x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Build on the slow progress towards Gujarat justice

A guilty verdict in a decade-old sectarian murder case reminds Indians that the rule of law is becoming more certain as time goes by.

Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, was off on a goodwill visit to China on Wednesday when a special court at home convicted 31 persons of murder and rioting in a case that is almost a decade old.

Out of the country was a prudent place for Mr Modi to be. He is widely expected to become the presidential candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and his behaviour as chief minister during 2002 rioting that killed as many as 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, generated lingering suspicions. A special inquiry ordered by India's Supreme Court led to no charges against him, but unanswered questions persist.

What really matters about this case, however, is not Mr Modi's career plans, bur rather what the verdict, and the process which led to it, say about the rule of law. And what they say represents good news for India.

The subcontinent's history of sectarian violence stretches into the mists of time, but the handling of the Gujarat flare-up, a decade ago next February, belatedly offers some evidence of progress: under the rule of law, even-handed policing and courts can lead to the identification and punishment of the guilty.

The spasm of violence started on February 28, 2002, when 59 Hindus died in a train fire; last February 31 people were convicted in that attack and 11 were sentenced to death. Widespread communal violence broke out in Gujarat, and the day after the train fire, 33 Muslims were burnt to death in a house where they had taken refuge; this is the case that was adjudicated this week. All those convicted received life sentences.

But this should not close the book on the case. There are indications of a conspiracy, particularly in the stockpiling of petrol, that raise serious questions about other guilty parties besides these 31. A full and open inquiry, which is still lacking, is the only way to address these wounds.

The route to Wednesday's decision has not been direct. Gujarat is 90 per cent Hindu, and in 2004 India's Supreme Court, sharply criticising the Gujarati justice system, ordered 2,000 closed investigations to be reopened. And in 2008 the high court set up a Special Investigation Team to take over from Gujarati officials; it is this unit that brought in both of this year's group convictions.

The roots of sectarian violence are deep and will not be ripped out easily. After a decade, investigation grows difficult, and such cases are always politically contentious as well. But surviving victims of the riots, and the kinsfolk of those who died, need to know that justice is steadily extending and strengthening its hold on Indian society.

Gujarati officials from Mr Modi on down, along with everyone else in India, need to see today that Indian society is asserting the rule of law.