SC verdict on shrines destroyed in Gujarat pogrom can reopen wounds
The Supreme Court judgment absolving Gujarat government from the responsibility to reconstruct shrines destroyed during the riots of 2002 will come as a double whammy for the victims, 15 years after they were first wronged against.
Rioting mobs had demolished at least 500 mosques, ‘dargahs’ and ‘imambaras’ in Gujarat in 2002. Over 2002 people were allegedly killed in the riots that saw also saw multiple incidents of rape and looting. Civil rights activists claim that after the Islamic shrines were destroyed, rioters established Hindu religious places on the same spot.
The SC on 29 August set aside Gujarat High Court's order of 2012 that had ordered the state government to compensate those in charge of all the religious places that were damaged during the riots. The HC had instructed the state government to fund pending repair/reconstruction of shrines and reimbursement expenses incurred in cases where repair/reconstruction had already been done.
The HC had also appointed Principal District Judges of various districts as Special Officers for deciding the amount of compensation for the restoration. Not just that, HC had also mandated the state government to collect this money from those who were proved to be guilty of the destruction in various courts of law.
The state government had contested that order in the apex court, asking the latter to set it aside because using taxpayers' money to restore/construct any religious place would in violation of the secular fabric of the Constitution. The government argued that under the “Right to Freedom of Religion”, “compelling any person to pay any tax, proceeds of which is to be spent for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination” is prohibited.
The SC has broadly agreed with the state government’s contention and set aside the HC's order. While it is heartening to see the top court assert the secular character of the country, it must be pointed out that addressing the wrongs of 2002 is very much a part of asserting that character.
The dead cannot be brought back and no amount of compensation will ever be able to make up for the burden of that loss. The dignity of those women who were raped will also never be restored with compensation. These are permanent blots on the country's “secular character” that will merely get buried under the gathering sands of time.
What the riots meant, more importantly, for the victims is that they were attacked, maimed, raped and killed only for belonging to one particular community and for adhering to one particular religion. The riots instilled a permanent sense of fear among Muslims not just in Gujarat but in the entire country. Even if the complicity of the State in those riots is not considered, the State's failure in protecting the lives, dignity and the property of its people is beyond doubt.
It is because of that reason that it has been incumbent upon the State to ensure justice for the victims. The contours of that justice were to be defined by identifying and punishing the accused, awarding compensation to the victims and also assuring them that even under India's secular Constitution they are entitled to practice their religion without any fear. The State has failed miserably in that duty on the first count because the actual high-profile conspirators of the riots have been let off in the absence of sufficient evidence against them.
The attack on symbols of the victims' worship was an integral part of the offensive against them and this is one area where the State could have made a difference. The High Court order had given the state government one opportunity to atone by taking the responsibility for the repair/reconstruction of those shrines. The Supreme Court's order has snatched that opportunity from the State.
The SC has acted in its wisdom and the verdict must be respected. However, it must be said that when the secular spirit of the nation has been violated by events like the 2002 riots, secularism lies in making amends to those who were wronged against.