Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
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  The skull beneath the skin  

  Vol IV : issue 4

  Cover page
  David Lelyveld
  Joginder Paul
  Antara Dev Sen
  Evald Flisar
  Amrita Pritam
Nirupama Rao
  Only in Print

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Antara Dev Sen

Oil on canvas by PROKASH KARMAKAR

For decades the Indian subcontinent has been haunted by mass fratricide in the name of religion. Whether in India or in Pakistan, in Bangladesh or in Sri Lanka, every now and then we rise in ugly fury to kill, maim and burn our friends, neighbours and countrymen. These could be spontaneous sectarian riots or pre-planned attacks on minority communities for political gain. But the basic fact remains the same: ordinary people are slaughtered in a frenzy of violence by other ordinary people who owe no explanation to those they kill, except that they have decided to make certain innocents pay for the real or imagined crimes of others. The tragedy of riots lies as much in the destruction of life and property as in the destruction of our fundamental beliefs — in justice, in reason, in humanity.

One way of guarding against this suspension of humanity, reason and the laws of the land would be to learn from our experiences, punish the guilty, strengthen civil society and put in checks and balances that can counter such ghastly outbursts. Unfortunately, distracted by political ambition and material aspirations, we have not been able to do that. It’s so much easier to lose your sense of truth and justice than to lose your clout or your votebank. So more than half a century after India became a secular democratic republic promising justice and equality to all under the law, we continue to murder and mutilate each other in the name of religion, caste, creed or gender. And while a single murder can see you behind bars for life, the murder of hundreds, especially if done en masse, can usually guarantee your safety. At least, that seems to be the message we are sending out. As is evident from our past, those who start riots, those who slaughter and rape and pillage and carry out the most gruesome acts of violence against humanity, are seldom brought to justice.

In keeping with the rest of our social and political lives, there is little or no accountability. How else could Chief Minister Narendra Modi, widely believed to be the architect of the horrifying violence that ripped Gujarat apart in 2002, reclaim his throne in a resounding electoral victory soon after thousands had been killed, and still be projected as a valid leader? Modi and several of his ministers, Vishwa Hindu Parishad general secretary Praveen Togadia, as well as several members of the police and administrative services — those who enjoy privileges because they are supposed to protect the common man — have been named in reports for their complicity in this frenzy of sectarian violence. That is, when the victim is allowed to lodge a formal complaint. We are not always allowed to take even that first step to justice.

CALCUTTA, 1947 — Photo courtesy Dilip Banerjee

Take the Best Bakery case — probably the most meticulously documented event in last year’s violence in Gujarat — where 14 people were burned alive and the 21 accused, publicly named by the survivors, swiftly acquitted. Because the National Human Rights Commission stepped in following that — with NHRC chairman Justice A.S. Anand declaring that this was a miscarriage of justice — there is still some hope. But a successful prosecution is based on accurate records and an impartial investigation into the crime. Every cog in the machine needs to work — from that first step of recording the crime, through the faithful presentation of evidence and eyewitness accounts, to the process of analysing the available data under free and unbiased conditions so as to reach justified conclusions of guilt or innocence. The main witness in the Best Bakery case, Zahira Sheikh, daughter of the murdered bakery owner, and her mother went on record saying that they were threatened by Madhu Srivastava, BJP member of the Legislative Assembly, and were forced to change their statements and bear false witness. This intimidation of witnesses and distorting evidence, practised frequently by defendants with political clout, severely undermines the process of justice and breeds cynicism among citizens that can undermine the very foundations of civil society. We need to allow the prosecution, the investigating agency, the accused and the victim to carry out their own roles, in their own designated spaces, as equals in the eyes of the law. Without that, the mechanism of justice delivery would become dysfunctional.

Remember the Delhi riots of 1984, where Sikhs were massacred following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards? They left close to 3,000 dead, countless wounded and ruined as their homes and businesses were destroyed. Several Congress politicians were accused by eyewitnesses and surviving victims of complicity, ranging from leading the mob to identifying Sikh families from voters’ lists they carried with them to rewarding each member of the murderous mob with a bottle of liquor and Rs 100, to finally pulling them out of police stations if apprehended by the law. The accused included then Union minister HKL Bhagat, members of Parliament Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler, Dharam Das Shastry, and metropolitan councillor Lalit Makan. Even after almost twenty years of trials, not one of them has been reprimanded by law.

