When did you join the legal profession? Were you the first from your family to join this profession?
I joined the profession in June 1990. We have always lived in Ahmedabad. I’m the first from my family to take up legal practice. My mother was a schoolteacher and my father served in the Income Tax department. In 2001, my brother moved to Canada and my sister left for the US with her husband. All three of my siblings are engineers.
How did you get associated with the riot cases?
I had practised criminal cases for a long time. I used to fight a lot of cases for the minority communities. After 2002, several members of the minority community who had suffered during the riots started coming to me for advice. They used to complain that their FIRs were not being registered. In the initial days of curfew, even I could not go to court. My attendance was irregular during those days. But people kept coming to me with enquiries. For instance, even when the rioters had gutted several areas, only one common, clubbed FIR used to be registered. The motive behind that was to downplay the scale of violence in official records. Moreover, a flawed FIR also substantially weakens the case. In so many instances, the police would simply refuse to name the accused identified by the victims in the FIR. In short, the entire state machinery was working overtime to protect the rioters. Those were despairing times for the victims.
Was this happening only in Ahmedabad? Did Muslims from other districts also approach you?
Muslims from several places used to seek my advice. Then came the NGOs and social workers. They needed someone who could look after the cases that were piling up. At that time, I had a good number of juniors assisting me. I decided to fight only for the victims because they had lost everything and there was nobody to fight for them. Many of them had nothing left to pay the lawyers. We thought we should not be giving an impression that the state machinery and legal institutions were out of bounds to the victims. It was our duty to instill the faith in the Constitution of our country.
Can you recount any specific instances?
I vaguely remember this victim who came to me in 2003. The police used to take some witnesses to a particular station from the camps to record their testimonies. But on the way, they would use coercion and fear tactics to intimidate the witness. The victim who had come to me said that all the perpetrators he wanted to name were already present inside the station when he walked in. There’s another case in Radhanpur. Two boys were injured and they were being taken to a hospital by local Muslims. A mob chased the tempo and the driver fled. One of the injured in the tempo tried to run but he was caught and hacked to pieces. There were more than 90 injuries on his body. Another person who was in the tempo had a bullet injury and could not run. The miscreants burnt the tempo with the boy inside. But the police named members of both the communities on charges of arson and looting. This happened on 1 March 2002. We tried to file several FIRs, but in vain. Finally an FIR was registered after much litigation. But the matter was allowed to drag on without any positive outcome. Nothing happened in the case for 10 years. The complainants also got fatigued and now they don’t want to pursue it anymore.
In total, how many cases did you fight for the victims?
At the Gujarat High Court, I think I fought approximately 140 cases.
Before the riots, you must have had a certain perception about the judiciary in Gujarat. How has your experience been within the courts after the carnage?
Before the riots, people were not so polarised. As a lawyer fighting for the minority community, I remember the situation was much better. Today, even the Muslims who are in a position to help the less fortunate don’t come out openly to help a fellow Muslim. They believe that they will professionally succeed only if they keep away from people of their community who are fighting against the state government. There are Muslims who are happy in Gujarat. But please ask these happy Muslims if they have done anything for their community in Gujarat; when the shops and offices of Muslims were burnt; when women were raped and children were massacred.
You took the risk of standing up for your community and for the cause of justice. Looking back, what do you think you have gained and what have you lost?
I suffered a lot of setbacks by taking up these cases. First of all, an impression has grown in legal circles that I’m anti-Hindu. There’s so much propaganda against me. They (the fundamentalists) have their own machinery for that. I have not defended or appeared for any anti-national. But just because I’ve fought for the riot victims, I’m not received well. Obviously, on a practical level, this has a deterring effect on my clientele. They chastise me for asking for the transfer of investigation outside Gujarat. They dissuade me in a lot of ways to not to fight for the minorities. But this has also meant that I have to concentrate even harder on my cases and briefs. I’m hauled up in courts for innocuous mistakes that other lawyers could afford to make and get away. But I can’t do that. I’m singled out. But this has only toughened me and made me more thorough and professional in my work. Less dependency on juniors and even less reliability on others.
‘Muslims believe that they will professionally succeed only if they keep away from people of their community who are fighting against the state government’
Has your experience strengthened your resolve to help the poor? What about your faith in secularism and the Constitution?
Yes, my resolve has strengthened. The way things are going, it gets difficult sometimes to keep one’s faith. But Gujarat is not the end of everything. Even in Gujarat, we have seen justice in quite a good number of matters. And I’m sure things will improve in the future. More and more people should be encouraged to fight for the poor.
Do you see any change in the criminal justice system?
There’s a lot of polarisation in Gujarat. Tomorrow, if anybody stands for election under Modi, there’s a good chance he will win. There’s hatred in different places and different levels. What to do? The bias still exists in the police and legal machinery. You are accepted well if you mind your own business. But if you start fighting for innocent victims against the state machinery, you become very unpopular. There’s something terribly wrong with the general thinking. The only recourse is to argue your case in court, convince the judges and prove your opponents wrong.
G Vishnu is a Correspondent with Tehelka.