Jan Sangharsh Manch, an NGO Sinha founded with his wife Nirjari, has been instrumental in fighting the cases of riot victims. Sinha also participated in the Nanavati-Shah Commission inquiring into the riots. Since then, he has doggedly fought for reopening probes in the fake encounter cases, including that of Sohrabuddin Sheikh.
What has kept you going for 10 years?
The riots and the subsequent denial of justice was leading to the alienation of an entire community. I think that was very dangerous. If the minorities in Gujarat lost faith in the basic democratic system, all of us would lose, not just the minorities. We wanted to remain as the thread between the community and the system. That was one of our primary goals. Though we faced an unresponsive judiciary and hostile administration, we never gave up hope. The only alternative was to remain quiet, be a spectator and watch the deterioration of the system. That was not an option.
A second goal, of course, was to help the victims get due justice, whatever that meant in the circumstances prevailing at the time. Things haven’t changed very qualitatively now either, but we do see some signs of hope, especially in the encounter cases. Till 2007, most people believed those killed to be terrorists; they bought the story dished out by the government. But the intervention of the Supreme Court in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case was the turning point. At one time, the only thing the minorities got were bullets. Now we are getting some faith back.
There was also a big political vacuum in Gujarat. The Congress was not doing anything. On the contrary, when we spoke up strongly against the injustice being meted out to the minorities, we saw them actually cringe and say Modi was going to take advantage of these resistance movements because he would pitch it as an attempt to malign the state. I think that is an extremely short-sighted view. Our own experience shows that there is a large fraction of the majority community that might prefer to remain silent, but given the right type of information, they can also react. That is one of the strong objectives we have. Let us use the democratic institutions we have to try and convince fence-sitters that they are not doing the right thing and must take sides in this battle. Slowly, there have been some breakthroughs.
What would you count as breakthroughs?
There have been some legal breakthroughs, though that alone is not enough. Legal breakthroughs are important primarily for two reasons. One is to restore the faith of the minority in the judiciary; make them feel that they don’t have to look outwards for help. That is always a very dangerous sign. And two, so people realise they can get some relief from the system. Like compensation and rehabilitation. Some of that has begun to happen. The HC has come down heavily on the government and directed it to rehabilitate the places of worship. Then the Sardarpura case. It’s the only major case to have been decided till today. There are quite a number of people who have been convicted for the riots.
That is on the legal front. Are there other breakthroughs?
Yes, there are other signs. Take the vernacular media. Often, the role they played during that period was one of direct instigator. There were papers urging Hindus to take revenge, pitting the killings in one place as a benchmark for another area to rise up to. Such direct instigation and provocation was being published almost every day. When the encounters took place, front pages flashed the news that LeT terrorists Mohammed, etc had come to kill Modi. Common people started believing all that. But now this trend has changed.
The judiciary is also definitely taking a turn for the better. And, to an extent, I see a large fraction of the legal community has now begun to see things more clearly. They don’t automatically assume Muslims are the worst creatures in the state. These are the positive signs. On the other side, of course, certain issues have not been resolved. Primarily, I have not seen much improvement in the state’s attitude towards the administration of justice. It continues to sabotage the system as far as possible.
Have you been changed in anyway by this long struggle?
We have become quite different. I can talk for myself. I come from a very academic background. I came here as a student of Physics, did my PhD. I never thought one day I’d be a lawyer and that too involved with such volatile cases. But the journey has taught me a lot. We are much more aware of the kind of life minorities have to lead and are in a better position to communicate with them. We have also learnt better how to communicate with an ordinary Hindu. Because the Congress itself was toeing the soft Hindutva line, there was no one to tell ordinary Hindus that their problems did not lie with Muslims.
Take yesterday’s incident. It was the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Gulberg. We had specifically timed the rally for 5.30 pm, which is when Gulberg Society had been completely burnt. That day, Hindus and Muslims were completely hostile to each other, whereas yesterday there were hundreds of Hindus and Muslims together trying to hold the rally for justice and peace. There was just one common slogan: say no to any communal conflict. Instead of encouraging this effort, the government kept trying to obstruct us. After many caveats, it gave permission to hold the rally and then withdrew it without explanation just three hours before. We could not even communicate with the people. The police picked up hundreds of them, but it was a great day because the police van had both Hindus and Muslims shouting one slogan: “Nahin nahin kabhi nahin… (Never, never, never again)”. It was enormous for us to hear that. Ten years ago, it was exactly the opposite. Dead bodies were going in the police van.
What are some lessons you’d like Indians to take from all this?
First, we must remember history. I don’t like using words like fascist, etc, but we have to look at the type of politics, propaganda and hatred generated inside a movement squarely in the eye. And there are uncanny similarities with what happened in Germany in the 1930s. Second, we have to remember the strengths and weaknesses of a democracy. We have to understand that democracy is ultimately the rule of the majority. But the rule of the majority can easily — and dangerously — be converted into the rule of the majority community. Once that happens, democracy fails. And that is precisely what Modi did. He created a polarisation where the majority was not composed of the ‘majority’ but the majority of a single community. So his electoral victories shouted from the rooftops are actually not democratic victories. That is essentially a sign of a community projecting its communal trait. The third is that we have to learn from the problems of the judiciary and, instead of running away from it, I think we should engage with it.
‘The police van had both Hindus and Muslims shouting one slogan: Never again. Ten years ago, it was the opposite. Dead bodies were going in the van’
In what way?
One of the biggest mistakes the NGOs continue to make is to berate the local judiciary all the time and try to talk about going away to other states and using the Supreme Court all the time. I have no problem with that. But the important thing is to lead the judiciary back into proper democratic line. If we can’t do this, the local democratic functioning will totally fail. Ultimately, it is the judiciary that protects our democratic values and rights. And we just can’t run away from that. I agree there are a lot of problems, that people in the local judiciary will get far more influenced by local events. All that is acknowledged. But we have to keep engaging with them.
The fourth point I’d like people to remember is that democratic institutions cannot just be disregarded like the commission was. People said the commission is appointed by the government and we cannot trust it. All commissions are appointed by governments to justify their actions rather than get to the truth. But that does not mean that we can boycott them.
The last point I’d like to make is the grassroots work. That is where the crux lies. We have to bring people together. Ultimately, a society functions on the basis of classes, not communities. What political leaders in Gujarat have been successful in doing is to suppress the class contradictions and highlight the communal ones. We have to reverse this.
Has there been any black moment when you felt like walking away from it?
No, I’m an incorrigible activist. I had a heart attack in October 2002. That set me back for a while. The second moment was a very personal one. My wife, who has been my partner through all the struggles, was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. Now we have overcome it and both of us are back in the struggle. Yesterday was the first time we got arrested together.