By Vappala Balachandran
Image of best administered Indian state wooing American business leaving China tarnished.
Two split screen images repeatedly shown on Indian visual media on September 30 succinctly questioned the very idea of the present India. The right side frame was an old photo of “religious warriors” perched on the domes of the 16th Century Babri Masjid before it was demolished on December 6, 1992. On the left was the poignant end of a 19-year-old Dalit girl through a hurried funeral at midnight after she was brutally gang raped and tortured.
Both conveyed the failure of our justice delivery system in the backdrop of infernal social and communal intolerance. Both had taken place in Uttar Pradesh which is trying to woo American business leaving China as the best administered state in India.
Babri Masjid demolition
Madhav Godbole, the highest official in the Indian Home Ministry in 1992, had tried to prevent the Masjid demolition through preventive steps. He has said in his memoirs, “Unfinished Innings: Recollections and reflections of a Civil Servant,” that its destruction had resulted in immediate countrywide communal disturbances leaving 2,026 dead and 6,957 injured.
Not mentioned was the heavy toll of human lives since then in Jihadi (Islamic militant) violence and counter violence against Muslims as in Gujarat in 2002 which had taken thousands of lives.
The reason for showing the 28-year-old photo on Sept. 30 was because 32 accused persons, including top leaders of the BJP, accused of conspiracy by instigating the demolition were acquitted by a Special court in Lucknow on the same day.
Criminal cases against them which were registered in 1992 had seen tortuous traverse. Two First Information Reports (FIR) were registered, one against unnamed people and the other against the BJP top leadership.
Since then the cases saw procedural wrangling resulting in directionless meandering until the Supreme Court intervened in April 2017. It gave a stern message that the cases were “crimes which shake the secular fabric of the Constitution of India”.
It gave directions to the Special Court to take up the case on a day-to-day basis and also that the presiding judge would not be transferred. Another direction was that the trial should be concluded within two years. The court also extended the tenure of the Special Judge till the completion of proceedings.
However, the criminal case lost its gravity in public mind after India slid into a cynical majoritarian predilection after the Supreme Court verdict on November 9, 2019 on the title suit pending since 1949 on the disputed Babri Masjid- Ram Temple site.
The verdict enabled the building of the new Ram Temple on that site. The logic of that judgment delivered by the bench chaired by then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who retired that month continues to befuddle even now.
The present court verdict acquitting conspirators was surprising. Madhav Godbole had categorically said that the evidence of conspiracy was placed before the Supreme Court “which was hearing the case even before the Babri Masjid was demolished. The hearing was on a day-to-day basis and we were updating the court regarding what was happening on the ground.”
Dalit woman’s rape
Boolgarhi in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, is a small village with 64 families. Yet it contained two worlds: Four Dalit “Valmikis” living on the margins of a world dominated by sixty higher caste families.
They know they could not cross the line of social distance. They are not allowed into the local temple. Even for weddings their processions are not allowed to go through the main road.
Their cremations grounds are separate. Discrimination exists even in the local school. “They don’t acknowledge us; it’s as if we don’t exist” they said.
The 19-year-old girl who had gone for agriculture work was found semi-conscious in a field on September 14. Her mother found her naked and brutally assaulted. Her spine was broken as she was dragged through the field for assault.
She whispered the name of one upper caste accused to her brother who lodged the police complaint. She was taken to Aligarh hospital where she regained consciousness on September 15.
However the police could record the full story of gang rape only on September 22. The victim had to be shifted to New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital where she expired on September 29. So far the story was acceptable. The delay in recording rape complaint was because the victim mentioned it only on September 22.
True, the accused persons were arrested. One of them had married six years ago and has two children, but his wife had left the village with the children. Two other suspects are unmarried. The fourth suspect has shifted to the village from Agra.
However, what infuriated the village, the neighborhood and the entire nation was how the police carried the dead body at night on September 29 and cremated it themselves in the village without allowing the victim’s family to perform the last religious rites according to custom.
Even the highest officers told lies. The hospital handed over the body at 9:30 pm. The receipt was signed by the distraught father who did not know what he was signing.
That was the reason for the lie that the police merely facilitated the cremation, which was done by the family. Another said that the body was too decomposed and hence a quick cremation was needed. Yet another said that the “Instructions had come from above”.
In fact, as the TV visuals clearly showed, the police did not allow her father and brother to travel in the hearse. They were put in another vehicle which left New Delhi only after half an hour.
Unknown to the victim’s relations, the revenue and police officials started preparing for her late night funeral by ordering logs of wood and switching on the cremation ground lights.
Nearly 200 men from the Armed police were sent to the village. The road to the victim’s house was barricaded. Visuals showed them pushing the villagers.
The father complained bitterly that they wanted to take the body home as was the custom. Although he signed the discharge papers, he realized this official deception only when he reached the village as the body was taken straight to the cremation ground.
From then on the entire deception drama was beamed all over the country by the visual media — father and relations lying on the road, police pushing the villagers away and mother falling on the bonnet of hearse sobbing and pleading “let me put some ‘haldi’ (turmeric) on her” as was the custom. The police pushed them aside and locked up the relations.
The latest twist in the case is the reported statement by a high level police officer that there was no evidence of rape. This has been contested by other retired senior police officers.
Boolgarhi today is a fortified place out of bounds for outside politicians who are alleging that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s government had messed up with this case due to their affinity with Thakurs, the higher castes.
Faced with countrywide protests, Adityanath has now suspended several police officers for “negligence and lax supervision”. This was after the Allahabad High Court had taken cognizance suo moto and summoned the parties concerned.
Simultaneously social media is circulating some photos showing top BJP leaders with some persons allegedly relations of accused persons. The suspensions were interpreted to divert attention from the persons who had ordered the hasty cremation for reasons not known. As usual only police officers are suspended.
Juxtaposed, the two tragedies conveying the failure of our justice delivery system have raised questions about the very idea of a “New India.”
(Vappala Balachandran is an author, columnist and former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, India. He is the author of, among other works, A life in Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar.)
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