Tuesday, April 6, 2010

India's hard fight to uphold rule of law

Seekers of justice find themselves in a lonely place as they challenge a system that goes easy on the instigators of racial violence, but there’s hope yet.

IF the rule of law is the basis for any modern, civilised society, it needs preserving -- truthfully, diligently and forthrightly.

This clear message has to go out because of its serious violations in India -- the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992, the Gujarat riots of 2002, and, earlier, the 1984 violence in New Delhi following the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi.

The long arm of the law is reaching for some of those accused of playing a part, years after the ghastly events. Hopefully, this will deter others.

The concept of rule of law is laid down in the Indian constitution. Divisions between the legislature, executive and the judiciary, and their respective roles and powers, are fairly clearly defined.

This is, however, negated in numerous cases of violence; of inquiry bodies' reports being mothballed after partial or poorly carried out corrective action, and of politicos getting away. They are either not questioned or, if cornered, simply resign to return another day.

The latest protagonist is Anju Gupta, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who deposed before a court on the role played in 1992 by Lal Krishna Advani, former deputy prime minister and a top leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

She told the court that Advani had given a "fiery" speech that aroused a crowd of more than 200,000 in Ayodhya, the holy city of the Hindus, also the location of Babri Mosque.

"Advani not only looked euphoric but also declared before the huge crowds in Ayodhya on Dec 6, 1992 that the Ram temple would be built at the disputed site in the temple town," Gupta told the court.

She has thus contradicted Advani's contention that he was unaware of the hundreds of activists engaged in pulling down the five-century-old mosque, and that its destruction was "the saddest day in my life".

In court, Gupta swore in the name of "Maryada Purushottam Bhagwan Ram" and the constitution of India. Reports of the proceedings record that there was no sarcasm in her voice. Nor was Gupta, 47, mixing the personal with the official.

Gupta was in charge of Advani's security and part of his entourage, and watched the events from that vantage point. She also took on other duties when she saw law and order come crashing down before the mobs.

She saved several journalists and photographers from being bashed up by kar sevaks, radical Hindu activists, rescuing several Muslim families trapped in their blazing homes. She evicted the activists from the town on Dec 8, 1992.

Gupta later married a colleague at the Civil Services Academy. Her faith in Ram did not get in the way of her marrying Safi Ahsan Rizvi, a Muslim.
She was a key prosecution witness.

"This case is not about mandir or masjid, politics or secularism. It's about the rule of law. Mobs can't dictate terms," the Times of India quoted her as saying.

Gupta's training as an upholder of the law began before she was at the academy or in the job.

She recalled in an article titled Public (Dis)order: Witnessing Live: "As a thinking adult, I first took notice of a big event in politics on Oct 31, 1984, the day Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated. The carnage that followed the tragic murder of the great leader shook me.

"As a young student, it took me some time to see that at the core of the failure was the failure of the state. Today, as an IPS officer, my first reaction still is to take the moral blame for being part of such a system/society that tolerates such barbaric behaviour."

It is the system that she is still trying to change -- from the inside. That makes her task relevant, but also difficult. Not surprisingly, Gupta has had more than her fair share of transfers and postings.

The 1984 killings of nearly 3,000 Sikhs were blamed on public anger at Indira's assassination -- "the impact of the fall of a banyan tree", as one Congress leader had then said.

The dust of the tree's fall still refuses to settle a good quarter-century later. The law is catching up with two former Delhi lawmakers.

Very few convictions have ensued for that violence, or that which followed Babri's destruction. The political class has prevailed -- on the wrong side of the law. The legislature has proved partisan and ineffective. Under pressure from them, the executive and judiciary, too, have failed to uphold the law.

Advani's interrogation was delayed because he had been dropped from the list of people to be questioned.

To be fair to that regime, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee transferred the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the prosecuting agency, from the Home Ministry, which Advani headed, to the Ministry of Personnel. After BJP went out of power, CBI filed lesser charges against Advani.

The Babri case and the charge of a pre-planned conspiracy are not likely to be concluded soon. But it remains a ticking bomb, hurting the opposition's chances against the Manmohan government, particularly in Parliament. Politically, BJP faces almost total isolation.

Ayodhya yielded political dividends in the past. However, with the issue having lost electoral currency for now, BJP has steadily de-emphasised it, ignoring the fulminations of the Hindutva hardliners.

Last month also saw the law catching up with another BJP stalwart, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi, touted as "prime ministerial material" last year, became India's first chief minister to be questioned about a possible role in sectarian violence. Accused in a complaint filed by Zakia Jafri, widow of murdered former lawmaker Ahsan Jafri, Modi appeared before the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) for questioning, eight years after the events.

Zakia accused Modi's government of failing to protect citizens. She has also accused him of abetting the riots that claimed nearly 1,180 lives, mostly Muslims, right after another carnage in which 59 people, mostly Hindus, were burnt alive on a train.

Modi declared that he was not above law and BJP termed his deposition "a political victory". He may be questioned again. SIT is to submit its report by the end of the month. The findings and political fallout, if any, remain to be seen.

It is clear that when the rule of law comes into conflict with political, religious or economic agendas, society must determine whether the agendas are more important than the well-being and safety of the people. By MAHENDRA VED for the New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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