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Grave mistakes

The Gujarat government?s bias against the minority community has made the task of procuring justice for victims of the post-Godhra riots a laborious process, evidence in the graves notwithstanding, writes Teesta Setalvad.

india Updated: Dec 14, 2006 00:10 IST

The challenges thrown up for India, post-Godhra of 2002, are fundamental. Are the politically powerful, even if they be organisers of mass murder and rape, immune from the law? Acknowledgement of the crime is the rudimentary foundation that begins the process of healing for the victim. That and more has been repeatedly and crassly denied the victims. Official figures and police records reveal that of the 413 persons who were classified as ‘missing’ (bodies untraceable) after the carnage, the remains of 228 were ‘not traced’. From accounts made on oath by victim survivors of the mass massacres — who have filed missing person complaints before the local police in Anand, Mehsana, Ahmedabad and Panchmahals in 2002 and 2003 — there are alleged to be more illegal dumps/graves of their lost relatives.

Panchmahals was one of the six districts targeted by militia between February 28 and March 3, 2002. Between March 2002 and December 2005, victim survivors of the mass massacre at Pandharwada made oral and written applications to the DIG, Vadodara, Collector, Panchmahals, Dy SP, Godhra, Dy Collector, Lunawada, Mamlatdar and Khanpur, urging that the remains of their lost ones be traced and returned. It was only when there was cold silence in response that they went digging for the remains themselves. They sought the media as an ally.

These relatives discovered bodies of lost ones dumped in forest wasteland off the Paanam river outside Lunawada town on December 27 and 28, 2005. They approached the Gujarat High Court and, for the first time in three and a half years, got some succour. The Gujarat High Court ordered the human remains to be sent for DNA analysis and testing to an independent laboratory in Hyderabad under strict supervision of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This order of Justice C.K. Buch had observed that if, after analysis, even a single body was found unidentified, a fresh case existed and scope for a de novo qua investigation was made out.

In May 2005, the CBI submitted the analysis to the Gujarat High Court. Victims were denied a copy of this report despite repeated pleas, while the Gujarat state accessed a copy. On December 6, 2006, the state appeared to be in an unholy hurry to get the matter disposed of. The victim survivors who had approached the court in the first place weren’t given the report and hence, no chance to reply. Despite this, the report did become public and about nine body remains appeared to match with the samples of relatives of the Pandharwada massacre. Eleven remain unidentified. The matter was taken up for final hearing just two days later.

There was scope for fresh investigation by the CBI, given the findings of the Hyderabad laboratory. It was predictable that the Gujarat government was adamant in opposing the court’s finding in December 2005. But the counsel for the CBI remained unmoved by the pleas of the victim survivors on December 8, 2006. In effect, the CBI indirectly supported the stand of the Gujarat government — a fact that has been recorded by the judge in his oral order.

The advocate for the victim survivors argued vehemently and at length (it is a tribute to secularism that our finest legal minds have given pro bono services to victims of the Gujarat genocide) that the entire matter of illegally dumping these bodies needed to be investigated afresh by the CBI. The victim survivors and co-petitioners had, in the one year since the unfurling of this tragedy, filed 600 pages of affidavits to substantiate their claims.

Laboriously, they had pointed out that the son of the petitioner, Ameenabehn Rasool, was found with his skeletal remains, bearing the tattered bits of the same cloth in which he had been killed. This indicated that post-mortem and other procedures had not been followed by the police. The state’s bias was evident again when it was pointed out that while the identified remains of Godhra arson survivors were kept in the public morgue for five months, these victims were unceremoniously dumped in wastelands off the Paanam river within three days, despite the fact that a 300-acre graveyard belonging to different sects of the minority community existed within Lunawada town, barely a few kilometres away.

If the state, burdened with the unidentified and gory remains of murdered victims, had applied just principles of disposal, they would have handed over the bodies — unidentified — to local clergy to perform the last rites in 2002 itself. Not only was this not done but victim survivors and human rights defenders who have assisted the legal struggle since December 2005, have been hounded by the local police with a false FIR being made out against them. They have all had to seek anticipatory bail.

Today, the struggle against lived fascism in Gujarat has been reduced to a rigorously fought legal battle for constitutional governance by victim survivors and civil society. The dominant political class that uses secularism to win elections has not merely kept a distance. When it comes to punishment to the guilty of 2002, the government has lost much of its 2004 pre-election bite. Is it uncomfortable with the justice being done today? Or is this because it has bloodied its own hands in the past? And, therefore, wishes that the unchallenged state of impunity to perpetrators of mass crimes continues unaddressed into a bleak future?