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Saffron Dollar August-September 2004
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September 20, 2004

Dear Friends,

In this issue of Saffron Dollar, we focus on the performance of the United Progressive Alliance government as they complete their first hundred days in power. In addition, we report on a recent convention held by the Indian Muslim Council in August in Chicago.

I. One hundred Days of secularism? A report card of the UPA government.

The new United Progressive Alliance (UPA) recently completed one hundred days in office. At the time of the last elections, the UPA government, led by the Congress party, proposed a common minimum program as a platform to pursue a more people-centered politics. Among other things, the new government promised to undo the communal agenda of the previous BJP government and place secularism on top of the common minimum program (CMP). On the issue of secularism, the CMP aimed at creating a model comprehensive Bill to deal with communal violence and encourage each state to adopt that law to generate faith and confidence in the minority communities. We look at whether the government has made any move towards fulfilling its promises.

a. A Fair Judiciary?

In the immediate aftermath of the Gujarat pogrom, there was some mention of rajdharma in hushed tones, but Modi's victory in the assembly elections later that year put paid to any such hopes. With the legislature and the executive firmly under Modi's control, it was left to the judiciary to perform its rajdharma. Last September, V. N. Khare, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India, ordered the Gujarat Government to "punish offenders and bring the guilty to book." "If you can't, you quit," he thundered.

Modi stayed put but the judiciary continued to breathe down his neck. This April, Justices Raju Doraiswamy and Arijit Pasayat concurred with what several human rights and civil liberties organizations have claimed all along. "The modern day Neros (a reference to the Gujarat Government) were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected," they pronounced. They ordered a retrial of the Best Bakery case and shifted it to Maharashtra. For how could one expect killers to deliver justice?

Last month, Modi was again caught with his pants down. The Supreme Court castigated the Gujarat-appointed public prosecutor for shielding the guilty and appointed a new public prosecutor. Based on the CBI's perception of danger to the victims and witnesses, the SC also shifted the Bilkis Yakoob Rasool gangrape case to Maharashtra. Besides, the SC also ordered the Gujarat Government to reopen 2,000-odd riot cases that had been closed in a hurry.

Notwithstanding such judicial activism, the continuance of the Modi government bodes ill for justice being served. After all, not all cases, victims and witnesses can be transferred to Maharashtra (or elsewhere). Besides, with the police and administration actively doing the killers' bidding -- only last week, a senior sub-inspector in Panchmahal district of Gujarat was arrested for destroying evidence -- evidence might soon disappear in all but a handful of cases.

With the Sangh Parivar continuing to be unapologetic about the Gujarat pogrom, the Centre needs to act now to crush the Modis.

b. Godhra Investigation

On February 27, 2002, 58 men, women and children, mostly Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists, were torched to death when a fire broke out in compartment S-6 of the Sabarmati Express. It was alleged that a Muslim mob threw petrol from the outside and lit the compartment. The Gujarat government, led by Narendra Modi, instituted a commission to inquire into the Gujarat pogrom, but had restricted the terms under which the Godhra train fire was to be investigated. The government had pretty much concluded that the train compartment was set on fire, eliminating any other possibility than pre-meditated arson.

Two months after the incident, the Forensic Science Laboratory, an independent scientific laboratory established by the Ministry Of Home Affairs, concluded that the fire accelerant was not thrown from the outside but came from within the compartment. While the report called into question the prevailing theory of how the fire started, it received minimal coverage in the media and was quickly buried, not surprisingly, by the BJP government. Since the post Godhra violence, premeditated as it seemed to be, was justified as a reaction to the Godhra fire, any evidence that pointed otherwise was simply a nail in their coffin.

