The cause of justice often unites individuals both within and outside the system. A common set of principles, shared values and the abiding faith in goodness bands together disparate individuals into an informal coalition to pursue justice.

Justice for the victims of the Gujarat carnage and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots was pursued by such coalitions, comprising human rights activists and lawyers, NGOs, journalists, and police and judicial officers. They forged on, unceasingly and doggedly against institutional indifference, inaction and state complicity for years – sometimes decades. It was due to the relentless efforts of these groups that justice was secured, at least partially, in Gujarat and in some cases in the 1984 riots.

The Delhi riots that broke out earlier this year are different – for no such coalition has so far coalesced or has been allowed to form around the cause. Recently, a few chargesheets were filed against members of both the Hindu and Muslim communities. But no offences have been registered against politicians who gave the inflammatory speeches that instigated the riots.

There is also no judicial or public pressure to act against them. There has been no monitoring of police investigations by the judiciary, no journalistic interventions in the form of investigative reports.

Rights activists, who in the past were the prime catalysts for action, have been silenced. Worse, some have been put in the dock by a blatantly-biased state. Harsh Mander, who has dedicated his entire life for public good and has been an unbending champion of social harmony, has been accused by the Delhi police of delivering a hate speech in a chargesheet filed in a Delhi Court last fortnight. Though Mander has not yet been named as an accused, the fact that he – and not certain members of the ruling party – are being named as “speakers of hate speeches” shows that the naked assault on truth and justice is now complete.

India has a long, shameful history of communal riots. But the Delhi riots and its aftermath shows that the moral challenge to the ascent of the malevolence and the retreat of righteousness has been vanquished.

A common cause

As an undercover reporter, I spent six months in the evil circle of rioters and conspirators of the 2002 Gujarat riots and covertly documented them gloating about their crimes. I later testified as a prosecution witness in four trials and my testimony was instrumental in getting many of the accused convicted.

Aftermath of 2002 Gujarat riots. Credit: Sebastian D/AFP

In the process, I received support from expected and unexpected quarters. Human rights activists were natural allies. But critical aid also came in the form of individual police officers in an otherwise-complicit police machinery, the trial court judge who protected me from the harassment and coercion of the defence lawyers, the Supreme Court registrar who upheld my journalistic work in his inquiry report, and many fellow journalists who believed in the power of truth.

I was part of a coalition of “justice seekers” that coalesced gradually, naturally, around the cause of the 2002 riot victims. Mihir Desai, Teesta Setalvad, Shabnam Hashmi, Aparna Sen, Suhail Tirmizi, Mukul Sinha, Somnath Vatsa, Rajnish Rai, Satish Verma, Kuldip Sharma and Kamini Jaiswal are some who ran long and fought hard.

It was by no means a smooth or ideal coalition. Far from it. It was riven by conflicts, varying motivations, lack of coordination, battles of personalities and egos, sometimes rivalries to corner credit or recognition, at other times to secure short-term interests.

But it still accomplished a lot.

In the face of systemic rot

This is what followed a few months after the story of the Gujarat riots retreated from the front pages of the newspapers. The accused started threatening and coercing the victims to retract their testimonies. The public prosecutors started pressuring the victims to turn hostile and enter into compromises. There were offers of money, allurements of getting a house or starting a new business, sometimes the offer to be allowed back into the old neighbourhood from where the victims had been driven out.

A mob on the streets of North East Delhi on February 24. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The police started weakening the evidence, systematically, in case after case, either filing closure reports, or not recording witness statements or documenting the crimes. As the police investigations slackened and the judicial proceedings were delayed, many accused were let out on bail.

But a few rights activists, journalists and lawyers ensured that crucial evidence was preserved, witness testimonies were put on affidavits and facts were documented. They also mobilised material and legal support for the survivors, filed interventions in courts on behalf of the victims, approached the higher courts whenever investigations went off the rails, ensured that eye witnesses got the necessary protection, protected them against threats and allurements, paid the legal fee to the lawyers representing the victims, and made periodic interventions in the media, highlighting the state laxity or unwillingness to prosecute the accused.

On several occasions, prompted by civil society, the higher courts intervened, reopened the closed investigations, transferred cases out of Gujarat, set up special investigation team, monitored the progress of ongoing investigations, indicted the state for being lax in giving relief to the victims and made critical comments about the conduct of top state functionaries.

Long after the TV crews had packed up and left and the politicians had delivered their last platitudes and moved on, it was this coalition of the NGOs, the rights activists and the human rights lawyers which stayed the course for 10 long years. Without their persistent efforts, the accused would have gone scot-free.

But it came at a tremendous cost. Besides the pressure and smear campaigns launched by the vested interests, false cases were registered against many rights activists, they were charged with corruption, the source of their funding was questioned with allegations of links with foreign agencies.

None of this was enough to put out the fire for justice. But today, it seems the lights have gone out. The flickering flame of truth and justice has been extinguished.

Ashish Khetan is a corporate lawyer and specialises in international economic law.