'Splintered Justice' in the Aftermath of Communal Violence

India has, over time, cultivated a culture of exerting no effort towards justice for the survivors of communal violence, finds Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha's book.

Communal violence has been a blot on the Indian record since British rule, with inter-community rivalry extending to well before that. Post-independence, this issue has reached truly dangerous levels – especially, long after the end of the British Raj, it is hard to continue to blame their divide-and-rule policies for the Nellie massacre of 1983, the 1984 pogroms against the Sikhs, or the murder of Graham Staines in January 1999 in Odisha. This issue has therefore attracted lot of academic attention. Most of the studies have concentrated more on the causes – economic, political and social – of such violence. Even in the studies of causation, the career-profiles and roles of the goons patronised by the politicians and officials have remained woefully under-explored. Similar omission persists about studying the communalisation of minorities.

Asghar Ali Engineer, Paul Brass, Steven Wilkinson and Ashutosh Varshney are among the best known names to have explored and published influential works on the theme. Of these scholars however, Brass has diligently argued against using the word ‘riot’ for such violence. He has argued that such violence is not spontaneous. Instead it is ‘organised’ and ‘structured’. Riots don’t ‘happen’, these are ‘produced’ by politicians in connivance with the administrative machinery – an aspect that Wilkinson has also expanded on in his Votes and Violence. Brass wrote that, “What are called Hindu-Muslim riots in India are, in fact, more like pogroms, and have …taken the form of genocidal massacres and local ethnic cleansing as well”.

What has remained less attended to is the aftermath of the violence and barbarity. What happened to the victims that survived? Enough has been said on incumbent regimes, through choice or not, failing to pre-empt and control the violence. What remains understudied is the criminal justice system after the carnage. How did the ‘secular’ regimes protect and promote the perpetrators in the long run? What happened to the security personnel who either looked away or joined in the perpetrators? How difficult and complicated did it become for the victims to claim and get compensations? How did the victims and the survivors of the deceased ones re-build their lives? These are the questions that have been probed in Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha’s Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat. This melancholic story tells us how the Indian republic frequently fails to dispense justice.

Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and GujaratThree Essays Collective, 2016

Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha
Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat
Three Essays Collective, 2016

This extremely readable narrative, “a record of the survivors’ pursuit for justice and their refusal to forget the carnage”, shames us all, as a nation, in a very big way. At the same time, it should also inspire perseverance and bravery among us, as it comes out of the story of Malka Begum of Chanderi village in Bhagalpur, the sole witness to the murder of 66 people in the village. Malka’s fight for justice is extraordinary in itself, not least because her limbs were hacked off and she was thrown into a pond with the dead.

The 23-page introductory essay by Harsh Mander and Navsharan Singh interprets, evaluates and summarises the studies of the Bhagalpur carnage (October-November 1989 and March 1990). This atrocity happened during the ‘secular’ regime of the Congress, while impunity to the perpetrators was provided under the ‘minority friendly’ regime of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, led by Lalu Prasad Yadav. On the other hand, the Gujarat carnage (2002) took place under the BJP government led by Narendra Modi. In comparing the two, Mander and Singh write,

“We learn that impunity is pervasive not only in times of conflict but also in normal, peacetime….It is also clear that the pervasive nature of violence against religious minorities is not limited to the state’s unaccountability; there is a deep state-society nexus that sustains the violence and reinforces impunity”.

It exposes the chilling fact that “the process to provide impunity to the accused begins immediately after the violence”.

It asks us all, not only to speak out against the overtly communal regimes but also to reflect upon the secularism practised by the much hyped ‘non-communal’ regimes. The introductory chapter adds that unlike the Gujarat carnage (2002), “The Bhagalpur carnage [of 1989-90] was not followed by any major organised effort by human rights workers to secure justice for the survivors”. The impunity provided to Kameshwar Yadav – among the most notorious perpetrators of the Bhagalpur carnage – by a regime which stayed in power for a very long time, substantially because of the Muslim votes, is just one of the many instances. Kameshwar was close to the then Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, who still endures as the ‘messiah’ of Muslims. In the Gujarat carnage, some police officers and ministers ended up being convicted for their offences, but in the case of Bhagalpur no police official, not even the then superintendent of police, K. S. Dwivedi, could ever be put to judicial trial, despite the relevant exposes made about their complicity.

Arvind Narayan Das, in his essay ‘Para-Democracy in Bihar’, (Economic and Political Weekly, November 21, 1998), made a very pertinent observation, worth citing here:

“…the secular protestations of Laloo Prasad Yadav started ringing hollow when he refused to take any action against the perpetrators of the Bhagalpur riots despite a very clear inquiry report. This was on account of the fact that the main accused in the Bhagalpur riots happened to be Yadavas. Similarly, the recent riots in Biharsharif were not so much communal, between Hindus and Muslims, as between Yadavas and Muslims. Again for Laloo Prasad Yadav, it became a choice between securing his primary base or his alliance system and he chose the former, thinking that the latter would be secured in any case.

The problems have arisen for Laloo Prasad Yadav because he took too many things for granted. Not only did he presume on the continued support of Muslims, Yadavas and other backwards castes but he also thought that he could gain the electoral backing from Dalits by mere symbolic acts rather than substantive agrarian reforms”.

In October 1992, violence broke out in Sitamarhi and Riga. The Lalu led government largely succeeded in controlling the violence (though not in preventing it despite knowledge of prevailing conditions beforehand), but nobody pursued a battle for justice – not even a report of enquiry came out. No leadership ever asked for the report. Was it because the victims of Riga were Pasmanda (or backward) Muslims?

Warisha Farashat. Credit: Facebook

Warisha Farasat, on the of the authors of the book. Credit: Facebook

Interestingly, this ‘culture’ of exerting no judicial effort for justice for communal violence might have developed in Bihar since independence, as nobody pursued justice for the atrocities that occurred in 1946-47. The Bihar government reneged on its promise to institute an enquiry. This is contrast with the colonial period when, in some instances, such battles were fought till the logical end. In the case of the Bettiah violence of August 1927, Shafi Daudi (1875-1949) fought out the issues not only in court and on the floor of the legislative house, but also on the streets.

Mander and Singh, in their introductory essay to the volume under review, reiterate Brass as well as Wilkinson in a much clearer way,

“If government officials and political leaders wish to act, the law, as it stands, is more than adequate to empower them to prevent and control hate violence. No riot can continue for more than a few hours without the support of the political leadership and police and civil officials. The riot occurs because it is systematically planned and executed by communal outfits and because governments … deliberately refuse to douse the fires, and instead allow rivers of innocent blood to flow”.

The two authors, Farasat and Jha, had undertaken field trips during 2011-14 – long after the carnage was carried out. The studies have relied upon “narratives of the survivors”, who are called as “community researchers”, whose greater agony with the state is impunity given to the perpetrators. The account is an investigation into the failures of justice and of reparations. The two authors are trained lawyers as well as research-activists whose meticulous research justly claims to contribute towards debates over impunity, state power and justice in India. Such field studies should also be conducted in other places that have undergone communal carnages. Sadly our universities rarely arrange such trips for their researchers pursuing PhDs. The organisations which do, such as the Centre for Equity Studies, deserve appreciation for furthering such research.

Prita Jha. Credit: Three Essays Collective.

Prita Jha. Credit: Three Essays Collective.

This wonderful slim volume should have included a third spatial segment – on the Muzaffarnagar violence of 2013. Ghazala Jamil’s essay, ‘Internally Displaced Muslims of Western Uttar Pradesh’, (EPW, January 20, 2014), fits very well into this theme. It exposes the ‘secular’ pretensions of the governing Samajwadi Party, where she argues,

“…added to the pathetic conditions of the camps where they [Muslims] have fled to is the government’s unclear definitions and non-transparent relief measures. Even as Muslims continue to move out of areas where sustained hate-mongering has made their lives miserable and lose their livelihoods in the process, many of those who have filed police cases find they are welcome back only if they take back their complaints”.

Here too what one finds is that civil rights activists have not chastised the culpable regime in the courts of law as doggedly and determinedly as they have been done with the BJP regime of Gujarat.

In this era of cost cutting, even quite rigorous and renowned old publication houses tend to compromise with the quality of copy-editing and proof-checks. The Three Essays Collective should be applauded for having done a very good job in this regard. Nonetheless, a reader misses an index and a bibliography in this otherwise very useful account. This book is particularly recommended to the students/probationers in the education and training academies meant for legal-judicial fraternity as well as police and administrative personnel. Equally important and useful would be to bring out translations of this book in Indian vernacular languages.

Mohammad Sajjad is an associate professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in History in Aligarh Muslim University and the author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours.