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Ghosts do not die

April 14, 2013

CHECK with the haunted: ghosts do not die. Since this sounds like the ultimate paradox, some explanation is necessary. Ghosts are not happy spirits. A ghost is spectre of justice denied, a moan from beyond the grave, revenge that has survived burial. A ghost does not leave judgement to God; it seeks its target while the assailant is still alive.

Many of those who instigated mobs in the anti-Sikhs riots of 1984 are dead; some have slipped, with age, into decrepitude. Legal justice has been tawdry, because the establishment has protected the guilty.

But there are at least two VIPs who cannot shake off their ghosts despite 29 years of protection and promotion, offered by Congress, which has been in power for 21 of these years. Sajjan Kumar was an MP and would have remained one till now but for an accidental burst of anger by a Sikh journalist in 2009. Jagdish Tytler is a senior Congress leader, with a seat in its highest committee.

The ghost chasing Tytler is relentless. Each time Tytler becomes complacent, it pops up. Tytler has reason to be complacent. It took Indias premier police unit, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) 23 long years to produce its final report for the courts; it concluded that there was no case against Tytler. The court was sceptical.

Two years later, in 2009, CBI repeated its charade, despite the fact that the Nanavati Commission had held Tytler culpable. India, thankfully, is not a police state. A sessions court has again thrown Tytler back into the public limelight.

Tytler behaves likes a split personality when he appears on television to defend himself, half anxious, half smug. His central argument is equivocal: he does not challenge the Nanavati verdict, but adds with a shrug that it is hardly his fault if CBI did not find any evidence. The smirk is almost too much to bear.

What Tytler, his guardians and acolytes do not quite understand is how much India has changed. There are many reasons obviously, but it can be said that one of the catalysts was the Gujarat riots. A cover-up is no longer possible.

In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi read out a speech written by an over-smart bureaucrat justifying the violence with the metaphor that when the earth shakes, a banyan or two is bound to tremble. No one would suggest this today.

The Gujarat riots have been followed by unprecedented media investigation, and judicial scrutiny supervised by the Supreme Court. VIP politicians are in jail. The process is exhausting and exhaustive, but it will separate the guilty from those who were not directly responsible.

No politician ever went to jail for riots before Gujarat; in fact, hardly anyone went to jail at all. Take a count of major incidents in the last five decades: Jamshedpur in 1964, Ranchi in 1967; Ahmedabad in 1969, when some 2,000 died; Nellie in Assam in 1983, where 5,000 Muslims were estimated to have been killed (I shall never forget the rows of dead babies I saw when I went to report that story).

Hiteshwar Saikia of Congress was chief minister of Assam then, and Mrs Indira Gandhi prime minister. No one demanded his resignation. Instead, Saikia was often lauded as an astute political craftsman.

In 1989 came Bhagalpur, when over a thousand died. Let alone Congress chief minister Bhagwat Jha Azad being held responsible, even the police chief was not shifted. Sudhakar Rao Naik was chief minister of Maharashtra during the three months of riots in Mumbai following Babri in 1992-93; the guilty named in the Srikrishna report have been left free. Narasimha Rao was prime minister then. It is a depressing list.

Public accountability, spurred by popular will, is principally responsible for the reduction in the scale and frequency of riots. Politicians may be worried about courts, but they are terrified by voters. The mood of the country has changed visibly. The young, who are in the forefront of this change, want to leave the past behind; for them governance is measured in economic growth and jobs.

It is self-evident that violence and development cannot coexist. Investment in Gujarat will shrink if there is another riot. The young want to vote for jobs, not for the problems of 1947.

If you want to predict election results, an astrologer may still be of some use; but it is far more useful to look at unemployment figures, followed closely by an examination of corruption levels. Voters resent corruption because it is theft; what makes them apoplectic is that it is theft of their money, or the nation’s resources. A nation belongs to the voter, not to a government. Governments are only temporary custodians.

There is no truth about politics, which is totally true. But that which is largely true determines the fate of elections. Caste and creed have not disappeared, but pillars of the old life are fading as another new age begins to rise on the Indian landscape. And when they are finally buried, they will not beget any ghosts.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.