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'It is nonsense to say that Godhra was planned'

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi | August 11, 2004 16:36 IST

Act Now for Harmony and Democracy is a new organisation that says it will be 'absolutely action-oriented'.

And Shabnam Hashmi is the force behind it.

In 1989, her elder brother Safdar Hashmi was beaten to death while performing a street play, Halla Bol, during municipal elections in Sahibabad, Uttar Pradesh.

To put pressure on the Gujarat government in connection with the post-Godhra riots, Anhad organised a seminar titled 'Rebuilding Justice and Hope in Gujarat: The Agenda Ahead' in the main auditorium of India International Centre in New Delhi on July 29.

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Needless to say, 'secular activists' attended the seminar in strength.

Some were famous personalities like actresses Sharmila Tagore and Nandita Das, lawyers Indira Jaisingh and Nitya Ramakrishnan, and journalists Praful Bidwai and Rajdeep Sardesai.

Also present were about 100 students and some known critics of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Hashmi told, "Schoolchildren are the future of India. We want to sensitise them on the Gujarat issue. Also, we want to put pressure on the Gujarat government, which is not moving at all under the garb of neutrality."

The audience got a large dose of views, albeit completely one-sided, on the Gujarat issue and how Modi could be fixed by legal means; if he could be made accountable for the 'genocide executed with State complicity'; if the Gujarat government could be forced to give compensation as much as that received by victims of the riots in Karnataka [over sharing of Cauvery river waters with Tamil Nadu] and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots; and how to stop abuse of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is allegedly used against Muslims in Gujarat.

The seminar opened with a question by activist-journalist Farha Naqvi during a debate on 'Subversion of legal justice': Is legal justice in cases of Gujarat relevant at all? For one Bilkis Banu [a rape victim whose 14 relatives were murdered by rioters] an army of lawyers is required, and even then in her case investigation is not completed yet. What can be expected of other cases?

Jaisingh told, "Delhi's 1984 anti-Sikh riots are forgotten today without any leaders getting punishment. The Bhopal gas tragedy is a classic case of injustice. Here courts have opted for 'settlement' and not 'judgment' to deliver justice. Why is our legal system not making anyone accountable for crimes against masses? Why is Narendra Modi not at all accountable for the riots that killed thousands of people? How can you strengthen democracy without its leaders being made responsible for the breakdown of democracy?"

"A person who is in command of a riot situation must also be made an accused. In a case filed in Gujarat, we have made Modi responsible for the deaths of two non-resident Indians who were murdered by rioters," she said.

The case relates to the complaint of Bilal Dawood, a British citizen whose brother Fareed and cousin Shakil were killed while they were visiting Gujarat.

Jaisingh said it would be a challenge to establish the chain of command.

"Let us probe everyone from the chief minister, home ministry, commissioner of police, sub-inspector and constable... how did messages percolate?

"India is signatory to the Genocide Convention. Today in Rwanda and Yugoslavia such international law is evoked. Why not in Gujarat?" she asked.

[On April 30, 2004, one Dawood filed a case in Himmatnagar, Mehsana district, seeking Modi's prosecution. The CM's lawyer has asked for time till August 16.]

Jesuit priest Cedric Prakash, a leading human rights activist from Ahmedabad, said, "Territories are drawn up in Gujarat. In Ahmedabad, the Muslim-dominated Juhapura area is discriminated. People term it as mini-Pakistan. No city buses are available there. Hindus are not ready to do any economic activity in Muslim localities."

Describing the "fascist" tendencies of the Gujarat government, he said that the message is clear for Muslims: you live here on our terms.

Social activist Zakia, who is relentlessly working for the rights of victims in Gujarat, narrated the Muslim victims' struggle to get on with life in the face of an 'economic boycott' by Hindus.

Zakia said, "There are many whose lives have been completely devastated . They have no homes, no food and no livelihood. But they are given just enough compensation to buy two pairs of clothes."

She said that in tribal areas, where Muslims want to return to their villages, Hindus are asking them to first withdraw the cases.

Zakia said since dalits and tribals are the foot soldiers of upper class Hindus who carry out violence against Muslims, there is an urgent need to carry out a dialogue with them. Currently, she is working with 100 Gujarati women who are relatives of POTA detainees.

"These Muslim women are restless and anguished. They want to read and write to express their pain. Time is just right to engage the Muslim women of Gujarat," she said.

The session that provoked the audience was a PowerPoint presentation titled 'In search of the truth about Godhra' by Ahmedabad-based activist lawyer Mukul Sinha.

He presented his take on the burning of the Sabarmati Express, which killed 59 passengers on February 27, 2002.

With the help of the statements made by people and policemen before the Nanavati Commission, which is enquiring into the riots, Sinha tried to establish that the Godhra carnage was not planned.

He said, "It is nonsense to say that Godhra was a planned act or a conspiracy."

It was an accident, which was wrongly termed as the 'most horrendous diabolical incident'.

After his presentation some listeners wanted Sinha to clarify if his contention also meant that neither Muslims nor Hindus planned Godhra.

Some secularists say that fundamentalist Hindus may have planned Godhra to ignite riots and win the assembly election.

Sinha quipped, "The Vishwa Hindu Parishad didn't burn S-6 compartment in Godhra, but they did burn the country thereafter!"

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