Riot victims seek justice in India

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

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.

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.

When a police vehicle came by and the mob dispersed, Sahira and her family thought they might be saved. Family members pleaded with the police to save them, but inexplicably, the policemen left, and the attackers returned in greater numbers.

By the next morning, when a second police vehicle arrived to rescue Sahira, her younger sister Zahira, and other family members, the mob had smashed through the bakery's locked doors and killed 14. Three of the victims were Hindu employees. The other nine were Muslims, including two close relatives who were thrown into the bakery's ovens and burned alive.

"It was all local people who attacked us, there were no outsiders," says Sahira, who says she was knocked out by a rock early on. When she regained consciousness, her sister Sabira and her uncle Kauser and 12 others were dead. "Before that, I have never seen such cruelty. Our neighbors had been so good to us before."

Alleged intimidation

Many human rights activists say they expected the Best Bakery case to be a classic open-and-shut conviction of the accused, since it was backed by the eyewitness testimony of Zahira Sheikh and other survivors of the attack. But in the courtroom, Zahira and other witnesses recanted their testimony, saying they could not identify the accused as the attackers.

Activists and family members say that the Sheikh family received repeated threats, and in some cases bribes, to change their testimony.

"I had lost all hope of getting justice in Baroda," says Sahira, who is planning to move to Bombay. "Our family was intimidated and threatened, and under these circumstances it was not possible to get justice. I don't fear the police, and I don't fear the neighbors. I fear the politicians of the ruling party."

Intimidation of witnesses is a common problem in India, but it's especially bad in Gujarat, says Harish Salve, an attorney who applauds the Supreme Court's decision to take up the Best Bakery case. His statement comes as a shock to some. Just last year, Mr. Salve as India's solicitor general, representing the Modi government in several Godhra-related cases.

"I have personally experienced this in many cases of defending the government, the lack of witness protection is a chronic problem," says Salve, who now represents a Muslim family that lost 14 members in a separate incident in Ahmedabad last year.

Neighborhood 'park'

Today, the charred ruins of the Best Bakery have become a kind of park for the residents of the mainly Hindu slum of Hanuman Tekri. In the center of the roofless charred brick building is a large brick oven, where two members of the Sheikh family were burned alive.

Sitting on the concrete stoop of the bakery, neighbor Jyotsira Bhatt says she doesn't understand why the Supreme Court had to get people stirred up again about the Best Bakery case.

"The court judgment in Baroda was fair, because the accused people were not involved," she says firmly. "The attackers were not from this area."

But across town, after months of relative peace, the riots have started again. A 10-day Hindu festival honoring the god Ganesh turned violent, as Hindu processions passed through mainly Muslim areas. Muslims and Hindus blame each other for starting the violence.

Baroda's commissioner of police, Sudha Sinha, admits that there have been a few riots in his city during the recent festival, but he maintains that the city has largely remained peaceful.

"You can see for yourself, that despite the press reports, the city is totally at peace," he says in a telephone interview. In addition to "wild press reports" Mr. Sinha also blames women in the riot-affected areas with concocting "false stories," both about their families, and about police brutality.

Fear of police

Sitting in the bare one-room six-by-eight foot home she shares with her husband, daughter, and son, Saida Yusufbhai Mansouri says she is preparing herself for when the rocks start flying again. Her greatest fear is the police.

"Now every time the violence starts, we send away our boys, our husbands," she says. "If the police catch them, they will beat them so badly and then slap charges of terrorism on them. I feel at risk when we don't have men to protect us, but what can we do? They are our breadwinners."

Mrs. Mansouri says she would never consider going to a police station to file a complaint. She sees the police as predators, not protectors.

"After Godhra, the police beat up women very badly, and local TV channels came and filmed the evidence," she says. "Later, the police came back and said 'you said we beat up women; the next time you make that charge we'll come back and show you real violence.'"

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