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I was sick of the hateful climate in Gujarat: judge explains why he quit after the riots

Former Ahmedabad City Court judge Himanshu Trivedi recounts the anti-Muslim sentiment expressed by lawyers and judges after the 2002 communal violence, and why he supports Teesta Setalvad.
Aarefa Johari I was sick of the hateful climate in Gujarat: judge explains why he quit after the riots

Photo Credit: Himanshu Trivedi/Facebook
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Barely a week after former Gujarat city court judge Himanshu Trivedi lent his support to activist Teesta Setalvad in a Facebook post, he claims he has started receiving veiled threats and abuse on social media.Trivedi, a judge who resigned from Ahmedabad’s City Civil and Sessions Court in 2003 and now lives in New Zealand, wrote a Facebook post on August 1 applauding Setalvad and her work to fight for justice for the victims of the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002.

Since then, his post has hit the headlines for his claims that “the state of Gujarat wanted us (the judges and the judiciary of Gujarat) to be acting against the minority community (albeit with no written orders but DEFINITELY communicated in loud and clear messages to us)”. One of Trivedi’s reasons for quitting the judiciary, he says, was because he was “sworn to the Constitution of India” and could not in good faith participate in these actions.

Trivedi was a colleague of Jyotsna Yagnik, the special court judge who in 2012 convicted Gujarati minister Maya Kodnani and Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi for violence during the riots. Since then, she has received several threatening letters and menacing phone calls. Trivedi describes Yagnik as a “wonderful human being” who believed in always being “legal and righteous”.

In a phone interview with from Auckland, New Zealand, Trivedi revealed details about his experiences during and after the communal riots that shook his faith in the justice system: he not only witnessed police complicity in the attack on Muslims, but also saw lawyers and judges display extremely prejudiced opinions.

“I have been saying all of this for ten years, but there were no listeners earlier,” said Trivedi, who is happy that his attempt to reach out to Setalvad has drawn attention to his story and the issue of compromised justice in the case of the Gujarat riots. “I have supported Teesta because I believe in supporting anyone working for humanity.”

Despite the online threats he is now allegedly receiving, Trivedi has declared in a new Facebook post that he will not shut down his social media account or stay silent in the face of “fascist forces”.

Passion for theatre

Trivedi comes from a family of lawyers, but unlike his father and grandfather, his first love was always acting and theatre. He had performed in several Gujarati plays in college and after graduating law school in 1985, he moved to Mumbai to pursue theatre. In 1986, to make ends meet, he joined Gujarat Samachar as a reporter and sub-editor. One of his first assignments was to cover proceedings of the Justice Lentin Commission that had inquired into the deaths of 14 people at JJ Hospital that year after they were administered contaminated glycerol.

“That is when I fell in love with law all over again,” said Trivedi, who began looking for opportunities as a lawyer. “I got an offer to join a Gujarati law firm in Mumbai, but on the condition that I would give up theatre.”

This, Trivedi refused to do. Instead, he moved to Ahmedabad and chose to join his father, an established lawyer with his own firm. He worked on civil cases in the City Civil and Sessions Court, while remaining attached to a local theatre group. “But gradually, I got more and more involved with legal work and by 1999, I was a complete lawyer,” he said.

Trivedi did work on a few criminal cases during his years as a lawyer, but tried to stay away from them as much as possible. “I have always felt conflicted about criminal law,” he said. “If an innocent client is punished, or a guilty one let off, I would have deep problems with it.”

‘I saw the police hand out inflammable material’

The riots of 2002 began on February 28, one day after the Godhra train burning incident that killed 59 people. On the morning of the riots, Trivedi’s family heard some noises from the street outside their building. He went with his young daughter to the balcony and witnessed a mob of around 40 people attacking a small dhobi shop run by a Muslim.

“It was the only shop targeted in our area, and the crowd first looted it,” said Trivedi. “Then I saw a police jeep approach and officers in uniform distributed inflammable material to the crowd. Then the shop was burnt.” He felt helpless, but didn’t figure out the implications of what he saw till a couple of weeks later, when one of his friends came to visit him.

“My friend and I were sitting on my terrace, talking about the riots and how society was suffering, when he suddenly started crying,” said Trivedi. “Everyone knew that I had always been politically unaffiliated, but that day my friend told me for the first time that he was the president of VHP chapter in a suburb of Ahmedabad.”

