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 Scroll.in 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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.