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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Struggle for Gujarat’s soul

Maya Kodnani and Jyotsna Yagnik offer contrasting visions of the state

Written by Peter Ronald DeSouza | Published: September 7, 2012 2:24:26 am

Many opinions have been aired with respect to the judgment of the special court on the Naroda Patiya massacre of 2002 in Gujarat. It has been seen as a triumph of the rule of law which,in spite of the partisanship shown by the investigating machinery of the state,as stated by the judge,was able to establish guilt and punish the perpetrators. For some,it is seen to establish a new standard of judgment for cases of communal carnage. The new technologies of filming and recording that were available in 2002,but not in 1984,made it possible to produce incontrovertible evidence to convict the guilty. For others,the judgment is seen as having significant implications for the forthcoming elections and thereby for democracy in Gujarat. The dominant motif has been the victory of justice.

There is one aspect of the case,however,on which few have commented,and which on reading the reports has made me very curious. It concerns the two women at the centre of the judgment. What is it that drove them to take the positions they did? Is their status as women significant or should we read the judgment only in a gender-neutral way? Do not women carry a richer sensibility than men towards compassion and pain? Is their respective socialisation,as individuals and as women,important? Can we read in their contrasting positions the struggle for the soul of Gujarat,a struggle in which the forces of good,which have always been in abundance in the Gujarat of the Mahatma,have to resist the forces of evil that have taken hold of some powerful people in the state?

As reported in the press,97 persons from the minority community were killed in an orgy of violence on February 28,2002. All of the victims were from the lower middle class and lived in the shanty town of Naroda Patiya. The violence that erupted on that fateful day was deliberately instigated. The brutality that followed plumbed the depths of savagery and went on for 10 hours. Thirty-six of the dead were women who were raped,gangraped,stabbed,and then burnt. Thirty-five of the dead were children. God had gone missing that day.

The “kingpin” of the violence,instigating the mob,handing out weapons,urging them to take revenge on the innocents for the Godhra burning of the Sabarmati Express train,was the MLA of Naroda Patiya,Maya Kodnani. Our scholar friends tell us that MLAs are elected to protect and represent us. What do they have to say now? Kodnani stood in the locality,weapons of violence in each hand,urging the crowd,and like “Caesar’s spirit,ranging for revenge/ With Ate by his side come hot from hell/ Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” (Julius Caesar Act 3,Scene 1). How did Kodnani,a woman,produce such hysteria and hate that 36 ordinary women and 35 innocent children could be brutalised and killed? How did a woman,socialised to be a caregiver,a nurturer of life,a mother and a sister,produce such animosity? We need to understand this in terms of a social psychology,in terms of the drivers of a public ethics,a social morality that allowed this to happen.

Perhaps what Kodnani represents is a deep social pathology that a politics of hate produces. Perhaps one should see her not just as the brutaliser but also as the brutalised. To make matters worse for our understanding,Kodnani is a certified medical doctor,one who began her career by taking the Hippocratic oath. And,unlike the women of the Mahabharata,did not keep it. And if this is not troublesome enough,Kodnani is a gynaecologist and obstetrician trained to care for the health of women!

The other woman,the special judge,Jyotsna Yagnik,must have had to delve deep into her being and find her dharma,to give the judgment she gave in a hostile state and a charged atmosphere. It could not have been easy to give 28 years to Dr Kodnani,ex-minister for women and child development,two sentences that are not to run concurrently. A senior Supreme Court advocate said on TV that this is a first,a severity of sentence that independent India has not seen. He seemed,like a man with diminished sensibility,to see the case in the narrowest of legal terms. Judge Yagnik not only took the highest ethical stand available within the legal system,of not allowing the guilty the benefit of concurrent sentences,but she also added richly to our engagement with issues of public morality when she described the violence as “brutal,inhuman and shameful”,and a “cancer in the society”. Not only did she give a clear judgment but she also contributed hugely to our public debate on ethics when she declined to award the death penalty,even though she admitted the crimes were heinous,because she believed that the death penalty was against “human dignity” and out of step with the global trend. Like many male judges do,she did not duck the issue and give the death penalty by invoking the “rarest of rare” principle as a substitute for reasoned argument. Here is a woman judge embodying courage,honesty,care,and the highest dharmic principle of her profession. She spoke for the other Gujarat of non-violence and justice,perhaps because she embodies the virtue epistemology that a woman better represents.

So what makes one woman exemplary and the other to be pitied,one so virtuous and the other so villainous? Kodnani is right when she said that she was a “victim of politics”. It is the politics of hate that she adopted,the politics of “othering”,of demonising the other,of appealing to our darker selves as we mobilise to win elections. Can her statement,that she was a “victim of politics”,be read as repentance? Judge Yagnik did not think so. And with her courage has given us the hope to believe that the powers of light will ultimately triumph. As Gandhiji would have said,“Lead kindly light”.

The writer is director,Indian Institute of Advanced Study,Shimla. Views are personal

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