With the 1983 Nellie massacre, India entered a new chapter of mass communal violence: of large-scale slaughters of religious minorities with gravely culpable state support. Nellie was followed by the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi in 1984, the murder by men in khaki of around 40 Muslim men in Hashimpura in 1987, the Bhagalpur carnage of 1989, the communal slaughter on Bombay’s streets in 1992-'93, climaxing in the brutal massacre across cities and villages in Gujarat in 2002.

Each of these blood-drenched massacres was characterised by impunity. A disgraceful tradition unbroken until 2002, impunity is the assurance that you will not be punished if you commit crimes. This license has been assured equally to the foot soldiers of these massacres, the shadowy non-state organisations that organise these slaughters, and the public officials in command positions whose acts of culpable inaction or action enable these crimes against humanity. I will never forget how a survivor of the carnage in Gujarat explained what impunity is to me. "If you kill one person in a closed room with no witnesses," he said, "there is more chance that you will get caught and punished, than if you kill a 100 persons in the presence of a 1000 people". This indeed is impunity, which like a termite, unseen, annihilates democracy.

Impunity is unsurpassed in the Nellie massacre of Assam, in which not one person has even faced trial, let alone been punished, for the killing in a few hours of around 3000 Bengali Muslim children, women and men. For the slaughter of nearly an equal number of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, a handful of rioters have been convicted, but not a single political leader or police official, although their role in leading, organising and enabling the massacre is widely known. Every policeman charged with the Hashimpura massacre was acquitted after an epic 28-year battle by the working-class families of the murdered men. In Bhagalpur, again, a few marauders have been punished due to the unwavering and heroic struggles of some survivors, but most walk free, as do the guilty public officials. This dishonourable story did not change in the metropolis of Mumbai, despite the judicial commission report by Justice Srikrishna which is an outstanding example of public fairness.

Wake-up call

Yet one more communal massacre unfolded in Gujarat in 2002, even more pitiless and cruel in its targeting of children and women than those which preceded it, and geographically more widespread than any communal massacre after the Partition riots. This became a wake-up call for many of us, and changed the course of many lives forever. We realised that if impunity had been more resolutely and powerfully challenged and battled by human rights defenders in close solidarity with survivors of the communal massacres in Nellie, Delhi, Hashimpura, Bhagalpur and Bombay, the Gujarat carnage would not have happened. And if again we failed to effectively combat the impunity of those who planned and executed this pogrom, and of the public officials who cynically fanned the flames of communal hatred for days and weeks, then we would see even more such massacres in the days to come. And if we allowed this, then we would be complicit in losing all that is precious in the idea of India itself.

Therefore many threw ourselves into the battle for justice for the survivors of the carnage in Gujarat. It became a battle for the defence of the idea of India, of secular democracy, and justice and the rule of law, and of solidarity and public compassion. There are many heroes of this extraordinary battle. Public officials like National Human Rights Commission Chairperson Justice JS Verma, Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh, NHRC Special Rapporteur PGP Nampoothiri, police officers like Rahul Sharma and RB Sreekumar, cultural activists like Mallika Sarabhai, human rights defenders like Mukul Sinha, Gagan Sethi, Shabnam Hashmi, and a number of young lawyers and peace and justice workers whom I worked with while fighting several hundred criminal cases with survivors in the campaign Nyayagrah.

Best-known face

But the best-known face of the battle against impunity in Gujarat is of feisty and courageous civil rights activist Teesta Setlawad. With her partner Javed Anand, her efforts have been central in pursuing 68 major cases of the massacre and ensuring the conviction of more than 100 persons for the first time in India’s troubled history of communal violence, overturning the long and shameful tradition of impunity of the perpetrators of communal carnages in free India. With the NHRC, she helped secure crucial rulings for the investigation of major massacres in the Gujarat carnage by a Special Investigation Team directly supervised by the Supreme Court; for the unprecedented trial of some of these cases by courts outside Gujarat; and for police protection of over 500 witnesses.

However, what makes her even more unpopular with India’s current ruling formation is her audacity in backing Zakia Jafri, 76, surely one of the bravest fighters the country has today. For the Gulbarg massacre in Ahmedabad which saw the brutal killing of 69 people including her husband Ehsan Jafri, Zakia charges Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be the first accused.

India’s premier investigating agency the CBI has resorted to open official public bullying of Teesta and Javed, with innuendo, high-profile raids and searches, and its demand for her jailing for intensive custodial interrogation, for a set of minor financial charges. This is a naked official attempt at the highest level of government to break their morale and enfeeble their unrelenting battle for justice. On trial, truly, is not these two gutsy human rights defenders. On trial is India’s democracy.