A few days ago, there was much relief when Ajmal Kasab, the man who killed innocent people in Mumbai, would hang after all. The Supreme Court had decided. There was no doubt about his guilt, of course. It was only a question of time. And though the wheels of justice turn slow, we needed to know that they do indeed turn.
And therefore, it was an even bigger relief to hear about the conviction of BJP MLA Maya Kodnani, and Babu Bajrangi, formerly of the Bajrang Dal, for inciting mass murder during the Gujarat riots in 2002. About 29 others were convicted too, but we were actually sort of surprised about Bajrangi and Kodnani. These two won’t hang, but if the Special Court’s verdict holds, they might spend their lives in jail, especially Bajrangi. This is so rare for riot cases in India that even if we — well, many of us — were convinced of their guilt, we were sceptical of their ever getting punished.
We have had a terrible track record of punishing rioters, even those who commit horrific crimes, but most importantly, we have rarely punished political leaders or those who have links to the government. Justice Jyotsna Yagnik certainly isn’t the first judge to convict a rioter, but her judgment comes at a time when citizens have very little faith in institutions. Elected representatives, administrative officials, even judges and prosecutors are assumed to be either corrupt or cowardly. And nothing is as damaging to the fabric of a democracy as a lack of faith in the law.
The road to justice is very long one. There are appeals and counter-appeals, especially if the rioters have more money than the victims. Gujarat 2002 is already a decade ago. Kodnani’s career actually flourished. As for the victims’ careers, I can only imagine how they’re doing.
Actually, I can’t imagine. But I did read a report about riot victims recently. This wasn’t about Gujarat 2002. It was about Kandhamal 2008. A wave of violence was unleashed after Laxamananda Saraswati, who was affiliated to the Sangh Parivar, was killed allegedly by the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Thirty eight people were killed. There were instances of gang-rape and torture. Around 5,600 homes were burnt and 55,000 ‘minority’ people across 415 villages were displaced.
Last month, a fact-finding team visited 16 of these villages. Most of the riot victims used to work as labourers in fields or homes belonging to ‘other communities’. Now they are either not given work or they are too afraid to go. They can’t get temporary work offered by the rural employment guarantee scheme, because that’s controlled by local leaders with majority muscle.
The team found that 10,000 people who fled during the riots have not returned home. Some tried to return, but were told they’d have to convert. Most victims in Kandhamal were Christian dalits or tribals. According to the fact-finding team, they can’t get caste certificates now because the administration issues certificates on the basis of "recommendations" from leaders, and these leaders are often affiliated to right-wing groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Many people were convicted for the Kandhamal riots by a fast-track court, and cases are still pending. And the Odisha government did offer compensation — Rs50,000 for houses that were completely burnt and Rs20,000 for partly damaged ones. But people lost more property than that. They lost pots, ploughs, crops, documents (like certificates and land records), schools, hospitals, NGOs, churches. How do you go about compensating the loss of the things that people call ‘home’? How long does it take to collect all the pieces of life and start over?
First published here.