A Culture of Impunity
The Oxford Dictionary meaning of the word impunity is, “exemption from punishment or from the harmful consequences of an action.” The English derivative is from the Latin word, impunis, ‘unpunished’. After the June 5, 2010 judgement by the trial court in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy dishing out a minimal punishment to the perpetrators, a sustained media campaign has focused on critical factors that contributed to this callous, across the board impunity.
The verdict has been termed as ‘travesty of justice’ by victims’ organizations, which we salute for sustaining the struggle for justice for 26 long years. The accused were pronounced guilty under sections 304 (A) (death by negligence), 336 (endangering life and safety), 337 (causing hurt) and 338 (grievous hurt) of the IPC. But the more serious and criminally indicting sections of the law were deliberately omitted from the charge sheet by India’s apex court despite the CBI urging their inclusion. While no amount of evasiveness by the Centre can excuse its failure (and culpability) to stand up for the victims of arguably the world’s worst industrial disaster, the role of one of India’s former chief justices who then got elected (with the assistance of Union Carbide finances) to the International Court of Criminal Justice, adds an even macabre twist to the sorry tale.
At the bottom of it all is the all pervasive culture of impunity, that is, non- punishment to the perpetrators, that continues to hover like a dark cloud, casting an ominous shadow over ‘India shining’. It is the same story everywhere. Talk of Bhopal, where several hundred thousand damaged lives continue a tortuous existence in a toxic environment as grim reminders of callousness towards the disempowered on the part of successive governments, lofty institutions of state. Talk of the Ruchira case, where the refusal of a former CBI director to include the abetment to suicide charges against the accused, DGP Rathore, ensured that a cop-criminal got away lightly. Justice first delayed then denied, in case of the Bhopal gas tragedy as in case of Ruchira, a victim of sexual assault subsequently driven to suicide.
Talk of Delhi, 1984, where over 3,500 Sikhs were massacred in the nation’s capital following the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi by two of her bodyguard who happened to be Sikhs. Twenty five years later, the politically powerful masterminds and police officers guilty of dereliction of duty remain unpunished. Barely 20 persons have been convicted for the mass of 2,733 people (the official death toll). The manner in which the investigating agency, the prosecution and courts colluded to acquit Congress leaders HKL Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar, despite all the evidence against them, belies our pretensions of a society governed by the rule of law. Yet another example of the overarching culture of impunity that prevails. Similar is the story of the criminal prosecutions related to the 1992-1993 carnage in Bombay where again the main perpetrators and the guilty cops have gone scot-free. Sustained punished-the-guilty campaigns by victims and the citizenry over several years, the incisive, indicting report of Justice BN Srikrishna Commission (1998), a Justice for All campaign that revived the issue in 2007 notwithstanding, the connivance since the pogrom of successive Congress-NCP governments in Maharashtra has ensured weak investigations and prosecutions.
Given this track record of impunity to perpetrators, from crimes against individuals to mass crimes, a record that’s a blot on Indian democracy, what will be the fate of the ongoing, resilient struggle of survivors of the Gujarat Genocidal carnage of 2002? Will this heroic effort go the way of other struggles for justice, as worthy, before us? Or will we collectively be able to shatter the political comfort zone created by our institutions—executive, law enforcement and judiciary alike – and ensure that justice is delivered?
Time will tell, but 2010 could prove critical to this battle. A historic investigation into mass murder and criminal conspiracy – Gujarat genocide 2002 – that traces the chain of command responsibility to the men in power and uniform, was ordered by India’s apex court last year and a report on this will be deliberated upon in August, a little over a month from now. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the apex court has shown itself up to be only partially up to the task. What is unique however is the sustained, independent, painstaking investigations by citizens’ groups and survivors that has kept the cry for justice alive for eight long years. If Tehelka’s ‘Operation Kalank’ made a major contribution, the joint examination by Citizens for Justice and Peace and Sabrang Trust of documentary evidence (police control room records and mobile phone records) filed before the Nanavati Commission and the apex court unravels incontrovertible evidence against the guilty.
The findings of this citizens' investigation is being presented to our readers as the cover story of Communalism Combat for this month.