Monday, April 21, 2014

Two Sides of the Same, Beautiful Coin (Last Year on 22.3.2013)

Two Sides of the Same, Beautiful Coin

Teesta Setalvad

Two months apart, January 13 and March 13, 2013 we lost two visionary religious men. On the earlier date, a Sunday evening, Maulana Umerji from Godhra passed away. He who ran the Godhra Relief Camp in 2002 where Survivors from Panchmahal, Dahod and other districts took shelter and drew succour is a symbol of Courage, Resistance and Faith. He was made a specific and vicious target by a man and an administration that has built its development plank on the humiliation and subjugation of Muslims.
From 2003 - 2011 he has to spend in jail, seriously ill and heartbroken the victim of a vindictive government who invoked POTA to incarcerate him without any substantive proof, simply because he had extended a courageous helping hand to his community women, girls boys and men. Finally he was "honourably acquitted" when the final judgement was delivered in February 2011. No Bail was granted to him even after he approached the Supreme Court. Other accused of the Godhra mass arson (Muslims) were similarly refused bail while eighty per cent of those accused of the post Godhra reprisal massacres were given bail within six months to a year. Hence my Salaams to sisters from Naroda Patiya who deposed without fear or favour while Kodnani and Bajrangi roamed free in their areas without bail, even as the trial progressed, for years.

Two months kater, last week, we lost another man.Before he could light the lamp for the daily evening aarti at the Sankat Mochan mandir last Wednesday evening, March 13, 2013, Dr Veer Bhadra Mishra seer and scientist breathed his last. The mahant, who’s modest abode was at the legendary Tulsighat of Benaras, succumbed to lung congestion at 75. A post-graduate from the Benares Hindu University, Dr Mishra was also a hydraulic engineer by profession using all his scientific knowledge and spiritual strength to urge cynical governments to get his beloved Ganga mai re-born in her life-sustaining image.
Gifted with two critical faculties, as he put it, he had come to become the voice for a clean and re-born Ganga. “There is a necessary interface between the two, a committed heart and a rationally trained mind, “ he shared in a candid conversation with me in 2006 after his beloved temple and city had been ripped with the violence of twin bombings. “Today men of science have gradually begun to accept that there is a world beyond the mere physical. I have been saying for over 25 years that the fish in the Ganga are dying, soon we human beings living on its banks will follow. I have been working on the issue of purification of fresh water bodies with Ganga as the symbol. The Ganga catchment area provides sustenance to 40 crore human lives, Domestic sewage and industrial pollution contributes to 95 per cent of the pollution and this can be stopped.” He never lost a public opportunity to raise this issue.
It was in the aftermath of the vicious violence however, that his deep conviction met another kind of challenge when he rose to the highest demands of all faiths when he called the peace. Seven years ago to a week, on March 7, 2006, a week before the festival of Holi could be celebrated, twin bomb blasts rocked the mystical city on the banks of the Ganges and sent resounding shock waves throughout the country. A total of 23 persons were killed, 21 of them worshippers within the precincts of the Sankat Mochan temple, a temple devoted to Lord Hanuman and to whom the devout offer special prayers on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The calculated acts of violence were aimed beyond the lives that they took, the ultimate provocation. Located on the banks of the holy Ganges, Kashi, is the pilgrimage centre for the devout and central to Hindu scriptures and religiosity, Hindustani music and poetry. Deep grief and legitimate outrage could have spilled into spiraling violence.
Instead, drawing deep from the spirituality and mysticism that has woven itself around Kashi, devotees responded by continuing their darshan before Lord Hanuman within 40 minutes of the tragedy, close to the spot where blood had been spilt hours earlier. Temple mahant, Dr Veer Bhadra Mishra, led the devout, in his calm way, refusing to let this blow tarnish the temple’s tradition of inclusiveness and tolerance. Best efforts for politico-religious figures to gain entry were thwarted. Adversity, says the cliché draws out the best or the worst in us. The mahant’s call for calm and peace made the tide turn, nationally. By the next morning, residents of the city – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians – demonstrated, in peaceful outrage against the acts of terror. Burkha-clad women, traders and Muslim clergy were not only visible in their protest and grief but could also be seen offering prayers at the temple. Any outsider could have mistaken Tulsi ghat for a Muslim neighbourhood.
 Maulana Umerji carried the same vision of commitment, inclusion and sagacity. I remember the several occasions I met him before and after he was unfairly and vindictively jailed in 2003. Not only did he give courage and succor to children, women, men devastated by a perpetrated attack on them in 2002, including the indomitable Bilkees Bano. He had run the Godhra Relief Camp from Panchmahals and Dahod the two worst affected districts after Ahmedabad, that housed the raped, maimed and dishoused for six-eight months, in 2002. He had, in 1984 when the ghastly gas leak of the poisonous Methyl Icocynate gas spread over Bhopal claining over 3,000 lives raised relief  for his fellow citizens. Yet our system, we, you and I, denied him dignified treatment and even the Courts, including our Supreme Court did not grant him bail when there was no proof against him. The government of his state used money power and resources in the Courts to present a scary picture of the Godhra accused – many of whom finally got acquitted in February 2011– and denied them a freedom that the law and the Constitution gives all citizens. Umerjisaab died a broken man, he would sob in jail quietly when visitors met him and the only sad vindication was the thousands who thronged to pay last respects that Sunday – January 13, 2013.
I had in anger and depression when the seventh innocent and falsely accused of the Godhra mass arson died in jail way back in February 2008 written a short angry piece/article titled “Discriminatory Justice” and sent it out to three or four publications, to publish. It was my fortune that a prestigious weekly in Malayalam carried it, Matrubhumi. I had tracked the case especially the injustice in the Courts not listing and hearing the repeated pleas of the Godhra accused, for bail even after the Central (POTA) Review Committee, had, on 16.5.2005, after carefully examining the issues at hand, ruled that POTA was not applicable to Godhra. Shockingly, however, this decision by a quasi-judicial authority had not been taken into consideration by either the Gujarat government or the POTA court. Matters relating to bail for the accused, especially in view of the decision by the Central (POTA) Review Committee, were taken to the Supreme Court but these two faced repeated and inexplicable delays for which the highest court in the land needs to deliberate and respond. This is what my anguished piece in the Matrubhumi  had towards the end, distressed as a I was, when the seventh innocent person had died of tuberculosis unattended, in the Sabarmati jail in Ahmedabad, asked. Gandhiji, if alive would surely have gone a hunger fast for this injustice.
I had ended my piece with these pained questions, “Which matters get automatic priority and which do not?; Which matters suffer because of the delays and interim orders of the Supreme Court?; Is there no prioritisation of cases where issues of personal liberty, denial of basic fundamental rights, mass crimes and impunity to the rich and powerful is concerned?
If we can ask no questions, we will receive no answers…..”
As a result of the system’s callousness or apathy or discrimination – or a mix of all of these three --, 84 of those allegedly accused of the Godhra train burning (one of whom is near 100 per cent blind) have been denied their personal liberty for six years. Bail is the fundamental prerequisite inalienable fundamental right of any and every accused under Indian criminal law and civilised form of jurisprudence. Even draconian anti-terror laws that are severely contested because they vest untested powers in the police and executive do not ever condone custody for such a long period of time.

This week as we mourn the loss of two visionary men, men of faith, who did not fail their secular duty of compassion, justice and truth, we need to re-double our efforts to ensure that our system returns to the fundamental principles of Constitutional Governance, fair play and non discrimination. It would be oue best tribute to them.

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