Seventeen years make for a long time in anybody’s book. In the reckoning of those whose loved ones were massacred in the violence that erupted at Logai village in Bhagalpur, Bihar, on October 27, 1989, the time between that fateful night and this week must have seemed an eternity. On Monday, a local court convicted 14 of the 24 accused of killing 116 people, women and children included, in a murderous spree that targeted Muslims and would ultimately claim 1,070 lives across the district. Over a period of about two months, Bhagalpur, 15 of whose 21 blocks were torn apart by communal violence, not only witnessed horrific riots but also became a devastated zone from where some 48,000 people were uprooted, leaving its traditional loom economy destroyed.
Why has it taken so long for the guilty to be punished? For one, many witnesses never turned up in court while the police did little to ensure that they turned up at all. The police were also found twiddling their thumbs when it came to pursuing absconders — four out of the 24 accused. Among those convicted this week are two policemen, one found guilty of not taking action against a mob and for tampering with evidence, and the other for suppressing information about the killings (the bodies being hastily buried and discovered under a cabbage patch). Clearly, such complicity in mass murder does not happen unless there is politics involved and Bhagalpur has clearly seen its fair share of politics coming in the way of justice. While the riots may have been triggered by a ‘Ram Shifla’ procession organised by the local VHP — the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was in full swing throughout the country in late 1989 — and fuelled by Hindu mobs trying to grab Muslim property and land, the state and the central Congress governments failed to enforce law and order. The immediate result of the bloodbath before the 1989 elections in Bihar was an outright rejection of the Congress by the Muslim voter, a situation that lasts to this day. With realpolitik considerations to deal with, justice was put on hold for Bhagalpur’s victims, until this year.
That the Gujarat massacres of 2002 are not the complete anomaly that our television generation may think it to be, is enhanced by our remembering what happened in Bhagalpur in 1989. However long and hard the battle for justice has been, the sentences which will be fixed on June 27 against those found guilty of the Bhagalpur massacres will do a lot to restore faith in the criminal justice system.