12.22.2004

Tell it to the Tehelka: Communalism and Corruption in Gujurat

In 2002, we were talking about Gujurat as a ghastly communal massacre, the worst in 20 years. 3000-5000 dead, 100,000 homeless, and an irreparable scar right through Gandhi's home state...

It still is that. But now the trial phase -- or what the miserable idealists of the world still vainly call "the demand for justice" -- is threatening to turn into a complete farce.

Zaheera Sheikh had initially gone to a police station and precisely identified 21 people who she said participated in a massacre of 14 people at a place called Best Bakery. This made her a key witness for the prosecution of communal atrocities in the only "fast-tracked" trial dealing with the Gujurat violence (the rest of the cases, presumably, will be handled in the usual "slow-track," lesiurely/incompetent manner of the Indian courts). But she turned hostile at the key moment in the trial in 2003, leading to the acquittal of the Best Bakery 21. Afterwards, her mother came out and said they had been threatened to change their testimony.

It looked like like yet another case of "thousands dead, but no saw anything."

But then a retrial was ordered, and under full police protection, Zaheera testified against the 21 accused in court. But then recently, and almost unbelievably, she changed her mind again! Guess she didn't see anything after all.

Wrong, of course. Today, the news-magazine Tehelka held a press conference, where it showed footage of a conversation with an MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) named Madhu Srivastav -- of the BJP. Srivastav is quoted on the video saying he and his brother paid Zaheera Sheikh 1,800,000 Rupees ($40,000 USD) to change her testimony. Initially, it seemed they were talking about her most recent volte-face. But a report in Indian Express quotes Srivastava (who has now seen the tape) saying that the bribe was given to her last year. It wasn't a threat, but a bribe, that tainted Zaheera's original testimony.

Solace for my BJP-supporting readers: it's pretty clear this is not just another 'bad Hindu, good Muslim' expose. No matter how you slice it, Zaheera Sheikh and her family come off as profoundly corrupt in this case. They should probably be jailed alongside the Best Bakery 21.

Srivastav, Sheikh, and the BJP deny the charges. Hilariously, NDA President George Fernandes has also chimed in his denunciations and denials. Oh well, guess he's not a fan of Tehelka: the last time they were playing with video cameras, they caught several NDA/BJP officials taking bribes to influence a fictional arms deal. It was a scandal that cost Fernandes his job (though he later got it back).

It looks bad for Srivastav and the Gujurat BJP party apparatus. Well sort of. Though it seems highly likely that these allegations are true, I'm not quite so confident that they are actually provable. Even if provable, is anything likely to happen to them anytime soon? The footage, I gather isn't quite as good this time around -- no hard evidence. It will only work if the police do their job, and find the stacks of Rupees in question.

Moreover, why is the Best Bakery case the centerpiece of the movement for justice for the victims of the Gujrat violence? What about all the other people who were killed and raped, and whose businesses and homes were destroyed? I gather some other trials have been in the works; perhaps it is time to 'fast track' them as well, so we're not still discussing this trial 10 years from now.