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Human rights chief equates Gujarat with war, calls it "national shame"

New Delhi: Equating the recent anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat as nothing short of a war, head of India's official human right watchdog, on August 4, asked Prime Minister AB Vajpayee to translate his 'rhetoric' on religious intolerance into 'action'.

National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) chairman JS Verma, former chief justice of India, said that those affected by Gujarat incidents could not go back to their areas for "whatever reasons." He added that they have lost their kith and kin in large numbers. "How is it different from war?” Justice Verma asked.

He said the people of Gujarat had undergone the same sufferings and miseries that one experiences during war. "The effect remains the same," he said.

"How can this (communal riots on a large scale) happen in this country? I never hope to witness this in my life", he said, inaugurating a National Roundtable Conference on Communalism and Human Rights organised in the Indian capital by NHRC and National Law School of India.

Indicating that the situation had not returned to normal as yet, he said, "Gujarat continues to haunt us even now. I only hope the agony does not go on much longer".

He said he was happy to read that the Prime Minister (on July 31) had expressed anguish over growth of religious intolerance. On an earlier occasion, Vajpayee had said it was Vivekananda's tolerant Hinduism which he believed in and that if Hinduism had taken a different shape, he would remain miles away from it. "Once again, there is a need to translate rhetoric into action", Justice Verma said adding that a silent majority of people in India believed in secularism and asked them to 'wake up'.

"We are becoming more self-centred. We don't bother about anything until we are directly involved. If a house is on fire, how much time does it take to spread to yours?", he asked.

Describing the recent communal violence in Gujarat as a "national shame," Verma said as an Indian, he felt demeaned by the incidents and as a Hindu, felt even more ashamed.

The carnage could not be the handiwork of religious people, since no religion preaches violence and hatred. It was inflicted upon by criminals and vandals, he said.

The people of Gujarat were just about coming out of the of the ravages of natural calamity (last year's earthquake) when the man-made calamity (communal riots) struck them, he said. 

The NHRC is largely responsible for the semblance of relief and solace the victims of the Gujarat pogroms have received from official quarters. It directed the state government to undertake certain measures as well as forcefully indicted its behaviour in its official reports, especially in its final report on the pogroms which was released on May 2. 

In this report the NHRC severely criticized the Modi government in Gujarat for its comprehensive failure to control persistent violation of the rights of life, liberty, equality and dignity of the people of the state. The commission demanded that the guilty be brought to book and has asked for handing over the investigation of the riots to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s premier investigation agency. 

In its final report on the pogroms, the commission documented the manner in which criminal cases arising from the violence were being fudged. Gujarat government's responsibility, according to the NHRC report was "tacit if not explicit."

Even in its preliminary report, made public on April 1, the NHRC had asked the government to transfer the investigation of the worst cases of carnage to the CBI. It had also asked for the establishment of special courts to try the culprits. The Gujarat government did not obey all the orders of the NHRC but it had to change its behaviour from an overt supporter of the pogroms to a semblance of neutrality and had to bring in a "supercop" (KPS Gill) whose presence made a difference in the attitude of the police and helped the victims file reports against the criminals.

Intermittent cases of rioting still occur in Gujarat. As late as July 28 there were communal clashes at Prantij in Gujarat's Sabarkantha district where indefinite curfew was imposed. At least 25 shops a vehicle were set on fire. Of the 25 shops burnt, 17 belonged to members of the Muslim community.

Riot victims are still suffering. Many are still in relief camps while others have been forcibly expelled from these camps in order to show that normalcy has returned to the state. The state government is eager to conduct elections for the legislative assembly in order to cash in on the communal polarisation caused by the officially-condoned pogroms. At present a delegation of the Election Commission (EC) is touring Gujarat. Its report will be crucial for the powerful EC's decision to allow or reject polls in the state in the current charged atmosphere. Many secular and Muslim organisations and NGOs have called upon the EC not to allow Narendra Modi's government in Gujarat to reap benefits from the pogroms.

Victims of the pogroms in Gujarat have forcefully appealed to the visiting EC team not to allow elections before the victims were fully rehabilitated. At Kalol, NGOs took the lead in representations against early polls. Member of a Delhi-based NGO said, ‘‘Many haven’t returned home yet. How will they vote? There is no point having polls when people aren’t getting food and other amenities.’’

Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, one of the largest and oldest Muslim organisations in the country, has threatened a nation-wide civil disobedience movement from September 15 if its demands are not met. The committee to co-ordinate the agitation in Gujarat has been announced.

The memorandum, given to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee last month, lists demands like arrest of perpetrators of violence in Gujarat, action against officials who are RSS members, banning the RSS and VHP from conducting training camps. They also demanded proportionate representation for Muslims in Parliament, assemblies, government and semi-government bodies and educational institutions.

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