The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ms Zahira Sheikh has come to represent almost everything that is wrong with India's polity. The courtroom drama manifests barely a fraction of the conflicting and destructive forces ' much greater than the physical presence of any individual can evoke ' that are eating away at the base of the democracy. Ms Sheikh's family business was destroyed in the Gujarat genocide, and the surviving members of the family have lived through not just the loss of their Best Bakery but also a massacre. She is one of the unforgettable faces of the Gujarat violence, which is the most recent and one of the most hideous enactments of communal hatred in India. Religious identity remains one of the more intractable dimensions of existence in the secular republic, and is acutely relevant when the religion is a minority one. It is a serious failure, yet one that is used as capital by politicians. This aspect of Ms Sheikh's identity has been reinforced by her excommunication: the All India Muslim Personal Law Board has pronounced her a shame to Islam because of her rapidly changing stories under oath.

Two other institutions are also playing out their conflicts around and through Ms Sheikh. From the very beginning, Ms Sheikh and some other witnesses communicated a sense of serious threat, and the judiciary moved the cases out of Gujarat in the interests of justice as well as of witness-protection. Threatening or bribing witnesses, particularly those associated with crimes pointing at politicians or mafia from any sphere, be it religion or trade, has become so common that the entire fabric of the justice system is now endangered. The truth in Ms Sheikh's case, and in many others, is no longer merely a technical matter of investigation. This is not new. The vested interests working, often at cross-purposes, behind any investigation of importance have long been the subject of public lament and criticism. Ms Sheikh's wildly differing stories dramatize the tremendous pressures at work behind the scenes. The alleged involvement of politicians in her changing story is merely one thread in an immensely complicated and rather ugly fabric.

The sordidness that has come to encompass the tragic Best Bakery story is best exemplified in Ms Sheikh's accusations against the activist who had appeared to be the most helpful. Political and social corruption has reached a point where a professed search for justice for victims of communal violence can actually be made to look like another form of violence ' and get takers. Perhaps changes will only begin when every institution in India, civil and otherwise, recognizes its responsibility in Ms Sheikh's story.

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