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Riot victims seek justice in India

Top court intervenes in Hindu-Muslim case, bypassing widely criticized state justice system.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2003


One of the most brutal hate crimes in recent Indian history may soon get a hearing in India's top court. But as sporadic riots return to the state after months of relative peace, it may be a case of too little, too late.

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On Friday, India's Supreme Court began hearings for the Best Bakery case, named for the bakery where some 14 people were murdered last year. The Supreme Court's decision to take up the case last month surprised many state officials and activists, since it bypassed the appeals system of the state of Gujarat, where the trial and the crime took place. A lower state court acquitted all the accused for "lack of evidence."

Best Bakery was just one of hundreds of possible murder cases - and with several surviving eyewitnesses, one of the strongest cases - after the Gujarat riots of the spring of 2002, in which at least 1,000 citizens were killed, most of them Muslims.

This new hearing of the Best Bakery case will almost certainly become a test of whether it is possible for a Muslim to get justice in a country ruled by a pro-Hindu party that preaches "one country, one people, one culture."

"I have no faith left in the prosecution and the state government," said Indian Supreme Court Justice V.N. Khare, to a Gujarati legal representative on Friday. "You have to protect the people and punish the guilty. What else is [the rule of law]? You quit if you cannot prosecute the guilty."

For families of the victims, this statement and the Supreme Court's decision to rehear the Best Bakery case, were the first signs of hope after more than a year of frustration and disappointment. Many Muslims in the state say it's nearly impossible for them to get justice in a state where nearly all state officials, from the chief minister to the cop on the street, share the pro-Hindu polices of the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the various hard-line activist groups that support it.

But on a broader level, bringing justice - or at least the appearance of it - to Gujarat's largest minority could help to undercut a dangerous undercurrent of Muslim frustration that Indian police believe has already motivated a major terrorist attack, the Aug. 25 blasts in Bombay, which killed 52 and injured 150.

"The Gujarat government has unleashed a violent force that I don't think anyone can control," says Prasad Chacko, director of the Behavioral Science Center at Xavier's College in Ahmedabad.

Mr. Chacko, who works extensively with Gujarat's Muslim community, calls the Supreme Court's decision "a ray of hope." But without a complete change in either the top leaders, or at least their methods of governance, he sees no signs of improving relations with Gujarat's Muslim community.

"[For] the youngsters fueled by anger and revenge, having seen their mothers and sisters murdered and raped, there's no force on earth that can convince them to forgive and forget," he says

While it's difficult to see from the well-kept gardens; smooth, clean streets; or the prosperous shops selling Benetton to a fashion-conscious middle class, there is certainly a lot of anger going around in the state.

The trouble started on Feb. 27, when a mob of Muslims attacked a train full of Hindu political activists with swords, sticks, and petrol bombs. The carnage, in which 58 Hindu men, women, and children were killed, prompted a wave of riots in which organized mobs targeted mainly Muslim communities and killed more than 1,000. Lower-caste Hindus living in slums adjacent to Muslim areas also bore a smaller brunt of the violence, as Muslim rioters sought their own vengeance.

The riots dragged on for nearly three months, and criticism of the state government mounted. Human rights activists alleged that Gujarat's police often gave rioters free rein to destroy Muslim shops; burn Muslim homes; rape and kill Muslim men, women, and children.

'A black mark'

National leaders of the BJP condemned the riots. Home Minister L.K. Advani called the riots "shameful"; and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called them "a black mark" on India's image. But Narendra Modi, the state's chief minister, called the violence "a natural outpouring and grief over the Godhra massacre," adding, "every action has an equal and opposite reaction."

BJP party leaders here say their state is getting an unearned reputation for violence. "In such a big country, these incidents will happen," says Shabda Sharan Brahmbhatt, president of the BJP in Baroda. "In routine times, a single Muslim can go into the market where all the shops are owned by Hindus, and a Hindu can go into Muslim areas also."

But for Sahira Sheikh, whose family once owned the Best Bakery in a mainly Hindu neighborhood of Hanuman Tekri here, the riots of 2002 broke her trust in the Hindu community forever. On the evening of March 1, a crowd of 200 to 250 people surrounded the bakery, and proceeded to pelt it with stones, douse it with kerosene, and burn it down.