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WITH the Supreme Court’s severe admonition of the Modi government in the Zahira Sheikh Best Bakery case, hope has rekindled that the victims of the Gujarat riots may finally receive a just hearing. Earlier, the NHRC, suo motu had added its weight to the appeal to transfer the riot cases out of Gujarat and hand over investigation to the CBI. The constitutional body, like many others in the legal and human rights fraternity, too was convinced of the inability of Narendra Modi’s Gujarat to provide justice. It is this appeal, challenged by the state government, which has been upheld by the apex court.

There is little doubt that the court ruling has further diminished the legitimacy of the Modi regime and, by association, of its supporters in the Centre. Rarely has the Supreme Court been as scathing in its comments, going as far as to hint that the state is a fit case for Article 356 though not quite recommending it. ‘Quit if you cannot follow rajdharma.’ Nevertheless, any expectation that the ‘under pressure and scrutiny’ regime will change tack may be premature.

As has been revealed in a section of the press, the recently appointed public prosecutor charged with overseeing the riot cases is an old VHP hand, till recently the defence lawyer in the Ehsan Jaffrey case. And successful, because all 38 accused were let off. Can we seriously expect him to pursue the riot cases and ensure that the guilty are brought to book?

The faith in the CBI too is a trifle touching. True, the premier investigation agency is less riddled with corruption and is less amenable to political pressure than the state police. But, the list of even high-profile cases that it has botched up is legion. To thus expect a high degree of professionalism, given the high stakes associated with this case, may be unwarranted.

None of the above augurs well for our law and justice machinery, more so in cases relating to communal riots. It will be difficult to dredge up a single senior politician who has ever been convicted of organising riots and killings. This despite dozens of enquiry commission reports which have, on occasion, dared to ‘name’ the powerful. And it can be no one’s claim that the cover-up has benefited only BJP/Shiv Sena/VHP/RSS bigwigs. Just think of Delhi 1984 or Mumbai 1992-93? Who is it that our justice machinery was able to nail?

Supporters of Narendra Modi cry hoarse that their leader is being unfairly targeted, that he is a democratically elected chief minister, that too by a wide margin. And since he has been exonerated in the highest court, that of public opinion, all charges stand axiomatically discredited. Further, they point to the experience in other states as ‘proof’ that there is a conspiracy against Gujarat.

Since this is an oft-cited argument it merits pointing out that though no political party can claim an honourable record on this count, there are significant differences in the way different regimes have handled the post-conflagration fallout. For what it is worth, particularly after public pressure built up, the Congress did drop senior party members ‘accused’ of engineering the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Equally, no effort was made to target human rights activists behind damming reports like ‘Who Are The Guilty?’ At a subsequent stage there was even the semblance of a public apology. None of the above holds true of the Modi government.

Nevertheless, to argue that since the state of Gujarat remains much too inflamed and divided to offer any fair trial, the proceedings must be shifted elsewhere may encourage dangerous precedents. Unlike the jury system in the United States, where public opinion becomes a crucial factor in trials, our judges are expected to be shielded from undue public/political pressure. In principle, thus, the fact that the ruling regime’s prestige or even survival is at stake should not matter. The more substantive argument is that rather than ‘run away’ from a troubled site, the need is to engage with the local system and force it to perform as per acceptable standards.

If victims have invariably to shift elsewhere in the search for justice, one might as well ask them to migrate. The Gujarati Muslim community is Gujarati and that is their home. It is in Gujarat that they need vindication, not in Delhi or the International Court of Justice at the Hague.

The Supreme Court has given us a wake-up call. It is up to all of us to ensure that the recalcitrant administration in Gujarat – the police, the lawyers, and the judiciary – perform. Otherwise, the recent comment by Chief Justice Kirpal (retd.) of the Supreme Court, that our justice system, given its procedures, is incapable of delivering timely justice, will stand vindicated.

Harsh Sethi

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