June 04, 2016

India: The ghosts of Gulbarg are yet to rest (Shiv Visvanathan on the court ruling in the Gulbarg society case)

The Hindu, June 4, 2016

The echoes at Gulbarg Society

Shiv Visvanathan

The quality of waiting is often so long, so intense that everyone wants the judgment to be an epic, achieving a kind of poetic closure. Unfortunately most judgments lack the power of closure.

Justice often begins with rituals of waiting. Waiting can be slow, painful, eventless as one waits for a judgment. In fact waiting often provides the pathos and drama of justice, while the judgment can be a damp squib. The quality of waiting is often so long, so intense that everyone wants the judgment to be an epic, achieving a kind of poetic closure. Unfortunately most judgments lack the power of closure, they leave behind pathos and ambiguity, forcing the victim to enact the Sisyphean myths of justice again. The tiredness of waiting disappears to be replaced by the tiredness of a repeated struggle. The Gulbarg Society case, along with the Naroda Patiya massacre, was among the most dramatic in the series of investigations the Special Investigation Team constituted by the Supreme Court handled in the Gujarat violence of 2002.

Not like Naroda Patiya

The first announcement of Justice P.B. Desai was seen as a mixed bag. There was both relief and satisfaction but little of the drama that Naroda Patiya provided. In the latter, justice caught up with the big fish, with the likes of the BJP Minister, Maya Kodnani, who orchestrated murder. Gulbarg boasted no big name, no roll call of culpable VIPs. All it had was a BJP councillor Bipin Patel who was declared innocent. “The insufficiency of evidence” must be one of the most fascinating terms in the discourse of law. It conveys the line of taboo, the sense of the limits of investigation marking of a domain where the accused is free. After 14 years, the special sessions court convicted 24 people, while acquitting 36 others.

The first reaction from all sides was guarded. A ritual was over, a judgment declared and made welcome. The judgment is like a text that one must read and reread to evaluate. The first reactions from the Jafri family, from Teesta Setalvad of the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), even from the BJP spokeswoman were muted. Each began with a salute to the law, before they added the personalised reactions. Everyone became collectively aware the judgment was a prelude, more like a headline, indicating number rather than the outline of the quantum of punishment or even the logic of violation. As the full judgment was to be announced on June 6, one felt justice was being presented in pipettes. Even then first reactions had a mixed quality. While announcing the number convicted, the judgment exonerated everyone of any kind of conspiracy. The Gulbarg massacre, the preliminary statements indicated, had no sense of planning or system.

Ms. Setalvad, while thanking the courts, was clear that Gulbarg was planned, a clear act of planned murder to eliminate the housing colony composed mainly of Muslims. She added that the struggle for justice would continue. Zakia Jafri, wife of the former MP who died in the Gulbarg Society massacre, produced the more poignant reaction. She observed that 400 people entered Gulbarg and only 11 were found guilty of murder. It was almost as if for the rest the event was extracurricular. Ms. Jafri’s comment was that the demographics of scale did not fit the judgment. The conviction of 11 persons seemed pinched and puritanical. She also commented tiredly that the judgment offered no closure, that the narratives of struggle had to begin again. Tanvir Jafri, Ehsan Jafri’s son, also commented that it was odd that 11 individuals could have enacted the murder of 69 people. Gulbarg was no fly-by-night slum but a regular residential colony. To say that 11 persons achieved the effect of murder and slaughter did not seem quite convincing. Yet each of the three main protagonists praised the justice system but felt the judgment was mixed, offering neither closure nor peace. It almost seemed like the first chapter, a prelude to a longer narrative everyone was still waiting for. The sixth of June acquired the magic of detail, where a substantial judgment may add resonance to the logic of the sentence.

Behind the politeness, the civility of the responses, one could sense that next to the drama of Naroda Patiya, Gulbarg was a damp squib. It had elements of the positive but these were not issues that the regime could congratulate itself for. The reaction of the BJP spokesperson on television produced that sense of the farcical. Shaina N.C. provided what sociologists called ‘the canned reaction’ combining knee jerk and stereotype which had no sense of context or detail. She indicated an artificial closure by declaring pompously that now the nation can move on. Movement seems more real than closure. Then in an ironic turning of the tables, Shaina N.C. presented Narendra Modi as the victim and Ms. Setalvad as the witch-hunter. The BJP spokesperson lacked the sense of gravitas, of finesse which the victims displayed. There was a dignity to what they said, while the BJP spokesperson sounded like an ATM of politics, with no sense of history, or the pain of waiting. There was a sense that the BJP was vindicated and now politics as usual must go on. Sometimes a vulgarity and indifference to pain and suffering comes in the language of response, and the spectator wondered whether the BJP really cared for the victims.

When a fight for justice by victims who rediscover the pain and the power of citizenship is equated to a witch-hunt, where the pain of the Gulbarg victims has no resonance before the inconvenience Mr. Modi was subject to, a sense of doubt enters. There is a smell of the farcical and the pompous. In fact the reaction seems suspect. The way Shaina N.C. speaks you would think it was Ehsan Jafri who was an enemy of the state rather than the prime victim.

Aloneness of the victim

The spectator, the listener watching and absorbing the show on TV starts wondering at the listlessness of the entire show. The whole day, given the centrality of Gulbarg, gave one a sense that an IPL of Justice was coming. Yet the event was slow, painful and ambiguous. It was as if the law was slowly, painfully squeezing out the truth in slow sentences like an old toothpaste. The very slowness added to the other slownesses of history, the long wait for the judgment, the sense that justice is a slow filtering system. Between the long wait and the viscosity of the judgment, there was a feeling that Gulbarg was yet to settle down. The background pictures on television, the scars on the walls of the abandoned houses, the picture of Ehsan Jafri placed on the litter of time gave a sense of the aloneness of the victim. As one of the victims proclaimed, “A photo is all I have left.”

There is an emptiness to Gulbarg Society, echoing the vitality it must have had over a decade ago. Gulbarg becomes a miniature of a genocidal Gujarat. A housing colony with that full domesticity of life is destroyed almost as if normalcy is not yet available to the Muslim as victim. There is a sadness around, which will take time to dispel. Meanwhile one waits for the sixth of June for details, for observations which can make justice more palatable. The drama of waiting and still waiting overwhelms the power of the judgment. The ghosts of Gulbarg are yet to rest.

Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal Law School.