Lack of evidence linking VD Savarkar to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, led to the Hindu Mahasabha leader’s acquittal.
Whatever one’s thinking mind and intuiting heart may say about acquittals such as the two, it is good that proof remains an indispensable ingredient of our judicial process. There can be no substitute to proof where culpability is to be determined and punishment awarded.
An appeal is bound to be filed against Sajjan Kumar’s acquittal. If evidence does not show up guilt, Sajjan Kumar’s acquittal will be upheld on appeal. Our judicial system, as I said, is fair. Evidence is about facts. There is such a thing as perception.
When on August 11, 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed remorse in the Lok Sabha for what happened in Delhi in 1984, a perception was to the fore. “I bow my head in shame”, the prime minister said “that such a thing took place”. That was no ordinary apology. It was not about evidence. It was about that which has no written code, conscience.
To the historically minded, his speech invoked what had happened in Delhi, Punjab, Bihar and Bengal in 1947. And it brought to mind what one man did and said at the time. That too had nothing to do with evidence, codes, ‘facts’. It had to do with a sense of right and wrong. It had nothing to do with the burden of proof. It had to do with the burden of conscience.
Towards the end of 1946, the anti-Hindu massacres at Noakhali, Bengal, were matched by anti-Muslim butcherings in Bihar. Gandhi, fresh from his walking tour of the ravaged districts of Bengal, came to Bihar. He was told that the orgies had seen Congressmen participating in it. Some Congressmen said this was untrue. Others said it was true. Speaking at a Congress gathering at Bir, Bihar, on March 19, 1947, Gandhi said (and I quote from the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi): “Is it or isn’t it a fact that quite a large number of Congressmen took part in the disturbances? I ask this question because people are making this allegation. But the Congressmen assembled here can themselves tell the truth. How many of the 132 members of your Committee were involved? It would be a very great thing if all of you assert that none of you was involved. But this assertion cannot be made...I wish to ask you, how could you live to see an old woman of 110 years being butchered before your eyes? How could you tolerate it? I do not wish to talk about anything else. I have vowed to do or die. I will not rest nor let others rest. I would wander all over on foot and ask the skeletons lying about how all that had happened. There is such a fire raging in me that I would know no peace till I have found a solution for all this…”
The excerpt given above is a translation. Gandhi was speaking in Hindustani. The original, which is a hundred times more powerful, has a line which the translators have skipped. Gandhi asked the Congressmen “Mein apse puchhna chahta hun…Ap zinda kyun rahe?” (I want to ask you… how could you watch all this and remain alive?). And then he added: “Sab baaten chhor kar mein yahi saval utthana chahta huun” (Leaving all other things, I want to raise just this question). “Ap zinda kyun rahe?”
If even one Congressman had died saving a Sikh in Delhi in 1984, or a single member of the BJP or the RSS had died protecting a Muslim in Ahmedabad in 2002, the narrative would have changed. Lack of evidence can get Sajjan Kumar and Narendra Modi acquitted of complicity. But is there any evidence to show they threw themselves into the fire to quell it? “Ap zinda kyun rahe?” Did something, anything of them, die with the dying? Not to have joined in with the killers is no glory. To have died saving the dying would be another story.
Such courage is not unknown. On July 1, 1946, with a Rath Yatra on in Ahmedabad, the city was afire with communal riots. Vasantrao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani of the Congress’ Seva Dal, spent the whole day saving lives. Frenzied rioters threatened Vasant-Rajab who refused to leave the ground. Diehards killed both. A year later, in Calcutta, Sachin Mitra and Smritish Banerjee died, protecting those being menaced by fanatic hooligans. The tribute that Gandhi paid to these four he has not paid in quite the same words to many.
Courage and conscience do not belong only to the past. Three films come to mind. Amu (2005) , directed by Shonali Roy about the 1984 riots in Delhi, Parzania (2007) directed by Rahul Dholakia and David Donihue about the 2002 Gulbarg Society (Ahmedabad) massacre, and Nandita Das’ Firaaq (2008), on the Gujarat riots are about conscience, courage. Their producers, directors and actors merit more than praise; they deserve our thanks.
Court acquittals belong to the realm of law. But the acquittals of conscience belong to another realm. What our singed conscience needs is for those perceived to have been behind the 1984 and 2002 pogroms to answer the question, leaving all other thing aside: “Apne maaraa nahin, par marne vaalon ko marte dekha…ap zinda kyun rahe?”
The Evidence Act does not ask that question. Gandhi does.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal