A special court in Ahmedabad, India, has handed down a slew of sentences which has the potential to significantly alter the country’s politics.
The court of Special Judge Jyotsana Yagnik today announced what are probably the most stringent sentences in contemporary India in connection with cases of communal riots. The sentences specifically relate to the February 28, 2002, massacre of 97 Muslims in the neighborhood called Naroda Patiya in Ahmedabad, a Western Indian city of more than five million people.
Two of the 31 given sentences include a former women and children’s welfare minister and a particularly vocal fanatic Hindu leader. The minister, Maya Kodnani, a gynecologist turned politician who was a serving legislator of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the fanatic Hindu leader, Babu Bajrangi have been given 28 years and life in prison until natural survival respectively. The 29 others have also been given long sentences.
Judge Yagnik has shown an exemplary ability to cut through all the political skulduggery that surrounded this particular case for a decade and exposed the key players for what they really are—people who deliberately let their viciously criminal impulses run riot. The judge reportedly described Kodnani as “the kingpin of the entire riots.”
There is a tendency to elevate as good versus evil, conflagrations such as what the state of Gujarat witnessed in February, 2002, first in the brutal arson killings of more than 50 Hindu train passengers near Godhra followed by retaliatory violence that killed close 1000 Muslims that included the 97 people for whose massacre Kodnani and Bajrangi have been sentenced. At their heart all such killings are instances of vicious criminality marauding through society. Unless they are first treated as criminals, it would be difficult to create a strong deterrence against their recurrence.
Having followed the Gujarat violence since 2002, I have frequently encountered arguments which project the killing as manifestations of deeper religious and cultural animus, which they certainly are. However, there is sophistry at play here. By casting them only as a consequence of longstanding historic animus between Hindus and Muslims such acts of violence are being deliberately diffused and diluted. There is also that unspoken implication that those who engage in such reprisal killings from both sides are more like warriors in a historic battle in service of a lofty cause rather than ordinary criminals. For a society to function well it is important that at the more immediate, practical level such acts are treated as purely criminal acts, punishments for which have been specifically codified in criminal jurisprudence.
It is from that standpoint that the tough sentences given by the judge have the potential to deter politicians such as Kodnani who may be under the mistaken impression that their profession would act as a shield against prosecution, conviction and imprisonment. It is for this reason I think the verdicts have the potential to significantly impact a brand of politics of hatred which has taken hold in India.