International Papers

Gujarat’s Tangled Justices

Newspapers across India led with news on two raucous legal battles, the fallout from last year’s religious violence in the western province of Gujarat that claimed at least 900 and perhaps as many as 2,000 lives. (See this March 2002 “International Papers” for more background on the clash.) The controversy centers on a disputed religious site in the town of Ayodhya that is considered sacred by both Hindus and Muslims. The conflict came to a head when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) initiated its plan to construct a Hindu temple over the site of a 400-year-old mosque that had been destroyed in an earlier bout of violence. A Muslim mob ambushed a train carrying VHP activists on their way home from the temple site, burning 57 people to death and igniting a bloodbath of retaliatory attacks on Muslims in the region.

Both the temple dispute and the violence it fostered have spawned ongoing court cases that made headlines throughout the week. The Ayodhya debate centers on an archaeological study of the holy site intended to determine whether its base structure was originally Muslim or Hindu. The governmental Archaeological Survey of India was commissioned to study the site, where it claimed to find evidence of a Hindu temple beneath the structure of the more recent mosque. Various Muslim groups are now protesting that conclusion, most recently, according to the Indian Statesman, in a 42-page report filed by the Sunni Central Waqf Board, a key litigant in the case. Their strongest evidence was the discovery of animal bones dating back to the 13th century, indicating that the site was used by non-vegetarians. The case shows no prospects of a quick resolution, as Muslim litigants will “ask for four weeks time to supplement the Sunni Board’s objections while the ASI has sought time to submit its counter-affidavit.”

The violence in Gujarat has attracted more attention with ongoing attempts to punish a group of Hindu militants suspected of killing 12 Muslims in what has become known as the “Best Bakery” case. According to numerous eyewitnesses, a Hindu mob burned down a Muslim bakery in the town of Vadodara. Twenty-one suspected militants were acquitted after several eyewitnesses “turned hostile,” as the Indian Telegraph put it. The paper added, “The witnesses later complained that they were forced to turn hostile.” India’s Supreme Court intervened on Thursday, appointing Harish Salve, a well-respected independent prosecutor, to aid the Gujarat court in organizing a new trial, for which 13 of the original 21 suspects have been re-arrested. A piece in the Indian Express said that the Supreme Court instructed Salve to find unbiased government lawyers, since, of Gujarat’s previous riot trial prosecutors, “the key ones are affiliated to the VHP—the Chief Justice stressed that persons with good credentials needed to be appointed.” The Indian justices also stipulated that new prosecutors will have to be vetted by the Indian attorney general.

The complexities of the Best Bakery trial have cast serious doubt on the state of Gujarat’s ability to try the case fairly. Several papers covered the BBC’s interview with Indian Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani, who was a leader of the drive to build a Hindu temple at Ayodhya. According to an item in the Deccan Chronicle, he dismissed allegations that the Best Bakery acquittal was a “systematic attempt to subvert justice” and “denied that the State government was acting in collusion with the riot accused.”

An op-ed in the Statesman noted that even pro-government Hindus have complained about the biased justice system in Gujarat. According to the piece, families of those Hindus who died in the train massacre that set off the Gujarat violence wanted even that investigation moved out of the state. They claim that ruling party functionaries impersonated aggrieved family members at hearings and that the “VHP collected huge sums of money in the name of the train tragedy, but the victims have seen none of it, nor is it accounted for.”