Gujarat violence

I was sick of the hateful climate in Gujarat: judge explains why he quit after the riots

Former Ahmedabad City Court judge Himanshu Trivedi recounts the anti-Muslim sentiment expressed by lawyers and judges after the 2002 communal violence, and why he supports Teesta Setalvad.

Barely a week after former Gujarat city court judge Himanshu Trivedi lent his support to activist Teesta Setalvad in a Facebook post, he claims he has started receiving veiled threats and abuse on social media.

Trivedi, a judge who resigned from Ahmedabad’s City Civil and Sessions Court in 2003 and now lives in New Zealand, wrote a Facebook post on August 1 applauding Setalvad and her work to fight for justice for the victims of the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002.

Since then, his post has hit the headlines for his claims that “the state of Gujarat wanted us (the judges and the judiciary of Gujarat) to be acting against the minority community (albeit with no written orders but DEFINITELY communicated in loud and clear messages to us)”. One of Trivedi’s reasons for quitting the judiciary, he says, was because he was “sworn to the Constitution of India” and could not in good faith participate in these actions.

Trivedi was a colleague of Jyotsna Yagnik, the special court judge who in 2012 convicted Gujarati minister Maya Kodnani and Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi for violence during the riots. Since then, she has received several threatening letters and menacing phone calls. Trivedi describes Yagnik as a “wonderful human being” who believed in always being “legal and righteous”.

In a phone interview with from Auckland, New Zealand, Trivedi revealed details about his experiences during and after the communal riots that shook his faith in the justice system: he not only witnessed police complicity in the attack on Muslims, but also saw lawyers and judges display extremely prejudiced opinions.

“I have been saying all of this for ten years, but there were no listeners earlier,” said Trivedi, who is happy that his attempt to reach out to Setalvad has drawn attention to his story and the issue of compromised justice in the case of the Gujarat riots. “I have supported Teesta because I believe in supporting anyone working for humanity.”

Despite the online threats he is now allegedly receiving, Trivedi has declared in a new Facebook post that he will not shut down his social media account or stay silent in the face of "fascist forces".

Passion for theatre

Trivedi comes from a family of lawyers, but unlike his father and grandfather, his first love was always acting and theatre. He had performed in several Gujarati plays in college and after graduating law school in 1985, he moved to Mumbai to pursue theatre. In 1986, to make ends meet, he joined Gujarat Samachar as a reporter and sub-editor. One of his first assignments was to cover proceedings of the Justice Lentin Commission that had inquired into the deaths of 14 people at JJ Hospital that year after they were administered contaminated glycerol.

“That is when I fell in love with law all over again,” said Trivedi, who began looking for opportunities as a lawyer. “I got an offer to join a Gujarati law firm in Mumbai, but on the condition that I would give up theatre.”

This, Trivedi refused to do. Instead, he moved to Ahmedabad and chose to join his father, an established lawyer with his own firm. He worked on civil cases in the City Civil and Sessions Court, while remaining attached to a local theatre group. “But gradually, I got more and more involved with legal work and by 1999, I was a complete lawyer,” he said.

Trivedi did work on a few criminal cases during his years as a lawyer, but tried to stay away from them as much as possible. “I have always felt conflicted about criminal law," he said. "If an innocent client is punished, or a guilty one let off, I would have deep problems with it.”

‘I saw the police hand out inflammable material’

The riots of 2002 began on February 28, one day after the Godhra train burning incident that killed 59 people. On the morning of the riots, Trivedi’s family heard some noises from the street outside their building. He went with his young daughter to the balcony and witnessed a mob of around 40 people attacking a small dhobi shop run by a Muslim.

“It was the only shop targeted in our area, and the crowd first looted it," said Trivedi. "Then I saw a police jeep approach and officers in uniform distributed inflammable material to the crowd. Then the shop was burnt.” He felt helpless, but didn’t figure out the implications of what he saw till a couple of weeks later, when one of his friends came to visit him.

“My friend and I were sitting on my terrace, talking about the riots and how society was suffering, when he suddenly started crying,” said Trivedi. “Everyone knew that I had always been politically unaffiliated, but that day my friend told me for the first time that he was the president of VHP chapter in a suburb of Ahmedabad.”

