TOPICS : Push for justice in India riots

Anwar Ismail Vohra lost everything he owned when a mob of Hindus torched his property four years ago in Sunao, a nondescript village in the state of Gujarat. A maze of idle bricks strewn about the compound is the only sign of his once sprawling two-story house and grocery store. Now he lives with his large family in a ghetto — in abominable living conditions.

More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the Gujarat riots of 2002. The quest for justice by victims of the Gujarat violence has already transformed India’s sluggish, and at times Kafkaesque, legal system and given new hope to those like Vohra. For the first time ever in the judicial history of India, a riot case — the Best Bakery case — was transferred outside a state in order to ensure the trial could move forward and was decided fairly.

Only a few Gujarat riot cases have been brought to courts in the last four years. Fewer still have resulted in convictions. To remedy the problem, India’s Supreme Court stepped in, ordering the retrial in Gujarat of nearly 2,000 cases that were systematically shut down by the Gujarat government for two years. Acting on the verdict, the Gujarat government ordered in January the reopening of more than 1,600 riot cases, including Vohra’s.

In the most celebrated case, known as Best Bakery, a Gujarat court in 2003 absolved all 21 defendants who stood accused of taking part in an arson attack on a bakery owned by a Muslim family. After the Supreme Court moved the case to Mumbai, nine people were sentenced to life in prison for the killing of 14 people in the attack. The Bombay court issued another rare verdict: Zaheera Sheikh, a Muslim woman who was the prime witness in this case, was sentenced to a year in prison for perjury, and ordered to pay a fine of approximately $1,000.

In December last year, a fast track special court in Godhra sentenced 11 people to life imprisonment for killing 11 Muslims in the same riots.

“People are now increasingly pinning their hopes on the judiciary for justice,” says Mushtaq Ali, a lawyer from Delhi. However, he notes that the successes in court are making some people in Gujarat nervous about a hostile backlash. Most riot victims still cannot completely trust the Gujarat police, who are accused of standing by and doing little to protect people during the riots.

A K Bhargawa, the Gujarat state police chief, is pessimistic that anything substantial will come of arson cases being reopened because of the complexity of gathering evidence in such cases, four years on. Nevertheless, he says that all reopened cases will be pursued by police officers other than those posted in the riot affected areas. The Gujarat government is also probing 40 police officers for mishandling the communal violence.

Despite police assurances, stories of intimidation in villages where people have returned aren’t uncommon in Gujarat, even now.

A large number of riot victims are being coerced to concede to taking back their cases. But Vohra and others aren’t willing to relent under duress. — The Christian Science Monitor