Trivedi’s friend – whom he did not wish to name – said that on the day of the riots, he was part of crowd that torched a Muslim-run restaurant opposite the High Court judges’ bungalows area. “He told me that they knew it was run by Muslims because three months before the violence, lists were distributed detailing who works where and who lives where,” said Trivedi.

In a report on the Gujarat carnage published in Outlook by an independent fact-finding team, the establishment in question has been identified as Tasty restaurant. “Despite the presence of a large police force, including members of the State Reserve Police in the area, various incidents of looting and arson had taken place including the burning of a Muslim owned restaurant, ‘Tasty’, in front of the block where the Chief Justice’s residence is located,” the report says.

“I asked my friend, weren’t you afraid of the police in the chowkie right across from the restaurant?” Trivedi said. “He replied that they were told nobody would stop them for 72 hours.” This is when Trivedi “connected the dots” between the police jeep he saw outside his balcony and the complicity of the authorities that the VHP had allegedly been assured of. “This same thing has been repeated by IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt,” he said.

In the burning of Tasty restaurant, three young boys – kitchen-hands who happened to be Hindu – allegedly died of suffocation. “My friend was crying because he didn’t know there would be people inside the restaurant, and he felt guilty even though he wasn’t the one who actually set the fire,” he said.

Saffron prosecutors, judges with tilaks

In October 2002, eight months after the communal riots of February, Trivedi was appointed as a judge in the Civil and Sessions Court. But neither his decision to join the judiciary, nor his choice to leave it, were directly related to the riots.

“I joined the judiciary because I wanted to serve society in a better way,” said Trivedi, who handled only civil matters during his eight months of working as a judge. At that stage, all riot-related cases were being heard in the lower metropolitan magistrate courts.

But for several months, the effects of the communal violence could be felt everywhere, even among lawyers and judges in the City Court.

“In the judges’ tea room in court, I would often hear senior colleagues discussing the riots and whether ‘they’ [Muslims] needed to be taught a lesson,” said Trivedi, who claims there were sporadic incidents of judges facing direct pressure from anti-Muslim elements, although he never faced any himself. “But the indirect pressure was everywhere – you could feel in the tense air all through Gujarat in those months.”

After the riots, says Trivedi, crowds would often celebrate the fact that they had “taught Muslims a lesson” and that they would also isolate the minority community economically. “In the compounds of the court, many lawyers also talked in the same vein,” he said. The atmosphere was so polarised that voicing any moderate views could invite abuse. “If anyone said that killing is just wrong, and that rioters have no religion, people would ask you to ‘go to Pakistan’. I myself have faced such abuse.”

In court, Trivedi claims, the public prosecutors in almost all the riot-related cases were people from the “saffron side of the political spectrum” – either members of the Bajrang Dal, VHP or BJP, or people closely associated with these groups. “They had been appointed by the government to prosecute the perpetrators of the violence, who were their own people.”

Trivedi was also disturbed by the behaviour of some members of the judiciary. “There were judges who wore their religious symbols while sitting on the dais,” he said. “If you were a Muslim riot survivor giving a statement in court, how comfortable would you feel if the judge sat with a tilak on his forehead?”

In many ways, it was clear to Trivedi that judicial impartiality was being compromised in court. “A judge once asked me, don’t you think the Muslim bad elements need to be punished?” he recalled. “I asked her if she meant judicial punishment based on evidence or extra-judicial punishment. And she said that sometimes, one has to turn a blind eye to reactionary, vigilante justice.”

Leaving the judiciary

For Trivedi, the immediate trigger for quitting his post as a judge was a tiff with the Gujarat High Court. Barely a month after he assumed his duties, he received a written warning from the High Court for failing to wrap up a property dispute matter by September 2002, even though he became a judge only in October. A disagreement ensued when he tried to point this out, and Trivedi decided he didn’t want to be part of a system in which the lower judiciary always live in fear of the higher judiciary.

“But it was also a cumulative anger – after the riots and the clear saffronisation of the prosecutors, I felt like all the lines between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary were blurred, and I wasn’t sure whom I was working for,” he said.

After resigning in April 2003, Trivedi went back to practicing law in other courts for around eight months, but moved to New Zealand in April 2004. “I was sick and tired of a society that was so angry and hateful, and I wanted to get my daughter out of that atmosphere,” he said.

