A few years ago when I was at university abroad, I worked on a research project on Muslims stereotyping in TV news. For my research I interviewed a cross section of people in India asking them about their opinion about the Godhra riots and the subsequent news coverage. I mostly got blank faces and mumbles as replies to my questions. People were afraid to voice their opinions despite assurances of anonymity. The most common excuse being, “I really don’t know what happened there.” Which was surprising, to say the least.
It was in 2002 when I woke up one day to read the news that some Hindu activists had died in an arson incident in a train. A few days later, the revenge brigade was ready, allegedly led by Hindu right wing groups like VHP, Bajrang Dal and the state machinery.
In what I consider one of the darkest moments of a modern democratic India, I saw genocide unfolding in front of my eyes, Muslims killed for being Muslims. I read horror stories of foetus being ripped from the womb of a pregnant woman, a group of people killed in an apartment block, families wiped out. Those three days of horror and alleged complicity of the state machinery were a dent to India’s secularism and sovereignty.
And since then every time I have tried to defend India and said that it’s a democratic country with secularism entrenched firmly, the Godhra incident has been the answer for those with opposing opinions, those disillusioned by the very pillars of the system which helped spurn such terror. Seemingly, I have never had a fitting reply.
Today’s verdict of the trial court means, I can say that the system works. Even if it has been abused by those religious majority in positions of power, they have been shown their place by the same system. When the accused awarded a sentence are a former minister, political leaders and other important people, it means something.
I am sure they will appeal. The case will go to High Court, maybe the Supreme Court. There will be many years before a final verdict comes along. But a good start is the key, a deterrent to others who may want to indulge in sectarian violence. As a friend says, “there will be many challenges ahead.”
The state of Gujarat is due for elections this year. The BJP government looks all set to come back to power. I am not sure if today’s verdict will cause any damage, given that it has come back to power twice after that brutal carnage. I hope it dent’s Narendra Modi’s chance of becoming the next Prime Minister if not the Chief Minister. I hope we can truly say we are democratic, one day.
While we are at it, I hope 1984 will not be forgotten. After all if one politico-religious set of people have to swallow the bitter pill, why shouldn’t the Congress?