There was much cheering last week when our cricket Test team demolished New Zealand . Yet the truly great Test and victory was in the Gujarat High Court, which imposed stiff sentences on perpetrators of the Naroda Patiya massacre of 2002.
India’s institutions and civil society defeated a state bent on protecting the guilty. This required the combined efforts of thousands of people. From these thousands, i would pick the following first eleven.
Captain of the team was Justice JS Verma. After the post-Godhra massacre of Muslims, the Gujarat government tried to let the killers off the hook. Justice Verma as head of the National Human Rights Commission raised serious doubts about the impartiality of the state government and asked the Supreme Court to intervene. He persuaded the Supreme Court to stay proceedings in the lower courts based on flimsy investigations.
He was followed in the batting line up by Justice Arijit Pasayat of the Supreme Court, who decreed in 2008 that the Gujarat cases could not be left to the state government to investigate and prosecute. Instead he appointed a Special Investigative Team (SIT) with sweeping powers to find the truth and nail the guilty.
B K Raghavan headed the Special Investigative Team and collected evidence that led to convictions in Naroda Patiya and other cases. Activists criticized Raghavan for exonerating Modi: he concluded there was no evidence against the chief minister. Still, Raghavan was a star player of the team.
Within Gujarat, the charge was led by lawyer Mukul Sinha. His Jan Sangharsh Manch was determined to collect evidence and establish the truth. It got Ahmedabad’s mobile phone call data from an upright police officer, analysed the call logs, and proved that top BJP ideologues such as Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi were at Naroda Patiya on the fateful day. This enabled the SIT to home in on Kodnani and others who had not even been named in earlier investigations.
The lead lawyer for Naroda Patiya’s victims, Govind Parmar , saw the massacre as state-abetted genocide. As a dalit himself, he knew full well the enormities of injustice arising from communal hate. He defended and ensured acquittal of Muslims falsely accused of murder, protected threatened witnesses, and finally won the Naroda Patiya case.
Lawyer Yusuf Muchhala spearheaded the movement to restore 512 shrines destroyed in the riots, mostly mosques and dargahs. The state government claimed that India’s secular principles prohibited it from aiding any community to rebuild shrines. However, Muchhala persuaded the courts to order the state government to restore the destroyed shrines.
The traditional Gujarat elite feared taking on Narendra Modi after his sweeping electoral victory in 2002. The great exception was Mallika Sarabhai, the famous dancer. Even the Congress Party opted for a soft Hindutva line rather than take on Modi. But, despite huge peer pressure, Mallika never minced words in condemning what she saw as Modi’s politics of hate and death.
Teesta Setalvad, a Mumbai-based activist and TV analyst, became one of the best known civil society faces in Gujarat. In the Best Bakery case, in which 14 Muslims were killed, the state government originally contrived a weak prosecution that led to the acquittal of all the accused. But Teesta persuaded higher courts to order a retrial, which resulted in life sentences for four killers. Teesta emerged a heroine, but her image was somewhat tarnished when the SIT as well a former aide accused her of concocting false stories and coaching witnesses to make false statements.
Harsh Mander, an officer of the Indian Administrative service, relocated to Gujarat to secure justice and relief for those hit by the 2002 riots. He set up Nyayagrah, meaning campaign for justice. With the help of lawyers like Indira Jaisingh, he helped re-open hundreds of cases that the police had conveniently closed down.
J S Bandukwala, a Muslim professor at Baroda University , was a major force for moderation and peace. He was almost killed by Hindu rioters. Yet he pleaded for harmony, not vengeance . Eight years after the riots, he suggested it might be wise for Muslims to put the terrible past behind and focus on a better future. Some praised his moderation, but others castigated him as too soft on Modi.
Last but not least in the batting order came Justice Jyotsna Yagnik. She presided over the Naroda Patiya trial, and convicted and sentenced Maya Kodnani and others. In the process, she exposed the way the police favoured Kodnani until the SIT took over.
This was a great first eleven. But it succeeded only because of support from thousands of others. Let us raise a glass to all who made the victory possible.