Or take the Bombay riots in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6, 1992. They left at least 1,000 dead and almost 3,000 wounded in two phases of bloodshed. Then the retaliatory bomb blasts in March 1993 killed another 300, and left about 1,000 wounded. Along with some public figures, numerous policemen were accused of complicity and of severe atrocities during the violence. We do not have much to show by way of punishing the guilty.

Like in Bombay in 1992-93, or in Gujarat in 2002, the police of Delhi in 1984 were also accused of complicity in the riots, from Assistant Commissioners down to sub-inspectors and constables. The charges against the police were similar in all these cases: protecting and supplying weapons to the mob, pulling out policemen who were trying to contain the riots, disarming the marked victims, refusing to protect targeted communities and abetting the violence against them in various ways, including, as in Bombay, shooting them dead. Not much has been done to bring them to book either.

BOMBAY, 1992 — Photo by

Of course, all these allegations may be incorrect. All of these policemen and politicians may be falsely accused, they may be completely innocent, the victims of killer mobs in Delhi, Bombay and Ahmedabad may have been repeatedly mistaken. We may never know.

What we do know is that the riot accused routinely go free. And that doesn’t inspire confidence in human justice. All the direct victims of such riots that the TLM team spoke to simmer with helpless anger and bitterness. "No matter what courts and commissions say, we know they are killers, and will bring them to justice," vows Kuldeep Singh, who survived the Delhi riots but is still traumatised. "Indira Gandhi’s killers were quickly put to death.," says Sarabjeet Singh, who lost his father and other relatives. "What about my father’s murderers?"

The gulf between the powerful and powerless is never as stark as in riot situations. Riots usually don’t affect the upper classes, they merely destroy those who are already wounded by poverty and lack of basic rights. "Only the poor people died," points out Sumat Bai, 80, who saw her entire family butchered in 1984. "The rich escaped before the rioting began." And it has been the same pattern for half a century. As the poet Samarendra Sengupta says about the Partition riots, "Riots were never started by the really poor of any community, and no one from the upper class or upper middle class was killed in the violence." Gujarat 2002 was an exception.

And a deeper suspicion clots in the hearts of those wounded by civil society as well as the administration. "If Indira Gandhi could control riots in three days, why did it take this government six months?" asks an elderly resident of Naroda Patiya, Gujarat, who has escaped with his life but lost all else in last year’s violence. "Who do you think is behind all this?" In Bombay, a resident of riot-ravaged Behrampada recalls how they went hungry for days during the riots: "Because nobody dared to go to Kherwadi, a Shiv Sena-dominated area. Besides, if the police saw us even at our own doorstep they would threaten to shoot us." Noting the failure of the administration to control the Bombay riots, the Justice Srikrishna Commission Report says: "Even after it became apparent that the leaders of Shiv Sena were active in stoking the fires of communal riots, the police dragged their feet on the facile and exaggerated assumption that if such leaders were arrested the communal situation would further flare up…"

DELHI, 1984 — Photo by Pablo Bartholomew

For many, labelling these flares of sectarian fury as ‘riots’ is itself an act of denial, since these should be looked at as massacres supported by government or political parties. "The 1984 riots were not conventional communal riots. There was no fighting," says Harbans Kaur, who was newly married and pregnant when the riots shattered her family. "It was a government-sponsored attack on innocent people who were just sitting at home. Thousands were murdered in broad daylight. My husband and six other men of our family were killed."

And much has been written about why the violence in Gujarat in 2002 is more like a state-sponsored pogrom to cleanse the land of Muslims. In effect, we need to see things a little more clearly, and not hide behind convenient words, if we are to repair civil society and our tools of delivering human justice.

For the process of redressal has too many hurdles blocking out the underprivileged and traumatised, and only the very fortunate can hope to walk the path to justice. Through decades of practice, we have learnt to kill justice by striking at its roots, by dismembering and burying the body of evidence. And wracked by hunger, illiteracy, lack of health care and basic necessities, or smothered by our own middle class crises and ambitions, dwarfed by the futility of fighting a system that showcases corruption as an art form, we are only too willing to forget and move on.

So, too bad that your parents were slaughtered by the neighbours. Tough if your daughter was raped by the killers. You are about to be killed too, you say? How curious! What, you have attracted a mob to my doorstep? Out — this minute! I have problems of my own.

We move on.

Here’s a reminder of the people we leave behind. It’s just a quick look — pressed as we all are for time. Excepting those who have been left with broken bodies and a shattered world. They have all the time in the world to wait for justice.


p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4 p. 5

Antara Dev Sen is Editor of The Little Magazine