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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi

Down, but not Out!
Someshwar Pandya still wants to tell
the truth!

August 06, 2003

Justice A S Anand, former Chief Justice of India and National Human Rights Commission Chairman, does not need to lookfar to justify hisrequest to the SupremeCourt to transfer the hearing ofcommunal riots cases out of Gujarat.

The Supreme Court may want toconsiderSomeshwar Pandya's case.

Pandyalost an eye and suffered grievous injury at the hands of peopledetermined topreventhim from deposing before the Nanavati Commission.

It is a case where the communal violence that pittedHindus against Muslims in Gujarat last year is now turning into a caste conflict,where liberal Hindus are being targeted for standing up againstcommunal forces.

Someshwar Pandya is bed-ridden these days. The 65 year oldwas brutally attacked by hoodlumswho wanted to defeat him in his purpose. But that is noteasy. Someshwar Pandya may be down, but he is notout.

He still wants to testify before the Nanavati Commission about the communal riots in Sardarpur, a small town near Mehsana, north Gujarat. The violenceclaimed 38 Muslim lives.

And there are many who do not want him to testify.

A year ago, thugs attacked Pandya savagely. He survived, but lostan eye and sufferedmultiple fractures.

Pandya's story began on March 1, 2002, a day when Sardarpur saw its worst communal riots. A huge mobsurrounded a Muslim areaand set it afire, killing 38 people. Pandya sawwhat happened.

Sardarpuris among the four worst riot cases in Gujarat. The other three arethe Naroda-Patiya killings, near Ahmedabad, that claimed 89 lives; the Gulberg Society killings that claimed 42 lives in Ahmedabad, including that of former MP Ehsan Jafri; and the Best Bakery case in Vadodara that claimed 14 lives.

According to political analyst Achyut Yagnik, "Of all these cases, the process of justice is most weak in the Sardarpur case because the accused and victims are clearly divided on political and caste lines. That makes it difficult for the Muslim victims."

The investigation into the Sardarpur killings has beenshabby. A K Sharma, theSuperintendent of Police during the investigation, is consideredclose to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

During the Gujarat assembly election lastDecember, the Election Commission shifted Sharmato another area.

Thirty-two peoplehave been accused of the killing.The prime accused hail fromGujarat's dominant Patel caste. The accused are currently out on bail. The fear is that the accused and/or their supporters willpreventwitnesses from taking the stand before the Nanavati Commission.

Pandya is a leader of the Dalit community and a member of the Congress party. His neighbour Laxmanbhai recalls that the men who attacked Pandya did sowithout fear of being caught.

The assailantsattacked Pandya when he was sitting in the marketplace, reading a newspaper. He sustained more than 10 fractures and lost an eye.

His son Pravin, an unemployed labourer, told, "My father helped the Muslims file acase against the Patels. He was punished for helping them. Goonsfrom the neighbouring townattacked him."

Ashok Shrimali, a relative of Pandya and a social worker, alleged, "It'sjungle raj here. The police is not playing a neutral role. Thanks to the hawkers in the bazaarhis(Pandya's) life was saved."

TheNanavati Commission of Inquiry, consistingof Justices G T Nanavati andK G Shah, has notyet held aninquiry intothe Sardarpurcase,but will starthearings soon.

Besides the post-Godhra situation, there wereother factors for the antipathy toMuslims in Sardarpur. The village, whichover the years has traditionally supported the Congress, boasts a large population of Muslims with cultivable land, somethingnot common in Gujarat. In much of Gujarat, the most fertile land is held by the Patidar caste (most of who bear the surname Patel) while the Dalits and Muslims work as labourers on the farms.

Moreover, most of the Dalits in Sardarpur are reasonably educated and began to challenge the Patel hegemony after 1981. Before 1980, Dalits were not allowed to conductmarriage processions while Dalit women in the village bazaar had to cover theirheads. Pandya and other Dalits, with support from Muslims and the Congress party, defied such diktats, something that did not go downwell with the Patels.

The caste cleavage acquired political affiliations with the Dalits and Muslims backing the Congress while the Patels veered towards the Bharatiya Janata Party.

There is also an element of greed. In Sardarpur, most Muslims live in the heart of the town, inDarbargadh. The real estate value of this areahas shot up over the years, with many others eyeing it.

On March 1, 2002, when mobsattacked the Muslims, they encircled the entire areato prevent anyone from escaping the violence. A fewMuslims sneaked intoneighbouringIndira Garibnagar, where mostly Dalits live. The Dalits sheltered theMuslims.

After the riots, when manyMuslimsfled Darbargadh andlived in camps, land sharks began to pressurize the Muslim residents not to return.

"ABJP leader visits Darbargadh often and tells the Muslims to sell their land," claims Ashok Shrimali.

Another villager saidmany Muslims have not been allowed to return to their farmland.

The atmosphere in Sardarpur is so communally charged that no Hindu lawyer was willing to take up the Muslims'case, compellingthe communityto get a Muslim lawyer from another state. This lawyer has been given little support from the local police in marshalling his evidence.

After the March 1, 2002, killings, Pandya went to the Vijapur police station nearby to file the First Information Report about the killing of 38 Muslims. Some people tried to stop him from doing so. "Unclehas saidhe will tell the Commissionwhat he saw on March 1," saysPandya's relativeAshok Shrimali.

Pandya was unavailable for comment as he istraveling for medical treatment.

The Rediff Specials


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