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Naroda Gam to Atiq killing is a straight line. What you get is India’s ‘thok do’ culture

Total denial of justice, as in the cases of Naroda Gam, the Jaipur bombings & gangsters like Atiq Ahmed, is why faith in the system has fallen so low. It's what fuels vigilante culture.

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Two judicial orders in old cases of mass murder in two neighbouring states have resulted in the acquittal of the accused.

In the first, the Rajasthan High Court set aside on 29 March this year the conviction and severe sentencing of four Muslims in the Jaipur serial bombings case of May 2008. In the second, earlier this week, a trial court in Gujarat acquitted all 67 Hindus who were accused in the Naroda Gam killings in the course of the Gujarat riots of 2002.

For the sake of this argument, let’s presume that the judges in both cases are right, and that all the accused were innocent. Three consequences then arise directly from it.

One, that the victims, the dead, the maimed and their families have found no justice at the end of 15 years since the bombings in Jaipur, and 21 years since the killings in Gujarat. The victims in the first case were mostly Hindu, and in the second, all Muslim.

Two, that if the accused — all Muslims in the first case and Hindus in the second — are innocent as finally ruled by the respective courts, they wasted decades of their lives in jail. If you add all of them up and multiply it by the number of years each spent in jail unjustly, you might find nearly 1,000 years of freedom taken away from people finally proved innocent.

We could summarise the first two points as follows: that at the end of these decades, injustice to so many aggrieved Indians — victims of serial bombings and targeted communal rioting — and to the alleged perpetrators of these crimes, was delivered in a manner that was equal in its unfairness. And secular.

Which brings us to our third point. In any criminal case, besides the victim and the accused, there is another, equally important party, the state. It’s a tough thing to say, but philosophically and in principle, it is even more important than the other two. Because the other two sets of victims are individuals. The state stands for all of us, the entire society. And the majesty of the Constitution and the Republic.

For the Republic to deliver on its true promise to its citizens, it must be able to catch the guilty, put them on trial and ensure they get their deserved punishment. Remember that phrase the Supreme Court once used while justifying the execution of a convicted terrorist: satisfaction of the collective conscience of the people of India.

That satisfaction is grossly denied in both these cases. While the appeal processes will drag on, given the way the legal system works, there will be no fresh investigation in either case. If higher, appellate courts also hold that those now acquitted are indeed innocent, those truly guilty will never be caught. This will make the state also as much a victim of injustice as the Hindus and Muslims listed earlier on either side, whether victims or alleged perpetrators. List this as a case of justice denied thrice over.

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Why does such awful denial of justice take place, and so often? If you analyse the court orders in these cases, as in so many others where ultimately nobody got punished, you can find a pattern. Shoddy investigations, hastily and clumsily fabricated evidence, tutored witnesses. Then, as decades pass, dead witnesses and many who are ‘persuaded’ to change their minds. And finally, shifting politics.

The next factor is the influence and clout of the accused. Uttar Pradesh’s gangsters and their ‘wars’ have been in the headlines over the past couple of weeks. Each one of the three most prominent ones, Atiq Ahmed, Mukhtar Ansari, and Brijesh Singh, calmly survived multiple political assassination/mass murder trials. Each case saw witnesses becoming unavailable, turning hostile, or the prosecution losing interest.

Atiq Ahmed was charged with assassination of newly elected BSP MLA Raju Pal (he had just defeated Atiq’s brother Khalid Azim alias Ashraf) on 25 January, 2005. The assassination was dramatic, public, with a large audience.

Eighteen years on, that trial was still on. Witnesses were turning hostile, disappearing, and in one better-known case, both. Umesh Pal was a prosecution witness. He turned ‘hostile’ — obviously under pressure — changed his mind, and was kidnapped by Atiq’s gang in 2006. He was assassinated on camera by Atiq’s son, Asad, on 24 February. Atiq may have been convicted now for kidnapping Umesh Pal in 2006, but the murder trial was still ongoing.

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The trial had waxed and waned with changes in political fortunes in the state. That’s why it’s no surprise that rather than opprobrium, there is wide popular celebration of Atiq and his brother Ashraf’s public execution in police custody just a couple of days after Asad’s killing in an “encounter”. Failures of justice like these are the fuel for vigilante culture among our police and their political bosses, a quick and risk-free route to instant popularity. We can write as many outraged editorials as we wish to, but the ‘thok do’ (shoot them) approach has very wide social acceptance.

Among the many crimes, including murder, that Mukhtar Ansari was charged with, the most prominent was the dramatic assassination of Krishnanand Rai, then sitting BJP MLA from Mohammadabad in Ghazipur district. Just like Raju Pal in Allahabad West, he had also dared to defeat the bahubali’s brother.

It was an elaborate hit carried out with AK-47s. At least 400 empty 7.62 mm casings were found from the spot and 67 bullets were pulled out from the bodies of the seven people killed, 21 from Rai’s body. This was in 2005, too.

Fourteen years later, a court in Delhi — where the case was shifted because justice in UP was reckoned impossible — acquitted all the accused. Read this story by our reporter Apoorva Mandhani and the cry from the judge’s pained heart. He noted that all the key witnesses had turned hostile, and wished that a real witness protection scheme had been applied.

If in 2019, with Narendra Modi’s government in its second innings, the killers cannot be put to justice 14 years after assassinating a BJP MLA, what does it do to our collective conscience? Won’t the warcry be ‘thok-do’?

As we saw in the first two cases, the Jaipur bombings and the Naroda Gam killings, it isn’t about Hindu or Muslim. Denial of justice is a fully secular phenomenon. Brijesh Singh, a three-decade rival of the Ansaris, was released on bail in August 2022. He’d been under trial already for 20-plus years on the charge of carrying out an elaborate hit on Mukhtar Ansari in 2001.

Ansari escaped but two others with him were killed. Again, witnesses, evidence and prosecution interest have faded with the passage of time. Singh was in jail for 14 years after being caught by the Delhi Police from Bhubaneswar in 2008. He’s now mostly a free man, his nephew an MLA and wife an MLC.

Through three decades, the careers of the three dons have run concurrently, and they’ve all become MPs, MLAs, or MLCs. In each case, it is a failure of politics, governance and the judiciary. Each case is seen to justify the calls for instant justice.

Read these five most recent cases together and they complete the picture of total denial of justice. To the victim, the perpetrator, the state and by implication, all of us Indians.

This is why the faith in the “system” has fallen. It has led to a ‘Singam’ phenomenon in our popular culture. How infectious it is, we have just seen in the alleged acts of brutal torture by an IIT-educated IPS officer in Tamil Nadu, since charged criminally.

Depending on where you belong in this polarised environment, this loss of faith leads to either a clamour for vigilantism or, I’m afraid, resort to terrorism. Five wake-up calls in quick succession are five too many.

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