Godhra-Gulbarg Gambit: Pawns Face Trial While Knights Roam Free

Despite the Gulbarg case verdict, it will take more to deliver closure to victims of riots, writes Pravin Mishra.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Watching the way courts function reminds me of the game of chess. Both have rules. There is attack, and there is defence. There is black, and there is white. And not so strangely, there are more ways to reach a draw, than to win. A chess match can be won either by checkmate, on time, or when the opponent resigns. And so it is with judicial contests, too.

On that fateful day, the VHP had declared a Gujarat bandh. Armed, blood-thirsty mobs rampaged through the streets of Ahmedabad. Several thousand rioters surrounded the Gulbarg Society after the dead bodies of those killed in Godhra were paraded. The phone records of several police personnel and politicians analysed by the Jan Sangharsh Manch (now in the public domain) clearly establishes how incitement of violence and withdrawal of police forces from the targeted sites were planned. But after examining 575 witnesses, the court didn’t find a conspiracy angle to it. The verdict stated that the massacre was a ‘spontaneous attack’.


Conspiracy Charges Dropped

In chess, as you know, pawns lead the attack. Although their moves are limited, they are loyal to their masters, the more powerful bishops, rooks, knights. Pawns kill first, and die first. They are merely cannon fodder.

In riots, too, it’s usually the poor, the illiterate, the daily-wage labourers who are pushed forward. They are the ones sacrificed first. In the Gulbarg Society case of 28 February 2002 where 69 persons were killed, it was no different. The Special Court didn’t find a conspiracy angle. It found 11 of the 60 accused guilty of murder and 13 accused guilty of other related crimes such as rioting. Thirty-six were acquitted.

The rooks, the knights and the bishops act to protect the king and the queen. They are privileged with distinct powers and can move in complex ways.

Those who walked free on Thursday, 2 June 2016, include the Presiding Inspector of Meghaninagar police station KG Erda, BJP leader Bipin Patel, and Congress leader Meghsingh Chaudhary. Am I being naive in wishing that the law gave the same protection to the poor pawns as it does for the moneyed and the muscled?

Despite the Gulbarg case verdict, it will take more to deliver closure to victims of riots, writes Pravin Mishra.
A file photo shows a paramilitary Jawan patrolling in front of the empty houses at Gulbarg society in Ahmedabad in 2004. (Photo: PTI)

Fact vs Fiction

A chess game can end in a draw if neither player has sufficient material to checkmate the other or when no sequence of legal moves can lead to checkmate. But mind you, draws don’t happen by accident when masters play. There is clever strategy at work – well-planned, well-timed, and well-executed.

You may have noticed that as soon as the verdict is out, the focus shifts to the quantum of punishments meted out to the convicted. Then it moves on to the stories and counter-stories of those who are acquitted due to lack of evidence. This is no accident, either.

When propaganda rules over facts, and rhetoric over reasoning, chances of misinformation – and hence miscarriage of justice – is very high. Once a ‘collective conscience’ is created, the judiciary often tries to satisfy it. The sad fact is, in court, the truth often takes the side of the one who tells a better story by connecting the maximum number of dots.

Five years ago, in sharp contrast, the judiciary termed the Godhra train burning case as a conspiracy. Citing the past communal history of Godhra, the conspiracy theory was upheld, even though the ‘master conspirator’ was acquitted. Of those convicted, 11 are on death row, and 20 are to remain in prison for life. From the day the Godhra incident happened, the Narendra Modi government in the state has been pre-occupied with profiling the attack as an act of terrorism rather than in ascertaining facts. Indeed, on 27 February 2002, the day the coach was burned, Mr Modi was quick to label the event as an act of terrorism right at ground zero.

Despite the Gulbarg case verdict, it will take more to deliver closure to victims of riots, writes Pravin Mishra.
Ex-BJP MLA Haresh Bhatt hugs convict Atul Vaidya outside court on Thursday. (Photo courtesy: Pravin Mishra/The Quint)

Trial Court Reiterates State’s Version

Interestingly, in none of the 18 chargesheets filed by the prosecution in the Godhra train burning case, including the last one by the SIT, is there neither any allegation or an iota of evidence which could even remotely suggest that any of the 31 convicted of conspiring had any information that kar sevaks were coming by the ill-fated Sabarmati Express. To conspire to kill the kar sevaks, the accused had to know about their travel plans.

The trial court’s decision mirrored the government’s narrative – that Godhra was a pre-planned act. There is little mention of the altercation that occurred on the railway platform between the kar sevaks and the vendors, or the harassment of a young Muslim girl, Sophia Banu, which prompted many Muslims near the platform to begin throwing stones. These incidents have been brushed aside as being of no consequence. This lent credence to the state’s version of the Godhra incident.

Both verdicts reek of symbolism and fabricating a false history. It is about casting the entire Gujarat violence of 2002 as the natural response of Hindus to a pre-planned attack by Muslims in Godhra. We have already seen this in the language used in describing the large-scale killing of Muslims that followed as mere ‘post-Godhra’.

What is scary for society is the blatant display of pride in killing the Muslims. The 24 convicted persons include Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Atul Vaidya.

On Thursday when Vaidya was outside the police van in the court premises, a large number of supporters greeted him by shouting “Jai Shree Ram” slogans, while someone applied tilak on his forehead, an expression of bravery. Several people including former BJP MLA of Godhra Haresh Bhatt hugged Atul Vaidya and clicked pictures with him.

There are pawns that are sacrificed early in the game. Then come the bishops, the knights, the rooks. There is even the ‘beautiful’ sacrifice of the queen, if necessary.

But the king is never actually captured.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Creative Communication, MICA. He can be reached at @mishra_pravin)

Also read:

When a Reporter Had to Pull Down His Pants in Riot-Torn Ahmedabad

Bless Us, Abba: 2002 Gulbarg Victim Ehsan Jafri’s Daughter Writes

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