Saturday, May 31, 2014

Honouring Mukul Sinha: The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting: Saumya Uma and Arvind Narrain

Among the miniscule tribe of human rights lawyers, even one loss is irreplaceable. We felt that way when we lost K. Balagopal in 2009, K.G. Kannabiran in 2010 and most recently when, Mukul Sinha passed away on 12 May 2013. Each of these figures were giants in the world of human rights activism who struggled for an idea of India which all too often remained an ideal and a vision, sometimes far from reality. Regardless of how distant the vision of a real and functioning democracy, founded on the ideals of social and economic justice was, these three figures never lost heart, always communicating a spirit of hope about the future based on concrete and grounded work in the present.
As such the lives of these three great figures of the contemporary human rights movement are nothing less than exemplary lives, always acting as an inspiration for each of us to do more to ensure that justice moves from being an abstract ideal to a concrete and lived reality. Mukul Sinha was a part of this great trio and he exemplified a dogged commitment to make the state and its agents accountable for its acts of commission as well as omission of constitutionally mandated duties, in very difficult times. [1]
Through his work inside and outside the courts, Mukul Sinha kept alive the struggle of the Gujarat violated of 2002 for justice and functioned as the public conscience of India in very dark times. Through his work as part of the Jan Sangarsh Manch which he founded, Mukul Sinha fought to ensure that the crimes of Gujarat 2002 would be accounted for. Post the overwhelming victory of Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, the temptation to forget Gujarat 2002 will be immeasurably higher. Honouring Mukul Sinha means that we continue to struggle against the forces whose aim is to ensure that the world forgets the injustice of Gujarat 2002.
 Responding to injustice
Mukul Sinha joined the Physical Science Laboratory in Ahmadabad to do a Ph.D. in physics. However he did not remain for long in the secluded confines of scientific research but was moved to respond to the injustice in the world around him. When he saw a supervisor kick a helper Mukul spontaneously intervened. When he went on to raise the issue with his faculty, he was told that he was student and that he should behave as a student. The issue snowballed into a protest by employees and turned into a major confrontation between the managers and the employees. Mukul was marked as a trouble maker. When finally Mukul was dismissed from his position he challenged the dismissal all the way to the Supreme Court. As he puts it,
“ I still remember the judge in the Supreme Court asking a question to which my counsel who were Girish Patel and Soli Sorabjee had no answer. If the petitioner is a scientist why is he a member of a trade union? Finding no answer my petition was dismissed. I remember that Girish Bhai was very upset and had tears in his eyes, I consoled him and said well at least it is clear now that I have no place in a scientific establishment as there is no relationship between science and trade unions.”[2]
Mukul Sinha continued his work as a trade unionist organizing the educational sector connected with research and becoming a part of the Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions.   Realizing the usefulness of a law degree, in 1986, he started doing his law. In 1987 he finished his law and in 1989 he got his sanad. That time onwards, in his words, ‘I became a lawyer and my identity as a physics guy went away.’
The other reason why the period in the Physical Science Laboratory was important was that he met Nirjhari a research student at the same laboratory who went on to become not only his wife but his closest companion – both in his personal life as well as in his political work. As Mukul put it regarding his time at the Physical Science Laboratory, “It was the most useless time ever. But then my life changed in 1977. I fell in love. It was cosmic.”[3]
As Mukul Sinha recalled to us, it was Nirjhari Sinha who did the crucial initial analysis of the record of all mobile phone conversations which were made between the 28 of February and 3rdof March 2002. Theirs was a partnership where their personal commitment to each other was intimately connected to a larger commitment to the struggle against injustice.
 Gujarat Pogrom 2002 – Towards Constitutional Liability
Mukul Sinha’s work in Gujarat began as a labour lawyer and activist working on organizing labour in the institutions of higher education. However he felt that the trade union framework itself was inadequate to address issues such as slum displacement and environmental pollution and hence went on to form the Jan Sangharsh Manch. This organization took up labour issues including low wages of drivers and conductors of state transport corporations, and the rights of other sections of society that he felt had been ignored by the government. He then felt that this framework of a civil liberties group was also inadequate and went on to form a political party called the New Socialist Movement. Mukul envisaged these three organisations as sister organisations through which the struggle for justice could be taken forward. Though Mukul’s individual work was extraordinary, equally important was his ability to build a larger committed team. The Jan Sangharsh Manch, for example, is composed of a team of at least fifteen lawyers who are committed to the project of social and economic justice.
 To people within Gujarat, Mukul Sinha will be known as a trade unionist, a lawyer as well as a political activist. But to people around the world, his indelible contribution will be in the direction of consistently taking on the state government on the Godhra train burning incident, and his efforts at making the state and its agents accountable for the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. In this regard, Mukul Sinha’s work showed qualities of both head and heart as he applied a quiet intelligence to the almost impossible task of making the state accountable for allowing the murder, rape and brutalization of its own people. Just in bare figures, the story of breaking the cycle of impunity for the violence of Gujarat 2002 is unprecedented in the history of independent India. The story of communal pogroms in India has been a shameful story of complete impunity for the perpetrators. The first time that that the narrative changed in independent India was in the case of Gujarat where for terrible crimes, perpetrators were convicted.
At present 96 persons have been convicted for their role in the mass crime. (32 in Naroda Patiya) (11 in Bilkis Bano), (31 in Sardarpura) (18 in Ode) (4 in Best Bakery). In the convictions till now perhaps the most significant is the conviction of the 32 persons in Naroda Patiya one of whom was Mayaben Kodnani – a former minister in the Gujarat Cabinet and a key confidante of Narendra Modi. Among the courageous band of human rights activists responsible for eking out justice from a recalcitrant state, the role of Mukul Sinha cannot be forgotten.
While clearly one cannot forget the courage and determination of Mukul Sinha in making the public servants and political figures accountable for the pogrom, equally important is the question of craft. Mukul Sinha’s enduring contribution to the craft and vision of the human rights lawyer was to decide in 2002 to participate in the proceedings while every other activist boycotted the Commission of Inquiry set up to inquire into the reasons for the riots, . While Mukul was clearly aware of the politics of the commission of inquiry, and its establishment by the state government as a delaying tactic and cover for its culpability, his effort was to use the Commission of Inquiry to both extract vital information out of the state as well as to use it to keep the spot light on what happened in 2002.
In Mukul Sinha’s words,
“All organizations boycotted the Commission; however we looked at it politically. Our objective was to use the Commission to get data. Today all that we know about the riots from official documents has really emerged from the Commission. Some of the information which has been key to convictions has also emerged from the Commission. For example Rahul Sharma’s C.D of phone call records made in Ahmadabad on the crucial days of the riots was produced before the Commission. Since everyone else boycotted the Commission, the Commission also realized that a Commission without opposition is meaningless and hence we were given some leeway. Since many government officials deposed before the Commission, the cross examination was one way of getting some good evidence.”.. read more: