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India: Supreme Court to Reopen Case Against Hindu Nationalists - 2004-04-27

It has been two years since a wave of anti-Muslim rioting erupted in India's western state of Gujarat, claiming up to 2,000 lives. Rights groups charge that the government has done little to investigate claims that the violence was orchestrated by local authorities who champion Hindu nationalism in the state. That may change with a recent decision by India's Supreme Court to reopen the case of one alleged massacre.

In a Muslim neighborhood in the city of Ahmedabad, 62-year-old Kasam Bai is painting his house a cheery lime-green, with lavender and pink doors and trim. But the bright colors belie the tragedy that took place here.

Nineteen members of Mr. Bai's family, including his wife and six grandchildren, were killed by Hindu mobs in anti-Muslim rioting in 2002. "This place holds a lot of good memories for me. My wife used to love this place, and whenever I come here I think of her," he says. "I wanted to fix it up in her memory."

The colors, Mr. Bai says, were his late wife's choice. Now he thinks of the house as a memorial to her.

Mr. Bai is the only resident of his neighborhood, called "Gulbarg Society" to return home. The handful of other houses in this Muslim neighborhood remain charred by fire and filled with debris, while their owners live in what aid workers call "ghettoes" in other parts of the city.

Up to 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, died in a wave of riots across Gujarat in 2002. The violence was sparked by the deaths of more than 50 Hindus on a train in the town of Godra, in an attack and fire blamed on a Muslim mob. Very few people have been convicted of any crimes during the riots.

Father Cedric Prakash, a Roman Catholic priest, is the director of Prashant, also called the Center for Human Rights, Justice and Peace, in Ahmedabad. He says state authorities did nothing to stop the anti-Muslim violence.

"All those who are responsible, who presided, they were ministers, who were sitting in the police control room while the violence was going on, giving police what orders, giving police the orders as to what they should be doing, how they should not prevent people from attacking the Muslims," says Father Prakash. "And it's all documented."

The international organization Human Rights Watch goes a step further. It charges that the riots were part of a "carefully orchestrated" attack involving "extensive participation of police and state government officials."

Most of those state officials are members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee leads. The BJP identifies itself as a Hindu-nationalist party. The central government condemned the violence and denies the BJP was involved. The party characterizes the rioting as a spontaneous reaction to the deaths of the Hindus on the train.

But Human Rights Watch continues to demand that the national government investigate the actions of state officials during the riots. The group also charges that local officials have blocked police from investigating complaints about the riots filed by Muslims, and have manipulated legal proceedings to prevent Hindus from being prosecuted.

There are signs that pressure from national and international rights groups is paying off.

Earlier this month, India's Supreme Court overturned a state court ruling that acquitted 21 Hindus in the massacre of a 14 Muslims in a bakery in Gujarat in 2002. The "Best Bakery" case as it is known, is expected to reopen in June.

Prime Minister Vajpayee has called on Indians to respect the Supreme Court ruling. Those sentiments are echoed by the BJP spokesman in Gujarat, Jay Narayan Vyas. "If there is a judgment where the court has made certain observations, coming from the apex court of the country, we must comply with it," he says. "If the truth is honored and comes to light - there is nothing wrong."

But Mr. Vyas also suggests that the Gujarat riots have been blown out of proportion by people he will not name, but whom he believes want to damage the state's image. "You would like to forget the World Trade Center event; we would also like to forget this event," he says. "So I don't think it is proper, and somehow there is some kind of conspiracy going on, to malign the image of the state, to malign the image of the people."

Back in Gulbarg Society, Mr. Bai says the Supreme Court ruling has given many Muslims hope. "I read in the newspapers nearly everyday about the Best Bakery case, and I am hopeful that Muslims will get justice soon," he says.

Father Prakash worries about he sees as the BJP's hostility to non-Hindus. To him, the Best Bakery verdict is about a great deal more than a single court case. "If it doesn't work in this case, I think we're doomed," he says. "We're doomed as Indians, we're doomed as a country, if an ordinary citizen cannot go to the highest courts of the land and get justice."

The reopening of the Best Bakery case in June is certain to attract nationwide interest in the situation of India's minority Muslims, who make up roughly 12 percent of the population. But the drama may not end there. In August, India's Supreme Court is due to decide whether to reopen 13 other Gujarat cases, all of which led to acquittals of alleged Hindu rioters.

For the victims in Gujarat, it appears, there is still a chance for justice to be done.