It could be the story of any major case of communal violence in which the minority community bears the brunt. And in which the justice system fails the victims and their families in the aftermath. Though it broke a period of relative calm after Gujarat 2002, the violence that swept Muzaffarnagar in 2013, killing at least 65 persons, may not be unusual in a country inured to outbreaks of barbarity. What happened later, between 2017 and 2019, when Muzaffarnagar courts delivered verdicts in 41 cases linked to the communal violence and a conviction in just one case of murder — all 40 acquittals coming in cases involving attacks on Muslims — may not be unprecedented either. Nor is the fact that the registration of the cases and their collapse spanned two regimes, one “secular” and the other led by the BJP, a surprise, given that parties of all political hues have presided over violence between communities and the absence of justice that followed it. And yet, as an Indian Express investigation — which scrutinised court records and testimonies of complainants and witnesses and conducted interviews of officials in cases of murder, gangrape and rioting in Muzaffarnagar 2013 — showed, every time justice is miscarried, it is miscarried in its own chilling way.
The Express investigation has uncovered cases upon cases where witnesses executed u-turns or turned hostile, crucial evidence such as the murder weapon went missing and court records showed glaring holes in the prosecution, including the failure to ask the obvious questions, or to cross-examine. In the end, no one killed all members of the family that was burnt alive, or the three friends dragged into a field and killed, or the father hacked to death with a sword. Fifty-three men accused of murder in 10 cases walked free. The four cases of gangrape and 26 cases of rioting met a similar lack of closure. In Gujarat 2002, it took the Supreme Court to break the grim pattern of crime and impunity. It intervened in the cases that followed the killings, shone the spotlight on them and monitored them, even airlifted some of them to courts outside Gujarat so that they could be insulated from extraneous attempts to intimidate witnesses and influence verdicts.
In Muzaffarnagar, too, it is clear that justice and due process need to be urgently rescued and revived. Surely, the politically expedient refusal of the Uttar Pradesh government to appeal the acquittals in 40 of the 41 cases cannot be allowed to be the last word. At stake is the people’s faith in the New India that their political leaders like to invoke.