Trivedi now works as a solicitor with a law firm in Auckland.

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr
In this week’s Q&A on the ABC, the American cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson gushed about the prospects of mining in space, and the benefits that might afford humanity.

How about mining an asteroid for natural resources? […] There are more natural resources on asteroids than have ever been mined in the history of the Earth. So in 100 years […] all wars over limited resources are over because we have access to the unlimited resources of our back yard and that new back yard is our solar system.

Is this really plausible? What can we mine in space? And will it really deliver world peace, or just another realm for competition and conflict? Perhaps a look at the immediate past and near future may help us answer some of these questions.

Not science-fiction

In the two years since I first wrote about off-earth mining, a number of things have changed, and at least one relates to “world peace”.

One asteroid mining company, Planetary Resourceslaunched its first spacecraft from the International Space Station. This was the company’s second attempt after an earlier one was incinerated in the failed Antares launch.

Another asteroid miner, Deep Space Industries (DSI), won two NASA grants. One was to investigate creating propellant from asteroid material, and the other to create an asteroid regolith simulant, so equipment can be tested on Earth. That followed the award to DSI of a contract to help develop BitSat, which transmits Bitcoin transactions.

We, at the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW, along with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also won funding to investigate mining water to support NASA’s planned Mars colony.

In the US, the ASTEROIDS Act (yes that’s an acronym) was thankfully renamed the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act before it passed Congress. It tries to deal with the gaps in the Outer Space Treatyrelating to ownership of space resources. It states that “any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law.”

A UNSW study has shown, for a particular iron-rich asteroid, given the existence of a market and other assumptions, the return on investment is 85 years if the ore is returned to Earth, but five years if used in space.

Not so costly

Despite all this activity, sceptics remain unconvinced about the prospects for space mining for reasons such as expense and time.

Mining in space will certainly be expensive. The total budget of the project to send Curiosity to Mars and operate it for 14 years was US$2.5 billion.

But mining on Earth is also expensive. In 2014, Rio Tinto reduced its exploration budget from US$948 million in 2013 to US$747 million. A single study can cost over US$650 million.

The corresponding figures for BHP Billiton are US$1,047 million in 2013 down to US$716 million. That’s the sort of money these companies are already spending, trying to find new terrestrial deposits. So, the absolute scale of an investment in space mining is not beyond existing mining companies.

Things are similar in terms of time frames. Mining operations last for decades. So neither the costs nor the time-frames are prohibitive. As we see, the asteroid mining companies are already getting into space. It’s happening, and it’s being funded.

So, where are the immediate problems? For one thing, the study that told us to use the iron ore in space rather than return it to Earth assumed a market in space.

For high-value commodities, like rare earth minerals or platinum group metals, there may be a case for return to Earth, but certainly, the “common” resources that could be mined in space are best used there.

The common argument is that it costs about US$20,000 per kilogram to launch to deep space from Earth, so if you can produce that kilogram in space for less than $20,000, you’re ahead.

In fact, SpaceX publishes its launch costs on its website. Currently, for its Falcon 9, that figure is about US$12,600. But a market does not exist at present, and may need an artificial demand to kick it off (e.g. someone like NASA could contract for a delivery of water on-orbit).

This dilemma was recently debated at SpaceUp Australia. Without that kick-start, early demand for water may come from space tourism, but the most likely place for this type of economy to kick off is probably satellite refuelling. Water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used to fuel satellites.

World peace or wild west?

In terms of world peace, there are a number of problems with the US Space Act (variously discussed hereherehere, and here), including that the law is not necessarily consistent with existing treaties, is likely to be ignored by other countries, and is unenforceable.

A bus could drive through the existing treaties and not touch the sides, so there is a lack of uncertainty about what can and can’t be done, or enforced. My own view on this is that it will be the wild west out there until the slow processes of the law finally catch up with reality off the ground.

As far as world peace goes, I think things in space will get worse before they get better (space piracy, anyone?). But once order is established, there is every possibility that deGrasse Tyson is right, perhaps in less than 100 years.

The world leaders on all of these contentious topics, as well as representatives from the off-earth mining companies will be meeting to debate these issues at the second Off-Earth Mining Forum, to be held in Sydney in November.

To maximise interaction between space experts and mining experts, the event has been co-located with the third Future Mining Conference. Members of the public are welcome to attend and get a sense of whether deGrasse Tyson might be right.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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