(New York) – Authorities in India’s Gujarat state are subverting justice, protecting perpetrators, and intimidating those promoting accountability 10 years after the anti-Muslim riots that killed nearly 2,000 people, Human Rights Watch said today. The state government has resisted Supreme Court orders to prosecute those responsible for the carnage and has failed to provide most survivors with compensation.
The violence in Gujarat started on February 27, 2002, when a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was attacked by a Muslim mob and caught fire, killing 59 people. In a retaliatory spree by Hindu mobs, hundreds of Muslims were slaughtered, tens of thousands were displaced, and countless Muslim homes were destroyed.
“The 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat persists as a dark blot on India’s reputation for religious equality,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of prosecuting senior state and police officials implicated in the atrocities, the Gujarat authorities have engaged in denial and obstruction of justice.”
Efforts to investigate and prosecute cases inside Gujarat were stalled and activists and lawyers involved in the cases have been harassed and intimidated, Human Rights Watch found. It has taken repeated interventions by the Supreme Court following appeals by activists and victims’ families to order re-investigations, oversee independent inquiries in some cases, or shift trials out of Gujarat to ensure progress towards justice.
In the past decade, increasing evidence has emerged of the complicity of Gujarat state authorities in the anti-Muslim violence, Human Rights Watch said. In 2002, Human Rights Watch, in its report on the riots, quoted a police officer who said that there were no orders to save Muslims. Human Rights Watch also reported that the government’s political supporters had threatened and intimidated activists campaigning for justice.
While investigations in the Godhra train attack proceeded rapidly, investigations into cases related to the anti-Muslim riots that followed were deliberately slowed down or simply not pursued, Human Rights Watch said. Officials of the Gujarat state government, led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is serving its third term running the state government in Gujarat, failed to conduct serious investigations and obstructed justice. State courts dismissed many cases for lack of evidence after prosecutors effectively acted as defense counsel or witnesses turned hostile after receiving threats.
State police failed to investigate senior BJP leaders despite telephone records proving their presence at the scene of the riots in Naroda Patia and Naroda Gaam, and witness testimony that these senior leaders provided the mob with lethal weapons and instigated attacks on Muslims.
It was only in March 2009, after the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team took over the inquiry, that two leaders, Mayaben Surendrabhai Kodnani, a minister in the state cabinet, and Jaideep Patel, a leader of the Hindu militant group Vishwa Hindu Parishad, were arrested for aiding and abetting a mob that killed 105 people, injured several others, destroyed property, and sexually assaulted women. Both are still on trial.
Strong evidence links the Modi administration in Gujarat to the carefully orchestrated anti-Muslim attacks, Human Rights Watch said. Rioters had detailed lists of Muslim residents and businesses, and violence occurred within view of police stations. An independent media organization, Tehelka, used hidden cameras to capture some of the accused speaking openly of how the attacks had Modi’s blessings.
In August 2011 the Gujarat state government filed charges against a police officer, Rahul Sharma, for passing on Kodnani’s and Patel’s telephone records to the judicial commission inquiring into the violence.
In September, another senior police officer, Sanjiv Bhatt, was arrested after his former driver filed a complaint alleging that Bhatt had threatened him into signing a false affidavit that on February 27, 2002, after the Godhra attack, Chief Minister Modi had, in Bhatt’s presence, instructed the police to “allow the Hindus to vent their anger.” Bhatt alleges that this showed that Modi gave instructions to the police to allow the attacks on Muslims. In 2005, a police officer, R. B. Sreekumar, was denied a promotion because he criticized the Modi government for its failure to order prompt action that could have prevented the riots.
In 2005, the US government denied Modi a visa to visit the United States.
“Modi has acted against whistleblowers while making no effort to prosecute those responsible for the anti-Muslim violence,” said Ganguly. “Where justice has been delivered in Gujarat, it has been in spite of the state government, not because of it.”
The National Human Rights Commission and the Indian Supreme Court have ordered investigations in response to appeals from victims, lawyers, and human rights activists. In 2004, the Supreme Court called for a review of 2,000 cases that had been dismissed due to lack of evidence. After fresh inquiries, the police said they reexamined 1,600 cases, arrested 640 accused, and opened investigations against 40 police officers. However, only a small number of these cases have been brought to court and only a few of these resulted in convictions.
In March 2008, the Supreme Court strongly criticized the Gujarat administration’s attempted cover-up of its role in the massacres and ordered a Special Investigation Team to investigate nine crucial cases under its supervision. The Supreme Court had earlier stayed trials in some of these cases after victims and activists appealed, pointing out that the Gujarat police had failed to carry out proper investigations, and that the accused with connections to the political establishment were granted bail or simply dropped from inquiries.
Two of the Special Investigation Team cases have resulted in convictions: a special court in Gujarat in November 2011 sentenced 31 people to life in prison for the killing of 33 Muslims in the village of Sardarpura in Gujarat’s Mehsana district in March 2002. The case against those who attacked the train in Godhra resulted in 31 convictions and 62 acquittals.
In a landmark case, the Supreme Court intervened to ensure fair trials in what is known as the Best Bakery case. In this case, a mob attacked and burned down the Best Bakery in Vadodara, killing 14 people, including 12 Muslims. In a trial before a “fast-track” court, all 21 accused were acquitted in June 2003 after several witnesses turned hostile, later admitting that they had faced intimidation. Following intervention by the Supreme Court, a retrial in Maharashtra state resulted in convictions in 2006 of nine of the accused, each sentenced to life in prison.
Inone major trial, of those accused of attacking Bilkis Yakub Rasool Patel and her family, the Supreme Court found that intimidation of witnesses and the police bias in favor of the accused were so strong it transferred the case from Gujarat to Maharashtra. In 2008, a Mumbai lower court convicted 12 people in the gang-rape of Bikis Bano and the murder of 14 members of her family.
Another important case concerned the killing of 69 people, including a former Congress Party member of parliament, Ehsan Jafri, at the Gulmarg Society, a Muslim neighborhood. In a petition against Modi and 62 other officials, Jafri’s widow, Zakia Jafri, accused the Modi administration of “inaction” to contain the riots and “various acts of omission and commission.” She alleged that her husband had continuously called and appealed to top officials in the police and the government, including the chief minister, but no one came to the rescue of the people trapped inside the walled residential compound. A local court in February will start hearing a Special Investigation Team report to the Supreme Court after questioning several people, including Modi. The report has not been made public, but Modi’s statement denying any role in the violence has been leaked.
“The Supreme Court has been indispensable in compelling the government to do its job to hold the people responsible for the Gujarat violence accountable,” Ganguly said. “Successful prosecutions of cases moved outside Gujarat show that the government can provide adequate protection to victims and witnesses when it wants to.”
The Gujarat courts, in contrast, reacted slowly to the riots, Human Rights Watch said. However, in February 2012, the Gujarat High Court issued a contempt notice to the Modi government for failing to compensate 56 people whose shops were destroyed during the riots. The High Court also ordered the government to fund the repair of nearly 500 religious buildings that were targeted during the riots, which the court described as "negligence of the state."
New instances of harassment, threats, and intimidation against activists and lawyers involved in 2002 riot cases are being reported, Human Rights Watch said. In a January 27, 2012 affidavit to the Supreme Court, Teesta Setalvad of the Citizens for Justice and Peace alleged continuing legal harassment in which she was accused of manipulating evidence. She said that these attempts were “a sordid sub-text of the struggle for justice that the petitioner and her organization, who have stood by the struggle for ten long years, have had to suffer this indignity of vicious and mala fide allegations.”
On February 21 the Supreme Court criticized the Gujarat government for initiating a probe against Setalvad for her alleged role in a case of illegal exhumation of the bodies of the 2002 riot victims. The court said it was a “100 percent spurious case to victimize" her and that bringing such a case “does no credit to the state of Gujarat in any way.”
“In addition to ensuring that the top officials in the Gujarat state government involved in the riots are brought to justice, Indian courts need to expedite remaining cases and protect activists,” Ganguly said. “Ten years on, India owes it to the victims of the Gujarat riots to end the culture of impunity and prosecute those responsible for this open wound on the country’s reputation.”