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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 look far to justify his request to the Supreme Court to transfer the hearing of communal riots cases out of Gujarat.

The Supreme Court may want to consider Someshwar Pandya's case.

Pandya lost an eye and suffered grievous injury at the hands of people determined to prevent him from deposing before the Nanavati Commission.

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

Someshwar Pandya is bed-ridden these days. The 65 year old was brutally attacked by hoodlums who wanted to defeat him in his purpose. But that is not easy. Someshwar Pandya may be down, but he is not out.

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

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

A year ago, thugs attacked Pandya savagely. He survived, but lost an eye and suffered multiple fractures.

Pandya's story began on March 1, 2002, a day when Sardarpur saw its worst communal riots. A huge mob surrounded a Muslim area and set it afire, killing 38 people. Pandya saw what happened.

Sardarpur is among the four worst riot cases in Gujarat. The other three are the 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 been shabby. A K Sharma, the Superintendent of Police during the investigation, is considered close to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

During the Gujarat assembly election last December, the Election Commission shifted Sharma to another area.

Thirty-two people have been accused of the killing. The prime accused hail from Gujarat's dominant Patel caste. The accused are currently out on bail. The fear is that the accused and/or their supporters will prevent witnesses 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 so without fear of being caught.

The assailants attacked 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 a case against the Patels. He was punished for helping them. Goons from the neighbouring town attacked him."

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

The Nanavati Commission of Inquiry, consisting of Justices G T Nanavati and K G Shah, has not yet held an inquiry into the Sardarpur case, but will start hearings soon.

Besides the post-Godhra situation, there were other factors for the antipathy to Muslims in Sardarpur. The village, which over the years has traditionally supported the Congress, boasts a large population of Muslims with cultivable land, something not 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 conduct marriage processions while Dalit women in the village bazaar had to cover their heads. Pandya and other Dalits, with support from Muslims and the Congress party, defied such diktats, something that did not go down well 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, in Darbargadh.  The real estate value of this area has shot up over the years, with many others eyeing it.

On March 1, 2002, when mobs attacked the Muslims, they encircled the entire area to prevent anyone from escaping the violence. A few Muslims sneaked into neighbouring Indira Garibnagar, where mostly Dalits live. The Dalits sheltered the Muslims.

After the riots, when many Muslims fled Darbargadh and lived in camps, land sharks began to pressurize the Muslim residents not to return.

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

Another villager said many 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, compelling the community to 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. "Uncle has said he will tell the Commission what he saw on March 1," says Pandya's relative Ashok Shrimali.

Pandya was unavailable for comment as he is traveling for medical treatment.


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