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Published in the 16-28 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

The Gujarat Genocide, Media, and the Congress

By Nalini Taneja

The Milli Gazette Online

Perhaps one needs to justify why one is still going on about the 'turn around' by Zahira Sheikh. One would not, if it were recognised as a matter of one witness changing stance and turning hostile-an eventuality not unknown to our judicial system, and one which it must take into account in the matter of justice. In this case the media and many secular activists have responded differently from their usual cynicism about justice being impossible. It almost appears justice for Gujarat victims was within reach had Zahira not betrayed the cause; and stories of money changing hands in the Best Bakery Case have already achieved their first purpose.

Today it is Zahira Sheikh who stands trial. The media is still willing to recognise that Teesta Setalvaad, a staunch and brave fighter for those killed in Gujarat, is perhaps a victim, but the status of Zahira has undergone a change in media discourse.

Even while making a plea that Zahira's latest testimony be not allowed to stem the course of justice, it is being said that "Ms Zahira Sheikh has come to represent almost everything that is wrong with India's polity. The sordidness that has come to encompass the tragic Best Bakery story is best exemplified in Ms Sheikh's accusations against the activist who had appeared to be the most helpful" (Telegraph, December 27, 2004).

"As we have argued in these columns, she should be tried for perjury. Zahira has failed all those fighting for justice in Gujarat, and more so, victims like her. It is worse if she, as alleged, has sold her victimhood for cash to absolve perpetrators of the gruesome murders at Best Bakery" says a Times of India editorial, (December 24, 2004).

It is Zahira who now represents what is wrong with our system. It is Zahira who must ensure justice. The helpless and the powerless are asked to achieve what those with the whole might of State behind them will not. There is a refusal to recognise that Zahira is still a victim-a victim not very different from thousands of others-unprotected by the State.

While the lion remains uncaged, we expect its prey not to run or try to escape; we expect its prey to fight without having any teeth. Even the Tehelka expose toys with the idea that Zahira perhaps "holds the key to the Gujarat government's complicity in the carnage?"

It is a media created myth in the first place that Zahira holds the key to the Gujarat government's complicity in the carnage. If any one agency holds the key to the Gujarat government's complicity, it is the present government at the centre. With all the resources at its command, with all access to information and a popular mandate to back its legitimacy in office, why does this government not spare the victims of Gujarat the burden of also bringing the guilty to book?

We ask ourselves yet again: What will happen to the various cases now that Zahira has changed her version? Is this a signal towards what might happen with regard to other witnesses as well?

We refuse to ask ourselves: Why are Modi and the likes of them still there to buy her out, or whatever? Would Zahira have changed her testimony if Modi had been removed from the office from which he presided over the genocide of thousands? By its inaction the government at the centre has ensured that Zahira changes her testimony. It should not have allowed her to do so.

It tells something about the nature of our State. Zahira has not defied the State in changing her testimony; she has in fact complied with its demands. Nobody has, to date, been punished for communal crimes in independent India. The Congress government has never once proclaimed its desire to ensure punishment for those guilty of Gujarat genocide.

A lot has been written on the matter and those guilty of communal killings have always got away. More specifically, it has been asserted that if the guilty of 1984 had been punished, Gujarat could not have been managed by the Hindutva forces with such impunity. There is a truth in that-if we also recognise that had Moradabad, Meerut, Jamshedpur, Bhagalpur, Nellie and many other such massacres not been allowed to remain unpunished, the Indian State would have had better control over its constitutional obligations. But that is only part of the story.

In many senses Gujarat is a watershed and a test case like no other. The complicity of the police forces and Hindu communal organisations is not a new factor as we know very well. But the State, in the more specific sense of the government in power, was actively involved only in the 1984 planned massacre of Sikhs and of Muslims in Gujarat 2002. And while all killings have been heinous, and 1984 saw involvement of the political party in power, for the first time we have a political party that refuses to back track or be chastened.

The Congress would think twice about repeating 1984, which was effected, we must not forget, with the help of RSS cadres. It cannot gain politically from an escalation of communal violence today, and it can win support of the ruling classes better through its anti-people economic policies. It is clear that the Congress has chosen the second option to remain in power, at least for the next five years.

The BJP has proudly announced its determination to continue with hate filled politics, and Narendra Modi has the pride of place next to LK Advani, the BJP president, when he announces this from the dais, at a public meeting. That this can continue along the same time that video cameras establish the truth of BJP members threatening and paying money to Zahira Sheikh shows how little the Hindutva forces care about the Congress being in power. If anything is holding Hindutva forces back today it is the electoral mandate against them, and their failure to evoke any response despite their best efforts to continue mobilising on divisive and sectarian issues.

In this context, if some witnesses---like so many others of our countrymen and women-choose, what seems to them, an easier way out, to rebuild their lives or to better their lot, who should we blame? The media, except for one or two columnists, has chosen to remain silent on the matter. It fails to bring to hold the new government at the Centre responsible for what is happening in Gujarat. (Peoples Democracy)

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