Eight years after a spate of rioting that swept through the western state of Gujarat, an Indian Supreme Court constituted, special investigation team (SIT), questioned the state’s Chief Minister, Bharatiya Janata Party politician Narendra Modi. The riots came in the wake of a purported attack and subsequent fire on the Sabarmati Express, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims and activists who were returning to Gujarat. The fire killed 59 individuals, and a local Muslim community was implicated in the attack. Almost immediately, widespread attacks took place on Muslims in various parts of the state and especially in the nearby town of Godhra. Before the police managed to restore order, close to 1000 Muslims and over 300 Hindus had perished.
In the wake of this tragedy, at least three governmental commissions were appointed to investigate the initial incident and its sanguinary aftermath. All three reached rather differing conclusions about the origins of the fire and the subsequent conflagration. However, the second investigation, conducted by the independent National Human Rights Commission, concluded that the government of Gujarat had been negligent in protecting the rights of its citizenry. In its very clinical, judicial prose it stated that the government had failed to rebut the presumption that there was a ‘failure to protect the rights, liberty, equality and dignity’ of its citizenry.
Human rights activists within India’s civil society have long used sterner language to upbraid and criticize Modi for the plight that befell significant segments of Gujarat’s Muslim populace. Now, thanks to their persistence and that of the widow of a former congress member of parliament, Ehsan Jafri, the Indian Supreme Court has directed that the SIT undertake a renewed investigation. After some legal wrangling, Modi was induced to appear before the SIT last week and was questioned for nine hours.
Few, if any individuals, who were in authority at the time, have faced prosecution for their role in the riots. Sadly, such an outcome is often the case in India where investigative procedures are slothful, where forensic capabilities are uneven and where the judiciary both at state and national levels is hopelessly overburdened. It remains an open question as to whether the victims of the Gujarat tragedy will ever see justice done. However, the mere fact that the Supreme Court felt compelled to respond to a complaint nearly a decade after the horrific events offers some small dose of comfort.