Magistrate Ganatra’s Dictionary and the Crime Scene of Language


Zakia Jafri listens to her son Tanveer Jafri speaks after an Ahmedabad court rejected her petition seeking the prosecution of BJP leader Narendra Modi for his role in the 2002 pogrom. –PTI Photo)
Zakia Jafri listens to her son Tanveer Jafri speaks after an Ahmedabad court rejected her petition seeking the prosecution of BJP leader Narendra Modi for his role in the 2002 pogrom. –PTI Photo)

Magistrate Ganatra, in making his pronouncement in defense of Gujarat’s reigning caudillo, has done us all the favor of revealing the destiny that awaits all institutions as the shadow of Modi lengthens on India


On 13th June, 1971, a courageous Pakistani journalist called Anthony Mascaranhas published an article in the Sunday Times, London, which was headlined ‘Genocide‘. The story of how this article got to be written and published is noteworthy in itself – and is an object lesson in how an ethical journalist takes and follows through a difficult decision. Forty two years later, Is it too late to wonder if a Gujarati magistrate could have taken an ethical leaf out of a Pakistani-Goan journalist’s lexicon?

In the article in question, Mascaranhas described in detail the campaign of mass killings that the Pakistani army and allied militias were conducting in then East Pakistan. It was this article that produced the international context that justified the intervention by the Indian Army in aid of the Mukti Bahni that in turn led to the creation of Bangladesh.

This is not an event that we are normally allowed to forget in India, or, in Bangladesh. It was only 11 days ago (16 December) that the Indian Army celebrated the forty second anniversary of ‘Victory in Bangladesh’. The day is not called ‘Vijay Divas’ (‘Victory Day’) for nothing.

I am not sure, but I think this (Mascaranhas’ article) was the first use of the word ‘Genocide’ to describe an unfolding reality within a South Asian context (although it would have been equally applicable for events in East and West Punjab, Jammu and East and West Bengal in 1947-48).

It appears that the word ‘Genocide’ (though of relatively recent vintage) was not incomprehensible to those in power in India in 1971. After all, it was then a pretext for going to war, a war that no one on the mainstream Indian political spectrum has any regrets over. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, at whose feet Narendra Modi worships, called Indira Gandhi the goddess ‘Durga’, presumably because she delivered (in his understanding) the suffering millions of East Pakistan from the ‘genocidal’ Pakistani Army and its allied militias. No one felt any need to probe the meaning and etymology of ‘genocide’ in 1971 to weigh in on whether or not it was a ‘foreign expression’.

It seems that the ability of Indian institutions to understand words like ‘genocide’ has suffered some damage in the last four decades.

A court in Gujarat has just dismissed Zakia Jafri’s petition regarding the role that Narendra Modi (Chief Minister of Gujarat and current Prime Ministerial candidate) may have played in abetting the massacre at Gulbarg Society, Ahmedabad during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, because ‘Genocide’ in the court’s understanding is a ‘foreign’ expression.

Here is how today’s Indian Express, quoting the court order, reports the decision –

“On Thursday, Ahmedabad metropolitan magistrate B J Ganatra dismissed both “foreign terms” (‘Ethnic Cleansing’ and ