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Justice is all about
Healing the Victims
|by Manjari Sewak|
"Apology after 21 years? It is so meaningless." This was the response of Kaushalya Kaur, a survivor of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's apology to the Sikh community in August 2005. A month later, the Delhi government's announcement of a Rs 7.14 billion compensation package for the riot victims angered the Sikh community and did little to create a sense that "justice had finally been done".
In November 1984, close to 3,000 Sikhs were massacred and thousands injured and displaced from their homes in Delhi. Twenty-one years later, there have been only eight convictions. While it is public knowledge that many politicians and police officers participated in (or supported) the riots, none of them have been held accountable for the roles they played. In spite of judicial intervention and the several inquiry panels that have been instituted, the legal system has failed to deliver justice to the Sikh community.
Recently, the Gujarat police declared that it will reopen nearly 1,600 cases connected to the widespread violence that took place in 2002. Over 1,000 people (largely Muslims) were killed in the violence. Many Muslim women were raped and tortured by the angry mobs led by Hindu fanatics. The Gujarat government's role in allowing the violence to continue is now well documented. However, after four years, the process of minimum legal justice has just begun.
The low rate of convictions in the Sikh riots or in the Gujarat carnage points to the need for a serious national debate on how justice can be delivered in a timely and efficient manner in contexts of social violence.
The timing of justice measures is very crucial. While apologies and compensation packages might have facilitated some degree of healing in the months following the 1984 riots, their issuance 21 years after the violence does little to heal deep wounds.
The shape and content of a justice process require far greater discussion.
While the complicity of the State and the low rate of convictions in many riot situations have been the subject of considerable discussion in India, little attention has been given to what may be seen as non-conventional approaches to justice. Over the last decade, experiences of horrific violence in various other regions of conflict have given a spurt to research on approaches that transcend the limitations of the legal system.
It is pertinent to note that much of this research points to the widespread dissatisfaction that victims feel with respect to the ability of the conventional legal system to deliver justice. The retributive justice-oriented legal system has been criticized for deepening the already existing divisions between communities.
Added to this, the material obstacles and the destruction of evidence in the chaos that surrounds violent conflicts, such as riots and pogroms, make it almost impossible to achieve justice through the legal system. The deliverance of justice becomes even more difficult in situations where institutions of the State endorse violence against specific communities.
How then does a justice system make democratically elected leaders accountable for their role in communal violence? This is a question that India confronts today, both in the context of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the 2002 Gujarat carnage. The widespread dissatisfaction with the slow wheels of justice should lead to greater introspection on "what justice requires". Countries such as Guatemala, Rwanda, South Africa and East Timor, torn by similar violence, have experimented with diverse approaches, ranging from retribution-oriented criminal justice mechanisms to those that focus on truth telling, reparation and healing. Drawing on insights that transcend cultural variables, India could learn some valuable lessons from the experiences of these countries.
First, a justice system must do more than simply "punish" the perpetrators of the riots. Moving beyond the conventional adversarial legal approach, it should generate processes that facilitate individual and collective healing for the Sikh/Muslim community, that build relationships across the divisions of conflict, and that address the injustices that took place before, during and after the riots.
What the State needs to do is organize more programs for psychosocial healing, inter-community trust-building initiatives, victim-offender dialogues (facilitated by trained mediators where the court system serves as a back-up) and reparation initiatives designed with the participation of the victims.
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