Addressing a series of meetings towards the end of the Lok Sabha poll, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made repeated references to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, once again demonstrating that while justice for the victims may be slow in coming, they can lean on political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal for moral support.
But for the families which suffered losses in the 2002 Gujarat riots, there is no hope of justice and little possibility of help from the political class, especially the Congress which has traditionally spoken up for the minorities.
The shift in Modi’s election discourse from nationalism to the 1984 riots was a well thought-out strategy, aimed at unsettling the Congress and reaching out to the large Sikh population in Delhi and Punjab which went to polls in the last two phases.
Though Congress leaders have apologised for the riots and the party has won three elections in Delhi and Punjab after the riots, the wounds inflicted during the carnage continue to fester because of the long wait for justice.
It was only after 35 years that Congress leader Sajjan Kumar was jailed last year for his role in the riots, but this was due to the dogged efforts of lawyer-cum-human rights activist HS Phoolka. The Congress has evinced little interest in pursuing the riot cases. Instead, it has been distinctly reluctant to punish its leaders accused of instigating the rampaging mobs.
But the BJP and the Shiromani Akal Dal have kept the issue alive and it was due to their pressure that the Congress was forced to withdraw Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler from the electoral fray in 2009. Again in 2005, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apologised in Parliament for the 1984 riots following an outcry from the BJP and the Akali Dal.
His assurance that leaders named in the Nanavati Commission report would be probed led to Tytler’s resignation from the Cabinet while Kumar quit as chairman of the Delhi Rural Development Board.
This is in stark contrast to the condition of the equally-aggrieved victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots which claimed the lives of over a 1,000 Muslims. As in the case of the anti-Sikh riots, the State was alleged to be complicit in encouraging the violence.
Human rights activists like Teesta Setalvad have done the rounds in the courts to get justice for the survivors of the riot victims. Their endeavours did meet with limited success but it was an uphill task as they had to contend with strong resistance from the BJP-led Gujarat government.
The activists themselves faced the wrath of the State, particularly after 2014. Numerous cases were filed against Setalvad with the express purpose of immobilising her. But the biggest let down for the 2002 riot victims has been the deafening silence of the Congress.
Though the party did extend silent support to the activists during the 10 years it was in power from 2004-2014, the Congress struck it off its agenda after the BJP repeatedly accused it of minority appeasement.
The first sign of withdrawal was visible when Modi skillfully invoked Gujarati pride in the 2007 assembly poll in response to former Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s reference to him as a “ maut ka saudagar ”(merchant of death). He went on to win a handsome victory in the election.
Left floundering, the Congress could not decide whether it should target Modi personally or battle him on issues. A divided party continued to vacillate on this point but it was after Modi’s appointment as Prime Minister in 2014 that it unofficially abandoned the cause of the Gujarat riot victims.
Since it came to power, the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have given an aggressive push to its communal agenda to disempower the minorities. Its campaign has found wide acceptance with the BJP successfully convincing people that the country’s 80 per cent population is being persecuted by the 20 per cent minorities.
The people’s response has pushed the Congress into adopting the path of least resistance. Instead of confronting the BJP, it has meekly surrendered to its rivals.
Rahul Gandhi promptly went on a temple run to prove his Hindu credentials while the party’s election manifestos in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan played the Hindutva card with a promise to build cow shelters and promote the production of cow urine. The party studiously avoided any mention of Muslims in the Lok Sabha election, stayed away from campaigning in their colonies and did not refer to the 2002 riots in the Gujarat assembly polls. The M-word is obviously now a no-no for the Congress.
And with the exit polls predicting the return of the Modi government, the 2002 Gujarat riots have been reduced to a footnote.
The writer is a senior journalist