Mass Violence and State Apathy

P Arun

The post-independent India witnessed numerous incidents of communal violence and several scholars had investigated those incidents meticulously. However, the book On Their Watch : Mass Violence and State Apathy in India, Examining the Record edited by Surabhi Chopra and Prita Jha, takes up different space to comprehend communal violence and brings out different narratives. In democracy, it is an attempt to interrogate and examine the role of state and simultaneously dissecting its role during and aftermath of mass violence. It basically utilises Right to Information Act 2005, to excavate the state's own records to understand its role and obligations defined under constitution. It was a major administrative reform in democracy to streamline governance by making it transparent and accountable. It had created democratic furore which led to enormous right to information activism. This research was outcome of meticulous and diligent work by the researchers who examined and assembled exactly 824 applications in the span of two years.

This book mainly focuses on four episodes of mass violence; Nellie massacre in 1983, Delhi anti-Sikh massacre in 1984, Bhagalpur massacre in 1989 and Gujarat communal carnage in 2002. By narrowing down, the researchers methodically investigate and interrogate entire trail of events through the state's own records to portray degree of access to victims' protection, justice and reparation during and aftermath of those horrendous massacres. The authors' effort to combine four different episodes in different periods created comparative narrative understand the developments and failure in different states.

Most essentially this volume serves two significant objectives : firstly it opens up debate of functioning of Right to Information Act 2005. As it allows to understand myriad procedures, problems and issues surrounding its operational functioning in different states. Secondly, it exposes the role of state played during and aftermath each communal violence. By examining official records, this book points out precisely the exact failures of state. Though, the word state appears to be abstract, however authors classify that it fundamentally means 'an ensemble of institutionalised political power comprising different entities with varied responsibilities, power agendas, priorities, institutional cultures and  influence'.

This book comprises three different parts. The first part gives intricate picture of extracting the state records through RTI, which includes range and types of application categories, procedures adopted to draft and direct applications, procedural hurdles and informal strategies, and refusals faced from different institutions. The second part basically gives detailed portrait of four different episodes which were collected through state records and meticulously analyses access to criminal justice during communal violence and relief, compensation, rehabilitation and accountability of officials aftermath of communal violence. The final part examines the state records in comparative perspective describing how different states fared in playing their role, which includes legal and administrative, judicial and different commissions of inquiry.

The title of the book "On their Watch" seems quite appropriate, which reveals dual facets of reality. Firstly, it reveals that the official chronicle of mass violence which was extracted from state records, was partially responded in the filed RTI applications and secondly the hidden facet of state omission in chronicling such massacres reflects an attempt to erase past and memories from daily life. The authors while concluding argue that "the Indian state owes survivors of mass violence access to truth, justice and reparation. It has failed on all these counts, a failure confirmed by its own records".
A more substantive point to be drawn from this book is about the scope of the study as it allows not only to understand the state apathy in several levels by omitting information, it further allows to reconsider readers and bring administrative reforms to achieve access to justice, transparency and accountability in state. Overall this edited volume is an important work which would interest research scholars, teachers, practitioners interested in issues such as human rights, institutional injustice and impunity and communal violence.

Vol. 49, No.18, Nov 6 - 12, 2016