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India: Can we stop the carnage carnivals?

by Javed Anand, 4 December 2009

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The below article was published in Indian Express, 4 December 2009

Never Again?

Javed Anand

On December 2, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the 43-year-old Akali Dal MP from Bathinda, filled the Lok Sabha with sadness and remorse with her poignant account of the victims and survivors of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, and how even after 25 years they have not been given justice... House Leader and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said he agreed with Kaur that the tragedy should never happen again. “Not just tragic, it’s horrendous,” said Kaur.

Never again? Fact is, the “horrendous” has happened: again and again. Mercifully, 1984 has not again happened to Sikhs. But it happened to Muslims in 1989 (Bhagalpur), 1992 (Ayodhya, Mumbai) and 2002 (Gujarat) and to Orissa’s Christians in 2008. It happened just a year before 1984 too, to Muslims in Nellie (Assam). By the definition given in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948, that adds up to six “genocidal killings” in 25 years. Only in India, the world’s largest democracy.

Never again? Great idea. Will someone, please, do something to stop the carnage carnivals that are a familiar feature of the Indian landscape? But if the report of the Liberhan Commission, the Union government’s ATR (Action Taken Report), editorials and comment pieces in the media are anything to go by, there’s little room for hope that that which must not happen will not be allowed to happen ever again.

Who can rescue Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan, a reckless man apparently bent on digging his own grave? Seventeen years is a long time, eight crore a lot of rupees. And he can’t even get the date of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination right: January 31, says the report. Howlers apart, the learned judge seems all too eager to portray the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao as a “helpless” man. In his detailed account of the build-up to December 6, 1992, he also carefully skirts any mention of the role of the previous Congress regime in the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid as a trade-off — sarva communalists’ sambhav — for the Shah Bano case (1986). Had Justice Liberhan been more candid his report could possibly have dwelt on the inability, or unwillingness, of the Indian state to address the unsettled “law of the land” vs “religious belief” duel.

It is easy to punch a dozen holes in Justice Liberhan’s report. But to unceremoniously bury it would be yet another horrendous thing to do for it’s the only documentation on how, and who all, pushed the Indian Republic to the brink in 1992. Despite the howlers and bias, it contains invaluable and highly incriminating information which both the state and society must address if “never again” is sincerely meant. With all its faults the report remains a damning evidence-based account of what the institutions sworn to protect the Constitution of India did when rogues inveigled their way inside the system and manipulated it to the hilt aiding those leading the charge from without. The commission’s report can be summed up in a simple sentence: unless the System (pillars of state) addresses the rot within, forget about ever meeting the challenge from without. It’s about the future, not only the past.

Among the favourite war cries of the kar sevaks and their ringmasters before and on December 6, 1992 in Ayodhya was this: “Bade khushi kee baat hai, police hamare saath hai!” (“Oh happiness, the police are on our side!”) The commission’s report establishes in minute detail how this was not about ordinary constables manning the barricade. This was the message repeatedly sent out — within hearing range of the Allahabad high court, the governor of UP, the Supreme Court of India and the Union government — by UP’s chief minister, Kalyan Singh. Kalyan Singh surprises no one. But the report also indicts five top IAS and five IPS officers among others who, though sworn to serve the Constitution, functioned as loyal soldiers of the Sangh Parivar’s private army.

In Gujarat in 2002 it was the same story with a slight difference: “Ye andar kee baat hai, police hamare saath hai!” (“I’ll tell you a secret, cops are on our side!”) The Union government now promises action on its communal violence prevention bill. The only problem is that instead of making policemen and civil servants more accountable and enforcing the principle of “command responsibility”, the new legislation proposes more powers to them. Never again?

In conclusion, says Justice Liberhan, “historians, journalists and jurists may — and should — explore these dimensions and tell these untold stories for the benefit of the current and unborn generations.” The dimensions, the untold stories have to do with “the intransigent stance of the high court of Uttar Pradesh, the obdurate attitude of the governor [of UP, a Congress appointee], the inexplicable irresponsibility of the Supreme Court’s observer and the short-sightedness of the Supreme Court itself”.

You read it right, the learned judge counts his own brotherhood among the culpable and here are his parting words: “These cannot unfortunately be dwelt upon in this report (not being part of the commission’s mandate) although I have neither suppressed nor minced words about these at the appropriate places and in appropriate contexts in my report.”

When was the last time a judge spoke like this? If all we can do is to damn Justice Liberhan’s report, we are doomed. Dare I say a word more except that I have read it in full? Painful and time-consuming though it is, perhaps you should too.

P.S. On April 22, 1993, Stephen Lawrence, a young black man was stabbed to death by five white racists at a bus stop in London. The accused were all acquitted for lack of “firm evidence”.

Heeding the cry for justice from Lawrence’s parents, the then

home secretary of the UK, Jack Straw, appointed a three-member commission headed by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny. The Macpherson Report was published on February 24, 1999.

While tabling it in Parliament, Straw said the report “challenges us all, not just the police service”. The prime minister declared his commitment to “drive home a programme of change”.

Action on the recommendations of the Macpherson Report led to a roots-and-branch overhaul of the policing system in the UK. It can be no one’s case that racialism has altogether vanished in the British police system. Every new entrant is now made aware of the no nonsense message of the “Hate Crime Manual”: “There is no place in the police service for those who will not uphold and protect the human rights of others.” Another planet?

The writer is co-editor, ‘Communalism Combat’ and general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy