(New York) The ringleaders of massacres committed in 2002 are still roaming free in Gujarat, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today.
The 70-page report, Compounding Injustice: The Government's Failure to Redress Massacres in Gujarat, examines the record of state authorities in holding perpetrators accountable and providing humanitarian relief to victims of state-supported massacres of Muslims in February and March 2002.
Human Rights Watch urged the federal government to take over cases of large-scale massacres where the state government has sabotaged investigations. On June 27, a Gujarat state court acquitted twenty-one people accused of burning alive twelve Muslims in a bakery in Vadodara. Thirty-five of the seventy-three witnesses reportedly retracted in court the statements they had given to the police identifying the attackers.
"The government's record on the massacres is appalling," said Smita Narula, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "Sixteen months after the beginning of the violence, not a single person has been convicted."
More than one hundred Muslims have been charged under India's much-criticized Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) for their alleged involvement in the train massacre in Godhra. No Hindus have been charged under POTA in connection with the violence against Muslims, which the government continues to dismiss as spontaneous and unorganized.
Although the Indian government initially boasted of thousands of arrests following the attacks, most of those arrested have since been acquitted, released on bail with no further action taken, or simply let go. Police regularly downgrade serious charges to lesser crimes - from murder or rape to rioting, for example - and alter victims' statements to delete the names of the accused.
Even when cases reach trial, Muslim victims face biased prosecutors and judges. Hindu and Muslim lawyers representing Muslim victims, and doctors providing medical relief to them, have also faced harassment and threats.
Hundreds of women and girls were brutally raped, mutilated, and burnt to death in Gujarat. The police have refused to pursue these cases.
In numerous instances, and in an effort to cover up their own participation in the violence, the police have instituted false cases against men and women injured in police shootings.
Living conditions for more than 100,000 people displaced by the violence continue to be grossly inadequate. For months they resided in makeshift relief camps with little support from the state. By the end of October 2002, the government had closed most of the camps, forcing some families back into neighborhoods where their attackers still live and where their security is continuously threatened. Most people interviewed by Human Rights Watch received negligible amounts to compensate for the destruction of their homes, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand rupees, or less than one hundred dollars.
Hindus in Gujarat have suffered as well, Human Rights Watch said. Thousands of small businesses owned by Hindus closed down during the violence. The relatives of the Hindus killed in Godhra have been denied redress and some face economic destitution. The Human Rights Watch report also documents and strongly condemns the September 2002 massacre of Hindus at Akshardham in Gandhinagar, Gujarat's capital. Hindu nationalist groups continue to arm civilians in Gujarat and many other Indian states. Instead of cracking down on these groups, the Gujarat state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has included the distribution of arms as part of its election manifesto.
In December 2002, the BJP won by a landslide in Gujarat state elections. Using posters and videotapes of the Godhra massacre, and rhetoric that depicted Muslims as terrorists intent on destroying the Hindu community, the party gained the most seats in areas affected by the communal violence.
In states that go to the polls later this year, such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, potentially explosive campaigns are already in full swing. Members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP) are distributing weapons similar to those used in Gujarat, as well as literature depicting Muslims as sexual deviants and terrorists. Members of both communities live in fear that a simple altercation could become the pretext for large-scale violence.
The Human Rights Watch report also examines the recruitment of Dalits (so-called untouchables) and tribals (indigenous peoples) in the violence against Muslims in Gujarat, and the subsequent scapegoating of these communities in police arrests. Since the events of last year, Christians in the state have also come under renewed administrative, legislative, and physical attack.
The Human Rights Watch report includes forty detailed recommendations to Indian authorities and the international community. Human Rights Watch called on the Indian government to act immediately to prevent further attacks, end impunity, and deliver meaningful assistance to those displaced and dispossessed by the violence.
Testimony from the report Compounding Injustice: The Government's Failure to Redress Massacres in Gujarat
Khalid Noor Mohammed Sheikh lost nine family members in the February 2002 massacre in Naroda Patia, Ahmedabad, including his pregnant thirty-year-old daughter Kauser Bano. Her belly was cut open and the fetus was pulled out and hacked to pieces before she was killed:
I took [my daughter] Kauser to the hospital for delivery the day before the attack. She was ready to deliver. But the doctor said there was time and to come back in the morning. But there was no morning after. By then it was all over. And the tragedy is that the people who ripped my daughter's child out of her body and killed her are walking about freely. Why does it have to be this way?… Please make every effort that the criminals get punished. Even if they don't get punished a lot, they should at least get punished a little…. They keep going on about Muslim terrorists, but who are the terrorists? Those who torture Muslims so much should be punished a bit. In a family of nine, I am the only survivor. Whom should I live for now?
R. Bibi's thirty-six-year-old son was killed by the police in Naroda Patia:
A lot happened that day. The crowds came. Everything was destroyed. We didn't know what was going on, that something was going to happen. We were just doing our work. Suddenly there was an attack. They were raping women. Then they were killing them, burning them and cutting them up into pieces. The police killed my son. They shot him…. The government tells us to bring proof when we go to ask for [compensation]…. My life was taken away when they shot my son. Everything has been taken away and now they want evidence, where will I get the body from? I wasn't even able to see his body…. They stole everything, they burnt everything, they killed people, and [Rs. 1,250 (U.S.$27)] is all we got. Now my daughters go and do housework in other people's homes. They wash dishes, they sweep and clean…. We find some way to fill our stomachs. Somehow we have to survive…. It's too much. Even now we have no relief.
Nishith Acharya is a volunteer at the Akshardham cultural complex in Gandhinagar and was an eyewitness to the September 2002 massacre of Hindus there:
They threw something inside, a grenade, into the bookstore. By God's grace it did not explode in the bookstore. One middle-aged lady tried to come out. They fired on her, and she was immediately killed. They started moving ahead and went to the podium. I had no weapons and no one in the campus had weapons [so as] to preserve the sanctity of the place…. They threw a grenade inside [an exhibition hall]. It exploded and they started firing on the public. Many people were injured. There were many casualties…. People were killed there also. One volunteer opened all the doors to let the people out. So they threw a grenade at the entrance part and did firing also. Maximum casualties were there…. The room was full of blood.