Friday, Jan 27, 2023

While the city burned

Examining the state’s shameful record in the 1989 Bhagalpur and 2002 Gujarat riots

Warisha Farasat, Prita Jha, Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat, Three Essays Collective, book review The belief of the country’s founding fathers that education and economic development would remove communal animosity seems so naive today.

Book: Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat
Author: Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha 
Publication: Three Essays Collective
Pages: 221
Price: Rs 500

After Partition, it was hoped that the gruesome violence that tore the country apart in 1947 would not be repeated. The guarantee of religious and political rights to the minorities in independent India’s Constitution was thought to be strong enough safeguards against communal animosity. The state, it was believed, would protect the minorities and education and economic development would lead to the development of a secular mindset. That has proved to be a simplistic assumption. Secularism — in spite of the word secular being inserted into the Constitution in 1975 — remains an embattled ideal in the country. More significantly, the state has not just been ineffective in protecting the rights of the minorities, it has been complicit in the violence against them.

Bhagalpur in 1989 and Gujarat in 2002 are two glaring episodes of state complicity in communal riots. Splintered Justice reveals the workings of such complicity. Very often in the literature of communal violence, the state’s role is seen in terms of its “failure” to protect the minorities. The book under review shows the limitations of this approach. “Failure” would imply that the state’s intentions to protect the minorities was defeated, whether due to institutional or procedural weaknesses, or other reasons. Splintered Justice shows the state as a collaborator in the violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat.

Such complicity works at two levels. There is a deep state-society nexus that sustains the violence against minorities. In 1989 in Bhagalpur, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, after reprimanding the Congress chief minister of Bihar, caved in under communal pressure and revoked the transfer of the Bhagalpur police chief K.S. Dwivedi who was charged with inaction during the riots. The violence is thus not simply episodic. State inaction takes it to another level. As the introduction to Splintered Justice notes, “Denial of justice and reparations to victims is not simply a result of institutional failures, but a reflection of the endemic institutional bias of the police, judiciary and the relief administration; it is not the arbitrary result of chance, but deliberate, systematic and planned”.

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Splintered Justice uses victims’ testimonies to describe state collaboration in the violence. In Gujarat, a common narrative running through the testimonies — the retired teacher Faruqbhai, businessman Yasinbhai, Ahmedabad resident Abbasbhai and several others — is the police refusal to include the names of rioters given by informants and victims in the FIRs. “A worrying revelation is that police were under political pressure to not name the rioters. Even more serious were the police remarks to several witnesses that they had been ordered not to do their fundamental constitutional duty of saving people’s lives”. The complicity is also a product of communalisation of the police force. For instance, one police officer asks a victim, who went to register a FIR, “Godhra kyun kiya?”

The narrative is no different in Bhagalpur, where the “police deliberately recorded names of the accused wrongly”, though the survivors had clearly identified them. One of the rioters, identified by the survivors as Saroj, was incorrectly mentioned as Saheej, and now roams free.

Splintered Justice is also about another unhealed wound. When the state was siding with the rioters, victims were let down by their friends. And that hurt more than the state complicity in the violence. Malika Begum of Chanderi in Bhagalpur, who has become an icon of sorts for her persistent fight for justice, remains scarred for ever by her childhood friend turning her over to the rioters. In relatively prosperous Gujarat, 13 years later, village identities were fractured into apna (ours) and unka (theirs). The belief of the country’s founding fathers that education and economic development would remove communal animosity seems so naive today.

First published on: 28-01-2017 at 00:20 IST
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