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Courage under fire

india Updated: Jan 17, 2007 00:44 IST
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Nani Palkhivala has been described alternately as a passionate democrat, a patriot and above all a good human being. In response to one of the darkest moments this great metropolis, Mumbai, has lived through, December 1992 and January 1993, he sat alongside the inimitable and unique, the late HM Seervai, to speak to the then President of India to ‘call in the army’. When a subsequent government in the State reaped the benefits of hate politics and in a stroke of executive arrogance scrapped the Justice Srikrishna Commission of inquiry investigating the mass murder and police complicity behind the violence, Palkhivala stepped down from Bombay House. Along with another captain of industry, SP Godrej, he joined the nation-wide protest that was one of the citizens’ actions that eventually led to the reinstatement of the commission. That was January 30, 1996.

A year earlier, two judicial decisions — one of the Bombay High Court and the other by the Supreme Court — had shaken the common man’s faith in the judiciary. Citizens had challenged the hate writing in the Saamna, and through a writ petition urged for a judicial directive to compel the state government to prosecute the author of these speeches — a man who went unchallenged by the law and order machinery in this great city, Bal  Thackeray. Palkhivala said the future of India was at stake if the court did not compel the State to take action against this kind of journalism.

Today, in 2007, we see a glittering and glamorous India every day, through the media and parts of our large cities — an India that suggests growth, wealth and prosperity, but only for a section of our population. A third of Indians reel under rural hunger where the lack of access to nutrients in their diet should be a matter of national shame. Narrow and aggressive definitions of patriotism coupled with rank unprofessional, if not biased conduct, in the intelligence services and the law and order machinery, have ‘othered’ many sections of Indians.

It is a moment of profound test for all our institutions. The paradigms of fair play, equal rights to life and ownership of private property, make both the shock of farmers being shot dead in communist West Bengal and the shame of the mass victim survivors of the Gujarat carnage of 2002 a living reality. In Maharashtra, protests following the brutalisation and murder of a Dalit family in Khairlanji allowed the Nagpur police to pull out 55-year-old women and other protestors from their homes and thrash them into silence.

Does the Indian State need to answer, anymore, to the largest number? Does the executive initiate and take decisions of economic and social policy after due consultation, through the vote, in a democratic manner?

Have our courts shown due and democratic concern to issues of economic and social access, equity and non-discrimination? Do our media — television and print — reflect news at all, leave aside news and views of the majority of Indians? Do institutions of Indian democracy adhere to the word and spirit of the Indian Constitution? Is India a living and breathing democracy?

Be it West Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra or Orissa, lands belonging to voiceless Indians are being seized, without adequate debate, transparency or constitutional accountability. ‘Globalisation’ has come here in partnership with vengeful and vindictive State terror and repression. State force is being used to stifle democratic protest and dissent.

Next month is the fifth anniversary of the Godhra mass arson and the post-Godhra genocidal killing. Justices VR Krishna Iyer and PB Sawant — both retired judges of the Supreme Court — who headed a citizens’ tribunal into the Gujarat carnage, have observed that “the post- Godhra carnage was an organised crime perpetuated by the state’s Chief Minister and his government” and held Gujarat CM Narendra Modi to be “the chief author and architect of all that happened in Gujarat after the arson of February 27, 2002”. The National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court of India have drawn similar conclusions about the head of the state of Gujarat.

All and each of us would like to see Gujarat vibrant and prosperous. The community that Palkhivala hailed from was first given refuge within what is today known as Gujarat, when the Parsis migrated to India from Persia. Strength, cohesion and prosperity can be built through an enlightened administration and polity that respects the rights of all, harbours dissent and respects the struggle for rights and justice, a state of affairs that supports the natural order of things.

However, when ‘normalisation’ and ‘strength’ are equated with a vindictive administration and political repression, when brute compromise is thrust, when acknowledgement of the horrors of mass crime are denied to hundreds of thousands of victims, when villages, cities and mohallas are divided by borders, when the victim survivors and human rights defenders who stand up for justice are threatened with arrest and torture, it is repressive strength and State power that we are talking about.

What actually happened at Godhra railway station on February 27, 2002, is hotly contested. There is absolutely no proof of the theory perpetuated shrilly by Modi to justify state-sponsored mass rape, killings and murder. As we approach the fifth anniversary of a truly bleak period in Indian post-Independence history, each one of us must remember. The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

One man within the Indian system, stood (and still stands) mighty in the face of a murderous and vindictive Gujarat administration. Mass murder, mass rape and mass arson were allowed in Gujarat by a complicit and participatory administration and police force. Many police officers stood out. But only one man has remained a stoic and principled dissenter until today, refusing to cave in even as weeks lapsed into months and months into years. This man is not a victim, he did not lose a dear family member. He does not hail from the victim community. His only quality — that many but his co-travellers have seen as a fault — is that he refused to sit by and let the mass crimes planned at the highest level go unchallenged.

He documented the illegal and unconstitutional orders spat out by  Modi in a meticulously maintained personal diary. He filed well-documented affidavits before the ongoing Nanavati-Shah Commission. He suffered for these acts by being denied due promotion to the post of Director General of Police, Gujarat, the highest post in his field that as a policeman and thrice Presidential Award winner for bravery, he would, and should, aspire to. He faced attempts to browbeat him in and out of the courts. He and his wife live socially and politically ostracised in a state that captains of industry tell us is vibrant and shining.


This is an edited version of Teesta Setalvad’s acceptance speech on being conferred the Nani A Palkhivala award, 2006

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