This column in Business World of 15 September 2003 assessed the role the Gujarat government played in the communal riots of 2002.
The Prime Minister’s Raj Dharma
The widespread riots in Gujarat last year, in which Muslims were killed, their houses and businesses burnt and women raped, have left a deep trauma and polarized perceptions. In this atmosphere, the averments of the Supreme Court in the Best Bakery case are apt to be seen as a triumph of secularist cause and a slap to Hindu communalism. That aspect, however, is incidental. The important point about the arguments of the counsel for Gujarat government and the response of the bench is that it is the first engagement between two arms of the state on the standards of governance a government must meet.
The Gujarat government has repeatedly taken the position that it is not its function to protect the life and property of its citizens. Its argument was articulated by the chief minister Narendra Modi himself in the letter he chose to write to the President, in which he asked the President to collect data on the conviction rate in riot cases since independence. The implication was that criminals have seldom been punished – that numerous precedents make it unnecessary for his government to punish the guilty. (In another forum the Gujarat government has pleaded inability to provide protection to witnesses in cases against Hindu rioters.)
That letter is important because Modi is the chief minister; but the view is not his alone. Many members of the Bharatiya Janata Party hold it. When confronted in numerous public discussions and in television interviews by the Gujarat government’s dubious role in and after the riots, leaders and spokesmen of the party have refused to address this issue; instead, they have launched into strident rhetoric about whether their questioners protested against the Godhra outrage, Pundits’ expulsion from Kashmir, the killing of the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and so on. The immediate object is to occupy airtime and silence critics. But the implication is that riots are as natural as sun and rain, and none of the state’s concern. As Narendra Modi said in London, he is chief minister of all Gujaratis, not of Hindus and Muslims. If they kill one another, that is a domestic quarrel beneath his notice.
This point of view may not be confined to the BJP; many people in power would find it appealing. When Hindu mobs massacred innocent Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi said that when a tree fell, the earth would shake. But if rulers are allowed to get away with this disavowal of responsibility, they will get away with murder.
The Supreme Court said that even if no one was punished for the last 40 years, the Gujarat government could not be absolved from punishing murderers, rapists and arsonists. It told the Gujarat government that it must enforce the law of the land, and that if it found that impossible, it must resign.
The response of the Gujarat government counsel to this admonition was that the government had been elected by popular majority and that it could not be dismissed under Article 356 of the Constitution. That is not a legal argument; it is an assessment of probability. For the central government could certainly dismiss the Gujarat government if Parliament supported it.
This is not the end of the conflict between the Gujarat government and the highest arbiter of law in the country. The Supreme Court’s position makes it incumbent upon it to ensure justice to the riot victims, even if it involves taking the prosecution out of Gujarat government’s hands and transferring the cases out of Gujarat. The process will take long; and the longer it takes, the longer will the Gujarat government be in the dock.
There are many in the Bharatiya Janata Party who are unfazed by this prospect. They would build a temple on the ruins of Babri Masjid; they would raze other mosques, and justify such destruction on grounds of a popular mandate if they get one. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly made it clear that it is unimpressed by popular majorities: that its task is to defend the basic structure of the Constitution.
If there is anyone in the BJP who can see the extreme dangers of this potential confrontation, the harm it would do to the fabric of governance, the internal conflicts it would unleash, the shame it would bring upon India, it is the Prime Minister. Here at last is an occasion that calls for him to act like a Prime Minister – to take firm, quick, decisive action to defend the Constitution of the country.