18, Feb 2015
Linking Mr Patel’s case with what happened in Gujarat in 2002 is interesting. Those killings too were a result of ‘othering’ of an entire community, which appears different from the majority.
The horrific incident in Madison, Alabama, where a 57-year-old Gujarati man, was assaulted and arrested by the local police, has made headlines here because the victim was an Indian.
Non-white, especially black, people in the United States routinely face police brutality, more so, if they conform to physical stereotypes in the way they are built or the clothes they wear. Suresh Patel on the other hand was of slight build —skinny, was how he was described by a neighbour who called the police, saying he had seen Mr Patel walking around in the area for two days.
It is clear that Mr Patel’s “crime” was that he looked different. No one walks in the American suburban neighbourhoods and if at all they do, they better look as if they fit in, which basically means white. And if you are spotted, not once but twice in two days, walking around, looking curious, then you are in trouble, because, according to normative standards of the decent burghers of suburbia, you can be up to no good.
Sociologists may call it the “othering” of those who appear different, but it is nothing but a mixture of prejudice, ignorance and fear.
The cops arrived, confronted Mr Patel and when he stammered because he did not know English, assaulted him and pushed him down on to the pavement. Simple enquiries would have shown that Mr Patel was out for a walk from his son’s home in the same neighbourhood, but then how would the American cop show his machismo Mr Patel was badly injured and had to be taken to a hospital. The entire incident was filmed by a dashboard video and because of the ensuing outrage, the cop is now facing charges of third degree assault and may possibly be dismissed from his force. Mr Patel’s case has now been taken up by human rights organisations and the family is suing the city.
Linking this with what happened in Gujarat in 2002, may, on the face of it, look a stretch, but in conjunction is interesting. Those killings too were a result of “othering” of an entire community, which appears different from the so-called majority mainstream.
Ignorance and fear — to say nothing of sheer hatred towards Muslims, among sections of the Hindu majority, is a fact of life. Riots do not happen every day, but prejudice is deeply ingrained, both among individuals and institutions.
The 2002 brutality may not have been officially sanctioned, but as was clear later, along with the mobs, powerful people were involved.
Several inquiry commissions have looked into the events of the time and cases have trundled along; all the accused have not yet been brought to book. Just last week, 68 accused, after spending 10 years in jail, were let off for want of sufficient evidence. Maya Kodnani, an MLA, who later became a minister was, perhaps, the highest official who was convicted and sentenced to 28 years in prison. This was a landmark decision and welcomed by the victims and their families, as also by all those who believe in the rule of law.
Many high-profile cases, including the Gulberg Society massacre, in which Ehsan Jafri, an MP, was burnt down along with 35 others (several others are still missing), have not yet reached closure. The wheels of justice can often move exceedingly slowly.
While many of the perpetrators and managers of those heinous killings are still at large, activists, who have relentlessly pursued those cases and kept the memory alive, are now beginning to feel the heat. For Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand, getting justice for the victims and their families became a personal mission. As someone who has known them, I can safely say that this activism has come at a great cost.
Outspokenness is never easy, but even more difficult when you take on powerful people. Yet, the two have persisted against great odds, not by using underhand tactics but the rule of the law, to focus on something that many others want to forget and put behind them.
Things were never easy all these years, but now, in the last few months, their work has become even more difficult. The order for their arrest, issued by a court in Gujarat, was almost inevitable, given how persistently the local police was pursuing cases against them. Had the Supreme Court not stayed the arrest — only for a few days at the moment — they would have been headed to a Gujarat jail last week. One of the allegations against them, of exhuming bodies of victims, has been rubbished by the Supreme Court as “spurious”, but another, involving alleged embezzlement of funds raised for rehabilitation of victims, is being heard. Ms Setalvad has answered all these allegations and no doubt the highest court in the land will take a fair view, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the vigour that the Gujarat government has shown in going against them has something to do with their activism.
Meanwhile, in the last few months, Ms Kodnani, who was in jail, has been released on bail on grounds of ill health and several police officers, who were in jail on charges connected with encounter deaths, were reinstated in the police force the moment they got bail. No question of keeping them suspended till the court decides on their case.
The Indian citizen has great faith in the judicial system, which eventually dispenses justice, but an administration subvert it at several levels.
At the very least, delays can prove exhausting for all concerned. What happened to Mr Patel was very unfortunate — he will probably swear never to visit the US again but there is a good chance that his family will get justice, and compensation for him. This does not mean racism or police brutality will disappear, but at least the message, that the system will not tolerate it, will be sent. Mr Patel can only thank his stars that he was not an “Other” in his home state of Gujarat.
***This Article was originally published in The Asian Age. It can be found here.