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JUST DESERTS

Nemesis has a way of catching up with people. She has not yet caught up with Mr Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, but her slow and inevitable progress can now easily be charted. The allegation has been that Mr Modiís government is protecting killers and arsonists who were active in the Gujarat pogrom in early 2002. The allegation has now acquired an official stamp. The Supreme Court, tired of the judicial process in Gujarat, has imposed a stay on the trial of riot cases. It asked the Gujarat government to respond to a proposal to shift the important cases to courts in Maharashtra or to any other state. The amicus curiae, Mr Harish Salve, listed before three judges of the apex court instances of the travesty of justice in Gujarat. It is difficult to recall a stronger indictment of a state government by the Supreme Court than the one issued against Mr Modi and his government. Implicit in the Supreme Courtís stricture is the accusation that the state government is hindering the judicial process and that state officials are being pressurized by the ruling party. These accusations actually articulated by Mr Salve before the judges appear credible because of the track record of Mr Modi and his government.

Only staunch supporters of Mr Modi doubt the fact that Mr Modi was implicated in the violence in Gujarat. His critics fall into two categories. One group believes that he did not take adequate steps to quell the bloodshed. The bureaucracy and the police stood by and watched the mayhem. The second group is even more strident. They accuse Mr Modi and the sangh parivar of directly fomenting the violence. The latter allegation is fortified by the outrageously anti-Muslim views expressed by Mr Modi and other leading members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The direct or indirect implication of a state government in what appeared as a pre-planned pogrom was also a kind of first even in the seedy history of Indian politics. The order of the Supreme Court has to be be seen in the context of this past record and perception of Mr Modiís prejudices and his methods of dealing with violence directed against a particular community.

The Supreme Courtís action can only be welcomed. It comes close on the heels of a similar verdict that transferred the case against The Hindu from Tamil Nadu. In various states, the judicial process is going so awry and so often that the Supreme Court is compelled to intervene. This may not be an altogether healthy phenomenon but an active Supreme Court has become the sole hope of civil society. The underdevelopment of the latter, the venality that has eroded political society and the widespread lack of integrity of the bureaucracy and sections of the legal profession have all put an extra responsibility on the Supreme Court. The highest court of the land is acting as the nationís conscience and has emerged as the answer to the ancient question: who guards the guards'

Politicians like Mr Modi who do not value civil society and the ideas of democracy and secularism that underpin it are unlikely to have any respect for democratic institutions. For them the judiciary and the law and order machinery can be used to serve political ends. The onus is now on Mr Modi to show that he considers justice to be above his prejudices.

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