Once the new United Progressive Government took office in May 2004, the railway minister, Mr. Laloo Prashad Yadav stated that he would institute a new commission to look into the Godhra incident. This decision came under fire from the opposition BJP, which claimed that any new commission was ‘illegal’ since there was already a commission (Shah-Nanavati) investigating the very same issue. Despite the criticism, the UPA government is to be given some credit for sticking to its promise and appointed Mr. Banerjee, a former Supreme Court judge to form a new committee. While a good first step, one will have to wait and see if the UPA government follows through on its promise as the investigation proceeds.

c. Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA)

The Common Minimum Program adopted by the UPA government calls for a repeal of the draconian law, Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) that had been passed by the NDA government in 2002. POTA gives the State sweeping powers to act against citizens on the mere suspicion of their being involved in, or sympathizing with, terrorist activities, and has, in many cases, been applied in a conspicuously communal and vindictive manner. The definition of “terrorism” itself is left open to politically expedient interpretation. For instance, in Gujarat, POTA has been applied to apprehend people suspected of being involved with the Godhra train burning incident, but not to arrest any one who participated in the anti-Muslim pogrom that followed. Of the over 280 people booked under POTA in Gujarat, all are Muslim, save one, who is a Sikh.

While this Act would have anyway expired on Oct 30th this year, the UPA government had decided to repeal it earlier and has announced that an ordinance repealing POTA will be promulgated soon. Given the completely arbitrary and unjust nature of POTA, this is no doubt a very welcome move. However, it is not clear if it is going to have a retrospective effect. What will happen to the 12 year olds who have been booked under POTA as terrorists, or the hundreds of others still languishing in jails with little evidence of any wrong doing? Worse still, the government may retain some of the provisions of POTA by amending Criminal Law Amendment Act, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Money Laundering Bill and Evidence Act to include them. As the NHRC maintains, the Government does not need special laws to combat terrorism, which can be adequately dealt with under the provisions of the already existing laws. Laws such as POTA only serve to persecute innocent civilians and relieve the law enforcement authorities of their constitutional duties of collecting convincing evidence.

POTA is not the only draconian law in existence currently—the Armed Forces (Special Provisions) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), applicable in the North Eastern states and Kashmir, has far more totalitarian provisions and gives the armed forces virtual impunity to wreak havoc on local populations. The entire state of Manipur, which has been declared “disturbed” and placed under this act since 1980, has seen an unprecedented scale of anti-AFPSA protests in the last month. However, all of this seems to have made little difference to the UPA government, which is content with just repealing the POTA. For a government not merely interested in earning brownie points for “secularism” but genuinely motivated to safeguard the civil liberties of all religious and racial minorities in India, the immediate abrogation of AFPSA should be a top priority.

II. Indian Muslim Council Convention

The second annual convention of the Indian Muslim Council – USA was held outside Chicago, IL on August 7th, 2004. The IMC was formed on 15th August, 2002 and has since been active as an advocacy and awareness group, challenging the Hindutva agenda of the Sangh Parivar. While not a religious group, the IMC represents the Indian Muslim community. The convention highlighted the unique role of the IMC as an organization that addresses the root cause of communal violence in addition providing relief services to individuals affected by such violence.

Since its inception, the IMC has built alliances - what it calls ‘coalition of the informed’. This was apparent from the range of speakers and panelists present at the various sessions. The first session on coalition building had seven panelists including representatives of the Hindu, Sikh, Dalit communities and representatives from groups for peace and communal harmony like the NRI-SAHI (NRIs for a secular and Harmonious India), Promise of India and Building Bridges. The need to strengthen the coalition was felt given the consolidation by the Sangh Parivar after the last election. Other sessions included the ‘human rights and justice update’ , ‘Politics and Policy Making’ ‘NGO and Business Networking’ and a separate session on women’s issues. In this session, Zakia Jafri (the daughter of Ehsan Jafari who was brutally killed in the Gujarat carnage of 2002) spoke about how women were prime targets of violence in the Gujrat Carnage. The final key note address was given by Lord Adam Patel, the award ceremony and the fund raising dinner. Overall, the convention provided hope to the progressive community that the IMC is well located to seriously address communal issues within the Indian community, given its large membership and coalitions.