The wheels of justice have finally moved in the Gujarat riot case of 2002 that claimed more than a thousand lives and rendered hundreds of people homeless. In a landmark judgment last week, a trial court in the state capital of Ahmedabad convicted thirty two people- including a minister and a legislator from the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)- for their roles in the massacre of 97 people in the Naroda Patiya suburb.
Many of the victims were drawn from the Muslim minority community and included hapless women, children, and elderly people. Thirty of those convicted last week were sentenced to life imprisonment while the most high profile person on trial, former Minister Maya Kodnani, received 28 years in prison after being charged with inciting mob violence and murder.
In 2002 the whole state of Gujarat was submerged in communal violence following the burning of a train in Godhra that claimed the lives of several dozen Hindu pilgrims. It is still not clear how the train initially caught on fire but extremist Hindu’s used the incident as a pretext to attack the Muslim population of the state. Violence against Muslims continued for more than three months and it was widely reported and documented at that time that the large scale sectarian murder was done with the acquiesce of, if not outright instruction from, the state government led by BJP Chief Minister, Narendra Modi.
Many cite the 2002 Gujarat riot as one of the primary factors contributing to the BJP-led government’s defeat in the 2004 national elections.
Commenting on the verdict, Shoma Chaudhury of the English weekly Tehelka noted that the Naroda Patiya verdict, “comes as vindication for all those who resist. It is a hard-won victory, with hard-won messages. The conviction of Maya Kodnani, a former minister in the Narendra Modi government, and Babu Bajrangi, a favored man in the Sangh Parivar (Hindu right family), is the first time that the slow eye of justice has looked higher than the foot-soldiers; the first time it has singed the planners and conspirators of the riots. It brings hope that if the fight is resolute enough, justice can be had. It preserves the idea of India.”
However, this is the first time in the last ten years that the court has prosecuted politicians from the Hindu nationalist right-wing parties for their role in the 2002 riots. Indeed, up until now many have been rewarded for their participation in the riots. A good example is Kodnani, who, before receiving a life sentence last week, was later made minister despite the glaring evidence of her involvement in the Naroad Patiya massacre.
These transgressions raise the question of whether Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the state, who is positioning himself to be the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014, has been complicit in the matter. His image is almost certain to be tarnished and his ambition for the highest office negatively impacted by these suspicions, although it remains unclear to what degree it will hurt his chances of winning.
Ashish Khetan, a journalist who conducted a sting operation in 2007 against the man accused in the riot cases writes that, “the dark truth is that there are far more unanswered questions that dangle over Modi’s head for his role in the 2002 riots. Until they are answered, these questions continue to hold an entire nation to ransom.”
Recently, Modi has been seeking to revamp his image by painting himself as the development figurehead of the country given that his time as state minister of Gujarat has coincided with a sustained level of 7% growth in that state. Critics, however, point out that Gujarat has always had a robust growth rate and contend that the BJP leader is only touting his economic achievements to hide his involvement in the 2002 riots.
The Naroda Patya verdict also comes at a time when the BJP has launched a high profile campaign against Prime Minister Singh over his involvement in an alleged coal scam that has resulted in the loss of an estimated U.S. $35 billion, according the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), the main auditor of the government. Some political analysts believe the BJP is using the campaign as a way to divert public attention from the verdicts in the cases tied to the Guajarat riot.
There are many cases like Naroda Patiya pending in the different courts in Gujarat.
The nation still remembers that BJP’s first term in power in New Delhi (1998-2004) coincided with the Gujarat riot, an event that severely tarnished India’s secular credentials. If India needs robust economic growth, it also needs a strong, pluralistic, and secular society to maintain its existence as a nation, to maintain what is often called the “idea of India.”
The verdict should make Indians think long and hard -should they vote for a party or individual who threatens the very idea of India, or rather choose a secular alternative where the country’s future remains in safe hands.