x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

More must be done to aid the victims of India's violence

The international community should join India's domestic voices in demanding accountability for victims of communal violence. That will mean bringing political leaders, police and other officials to justice.

It took two decades for justice to prevail after bomb attacks in Mumbai in March 1993, which injured hundreds and killed 257. Last month, India's Supreme Court ruled on the final appeals in a long trial process.

But in another episode of brutality in Mumbai, the wait for justice will be much longer.

The 1993 bombings were in retaliation for anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai a few months earlier, in which more than 1,000 people were killed. The Muslim community was targeted because of their violent protests against the destruction of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

An independent commission concluded in 1998 that the Hindu nationalist political party, the Shiv Sena, was largely responsible along with local police for these attacks against Muslims, but only a few minor figures have been successfully prosecuted.

Victims of the riots are not alone in waiting for justice. The authorities have repeatedly failed to properly investigate and prosecute those responsible for large-scale violence against religious minorities over the last several decades, despite the findings of independent inquiries that have implicated officials and members of law enforcement.

To be sure, the slow pace of justice is not limited to reparations for attacks against religious minorities. Still, justice denied is a particularly egregious trend for victims of mass violence.

In June 1984, the then-prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered the army to flush out militants holed up in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine for the Sikh community. The military action led to the death of innocent pilgrims and caused severe damages to the shrine, enraging the Sikh community. This led to Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards four months later.

Senior members of Gandhi's Congress party were then blamed for avenging her death by leading mob attacks on the Sikh community in which more than 3,000 Sikhs died. Twenty years later, in 2005, an independent commission implicated several Congress party workers. Yet nothing more has come of it.

The most recent case of mass attacks on religious minorities occurred in 2002, when nearly 2,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed in communal violence in the state of Gujarat. Like the Mumbai riots a decade earlier, it was the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya that was at the heart of the violence.

Hindu activists had been travelling to and from Ayodhya for weeks preceding the violence in Gujarat. One such train was attacked by a Muslim mob in the town of Godhra in Gujarat on February 27, 2002. A carriage caught fire, and 59 Hindus were killed.

This sparked a retaliatory killing spree in the state. The National Human Rights Commission and several court proceedings found that the attacks on Muslims were planned and organised with extensive police participation and complicity of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Despite this, Mr Modi has been elevated within the BJP to play a larger national role. His portrayal of Gujarat as a pro-business state and rising speculation over his potential candidacy for the prime minister's post in next year's elections have also brought many from the West to his door - despite his being denied a US visa - looking for greater investment ties.

Incidents of communal violence in India are too frequently dismissed as unfortunate events arising out of age-old enmities between religious or ethnic groups. In fact, they are usually well-orchestrated attacks made possible only with some degree of state complicity.

Consider the 1984 attacks on Sikhs in Delhi. Nearly 30 years on, many perpetrators and victims have died. Only a handful of convictions have taken place. Instead of holding perpetrators accountable, several Congress party leaders, including Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, who were implicated in the killings, were given powerful positions.

The story is not much different for the Muslim victims of Mumbai riots. The only notable conviction was in 2008, when Shiv Sena leader Madhukar Sarpotdar was sentenced to one year in prison. He received bail and two years later, died without spending a single day in jail. Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, who had been described in the commission report as a "veteran general" who commanded Shiv Sena members "to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims," passed away last year without being held accountable.

There have been more convictions in the Gujarat riots, but only because of interventions by the Supreme Court following appeals by activists and victims' families to order independent reinvestigations or to move trials. For its part, the Modi government is accused of intimidating activists and lawyers involved in the cases. Thanks to the country's highest court, however, scores of convictions have been handed down, including that of a former state education minister.

India's constitution and legal system guarantee the protection of basic human rights to its citizens, and the right to equal treatment regardless of religion, caste or class. However, the Indian government should end political patronage for perpetrators that has led to near-complete impunity and enact the Prevention of Communal Violence Bill, which was introduced in parliament in 2005.

The international community should join domestic voices in demanding accountability for victims of communal violence. That will mean bringing political leaders, police and other officials to justice - including those who remain in power today.

 

Jayshree Bajoria is a South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch

On Twitter: @jayshreebajoria