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Seeking restorative justice for victims of communal riots

February 4, 2014

But, even in the case of communal riots where it is surely important to legally punish the perpetrators, justice for the victims need to deal with more concrete issues that move beyond punishing the perpetrators and compensation for the victims. The anti Sikh riots, Mumbai riots and the recent riots in Gujarat suggest that in the aftermath of the violence, the victims are left to grapple with multiple levels of trauma, displacement and a complete loss of faith not just on the system but also on people in general given that they are attacked by neighbors and friends during the riots. In the context of the anti Sikh riots, the victims had to face the repercussions of getting relocated to a colony called “Widows’ Colony”. While writing on the anti Sikh riots, Yasmeen Arif argues that naming of such a colony as a Widows’ Colony not only signifies exclusion for these women but has a different “import attached to widowhood that emerges from community violence.”  

Similar experiences of the victims of Mumbai and anti Sikh riots have been narrated through a number of anthropological studies on the riots and the victims.  There have been accounts by women who lost their husbands during the anti Sikh riots where their narrations depict not just monetary loss but even after so many years some of these women have not been able to come to terms with the lack of support that they and their children have and how it has also had an effect on children who lost their fathers.  The trauma, anger and in some cases even a sense of revenge is apparent from most accounts given by victims whenever they speak of the violence against their community and people, whether it is with regard to the anti Sikh riots or Mumbai riots.   

Every victim of communal riot has a story to tell which reveals much more than loss of loved one’s which can be compensated by money. The recent riots in Muzzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and the plight of the victims who are still living in the relief camps further suggests that addressing the problem of post-riot justice only through criminal justice system cannot bring the desired results for the victims. 

The long-term issues of survival, trauma and the urge for revenge can be addressed by a more restorative understanding of justice. Restorative justice which views crime as a violation of relationships creates an obligation of putting right the wrongs. Approaching justice as a violation of relationships implies a concern for healing of those involved – victims but also offenders and communities. This concept of justice provides an opportunity for the offenders and the victims to come together and focus on the harms done to people and communities. This vision of justice could perhaps be applied to situations of communal violence and explore at options that are perhaps not imposed from outside authority who are not involved in the conflict but from those who have been a part of it. This concept is better equipped to deal with the needs of the victims by making justice more a healing and transformative process.

Since the victims of communal rioting also undergo trauma and are often attacked by those very close to them or by immediate neighbors, they are unable to come to terms with the deceit they have had to face. The healing approaches in Reconciliation can perhaps help them come to terms with their situation and Restorative Justice can provide a more concrete substantive approach to justice for these people. This is a relatively under-explored subject in fields of Restorative Justice which needs to be researched better particularly in the context of India and the continuing out bursts of communal riots in the country. For the theorists and practitioners of Restorative Justice inter-community relations in India seems worth exploring.


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