Trivedi’s friend – whom he did not wish to name – said that on the day of the riots, he was part of crowd that torched a Muslim-run restaurant opposite the High Court judges’ bungalows area. “He told me that they knew it was run by Muslims because three months before the violence, lists were distributed detailing who works where and who lives where,” said Trivedi.

In a report on the Gujarat carnage published in Outlook by an independent fact-finding team, the establishment in question has been identified as Tasty restaurant. "Despite the presence of a large police force, including members of the State Reserve Police in the area, various incidents of looting and arson had taken place including the burning of a Muslim owned restaurant, 'Tasty', in front of the block where the Chief Justice's residence is located," the report says.

“I asked my friend, weren’t you afraid of the police in the chowkie right across from the restaurant?" Trivedi said. "He replied that they were told nobody would stop them for 72 hours." This is when Trivedi “connected the dots” between the police jeep he saw outside his balcony and the complicity of the authorities that the VHP had allegedly been assured of. “This same thing has been repeated by IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt,” he said.

In the burning of Tasty restaurant, three young boys – kitchen-hands who happened to be Hindu – allegedly died of suffocation. “My friend was crying because he didn’t know there would be people inside the restaurant, and he felt guilty even though he wasn’t the one who actually set the fire,” he said.

Saffron prosecutors, judges with tilaks

In October 2002, eight months after the communal riots of February, Trivedi was appointed as a judge in the Civil and Sessions Court. But neither his decision to join the judiciary, nor his choice to leave it, were directly related to the riots.

“I joined the judiciary because I wanted to serve society in a better way,” said Trivedi, who handled only civil matters during his eight months of working as a judge. At that stage, all riot-related cases were being heard in the lower metropolitan magistrate courts.

But for several months, the effects of the communal violence could be felt everywhere, even among lawyers and judges in the City Court.

“In the judges’ tea room in court, I would often hear senior colleagues discussing the riots and whether ‘they’ [Muslims] needed to be taught a lesson,” said Trivedi, who claims there were sporadic incidents of judges facing direct pressure from anti-Muslim elements, although he never faced any himself. “But the indirect pressure was everywhere – you could feel in the tense air all through Gujarat in those months.”

After the riots, says Trivedi, crowds would often celebrate the fact that they had “taught Muslims a lesson” and that they would also isolate the minority community economically. “In the compounds of the court, many lawyers also talked in the same vein,” he said. The atmosphere was so polarised that voicing any moderate views could invite abuse. “If anyone said that killing is just wrong, and that rioters have no religion, people would ask you to ‘go to Pakistan’. I myself have faced such abuse.”

In court, Trivedi claims, the public prosecutors in almost all the riot-related cases were people from the “saffron side of the political spectrum” – either members of the Bajrang Dal, VHP or BJP, or people closely associated with these groups. “They had been appointed by the government to prosecute the perpetrators of the violence, who were their own people.”

Trivedi was also disturbed by the behaviour of some members of the judiciary. “There were judges who wore their religious symbols while sitting on the dais," he said. "If you were a Muslim riot survivor giving a statement in court, how comfortable would you feel if the judge sat with a tilak on his forehead?”

In many ways, it was clear to Trivedi that judicial impartiality was being compromised in court. “A judge once asked me, don’t you think the Muslim bad elements need to be punished?" he recalled. "I asked her if she meant judicial punishment based on evidence or extra-judicial punishment. And she said that sometimes, one has to turn a blind eye to reactionary, vigilante justice.”

Leaving the judiciary

For Trivedi, the immediate trigger for quitting his post as a judge was a tiff with the Gujarat High Court. Barely a month after he assumed his duties, he received a written warning from the High Court for failing to wrap up a property dispute matter by September 2002, even though he became a judge only in October. A disagreement ensued when he tried to point this out, and Trivedi decided he didn’t want to be part of a system in which the lower judiciary always live in fear of the higher judiciary.

“But it was also a cumulative anger – after the riots and the clear saffronisation of the prosecutors, I felt like all the lines between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary were blurred, and I wasn’t sure whom I was working for,” he said.

After resigning in April 2003, Trivedi went back to practicing law in other courts for around eight months, but moved to New Zealand in April 2004. “I was sick and tired of a society that was so angry and hateful, and I wanted to get my daughter out of that atmosphere,” he said.

Trivedi now works as a solicitor with a law firm in Auckland.

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