March 30, 2005
So, is Narendra Modi feeling like a hero again? And this time a ‘‘national’’ hero? Three years ago he was the darling of the mobs of Gujarat, but now he is on a real centrestage, in the middle of an international diplomatic row, with the entire Government of India on his side.
On the face of it, it was good and right that the Government, rising above party politics, stood up for a principle. On the face of it, it was just and right that the Prime Minister should have got up in Parliament and spoken against the US decision. On the face of it, it was correct and right that official India should object to the denial of a visa to Modi, since that ‘‘disregards the fact of the Constitutional position of the Chief Minister of Gujarat as a democratically elected leader’’.
But what if we go beyond the surface? Is there any substance at all in the US position? The person of Narendra Modi has to answer for what happened in Gujarat between February and May 2002. Most of us will not need reminding that it was he who instigated and provoked violence against Muslims; we will not need reminding of his government’s direct and indirect involvement in the killing of 2,500 innocent Muslims; nor will we need reminding that the police stood by, and sometimes participated in rape, arson and looting of Muslim women and their homes.
The horror didn’t end there. The Modi government tried to wind up refugee camps and ordered the inmates to go back to non-existent homes in now openly hostile areas; it then began a massive cover-up to make sure that no one, whether cop, politician or murderous rioter, was ever caught and convicted. The intimidation and/or buying over of witnesses continues even today to ensure that justice can never ever be served.
Yes, Modi is a democratically elected leader. But was he democratically elected leader of only a ‘‘section’’ of the population of Gujarat? Was his mandate to ‘‘eliminate’’ other sections of his state? As a democratically elected leader, was he supposed to enforce the rule of law or subvert the law?
In a civilised and functioning democracy, an elected leader is answerable to the electorate: if he doesn’t perform, or his appeal diminishes, he will pay the price at the hustings. But is that enough comeuppance when every tenet of democracy is broken and the state itself turns criminal? In the normal course of things, you expect a higher authority of some kind to step in and restore a sense of order and justice. But what if they don’t want to (as the NDA government at the centre so obviously didn’t)? Or can’t (as the judicial system becomes helpless without proper investigation of cases and without witnesses)?
Gujarat may be the worst case of state-sponsored terrorism in our history, but unfortunately, it isn’t the only one of its kind. There were the riots in Mumbai in 1993, the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, the Sanjay Gandhi-inspired violations of human rights in 1975-77. Whatever their differences, they have one thing in common: Not only did everyone know in a general sense who was responsible; but also the specific identity of the main villains was part of public knowledge. And yet not one wrong-doer has been tried or jailed.
In this, of course, we are not alone. Most developing democracies have a problem dealing with their errant ruling elite: They are just allowed to get on with it. That’s because it suits every political party to be flexible about the application of law and because the criminal justice system is generally not independent enough to bypass the political system. In short, every developing democracy builds in an arrangement where its own political criminals go scot free.
Are we happy with that?
There does exist an ever higher justice system through the International Court of Justice (or the World Court), but it can only take up cases brought to it by the nation concerned or in concurrence with that country, a real Catch-22 situation designed to let criminal political leadership go scot free.
There seems to be room here for a little moral outrage. The US, post Iraq, may not be the ideal candidate for an expression of that outrage, but there aren’t too many countries around without some skeletons rattling in their closets. We’ll take moral outrage wherever it comes from.
So instead of taking our own moral stand against ‘‘their’’ moral stand, let’s applaud the fact that at last someone has stood up for that seemingly old-fashioned concept of right and wrong. And while we applaud, let’s hope that this concept is catching.
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