Vanishing tricks can sometimes be surreally frightening. The Gujarat genocide is now beginning to unhappen right in front of everybody’s eyes. All the 21 people accused of burning 12 Muslims in a Vadodara bakery, following the Godhra carnage last year, have been acquitted. This is the first verdict in a trial court — after the Nanavati-Shah commission hearings, which started on June 16 — on one of the most gruesome episodes of the pogrom. The tone of the judgment was one of casual despair. All the witnesses had turned hostile, deposing in favour of the accused, even gushing on about the Schindlerian goodheartedness of some of the accused who actually saved Muslims from being raped and slaughtered. This sudden change of version was initiated by Ms Zahira Sheikh, daughter of the bakery’s owner, whose entire family was massacred in front of her eyes, and who is now incommunicado. The judge has made noises about dubious police procedure and about people losing faith in the judiciary. In the absence of “legally accepted evidence”, he cannot but let these people off.
This then is a crisis of evidence — both in the technically legal and in the general sense of the word. What is ultimately at stake here is not only the delivery of justice in a court of law, but also the more fundamental question of holding on to the truth, and to the reality, of what actually happened in Gujarat. Every form of legally recognized evidence has been undermined here by the police, the civic bodies and the state administration: first information and post-mortem reports, panchnamas and police transcriptions of witnesses’ accounts. Most of these witnesses and complainants — apart from being variously brutalized and suffering from severe trauma — are poor, illiterate, dispossessed and powerless. They would be hardly in a position to verify or challenge the contents of what they put their thumb impressions to. This systematic abuse of power at every level of a brazenly communalized law and order machinery has not only subverted the evidentiary process, but has also fostered a regime of fear in which truth-telling, and hence justice, are a logical absurdity. Yet, the reality of Gujarat has been scrupulously documented by individuals, organizations, fact-finding panels and a number of bodies concerned with the abuse of secular values, civil liberties and human rights. Reports, photographs, video footage, recorded testimonies and every other form of documentary evidence exist to “prove” that Gujarat did happen, and continues to happen, in the lives and memories of actual human beings. It is a brutal comment on the powerlessness of the judiciary and of civil society in India that such a body of evidence means absolutely nothing in an Indian court of law.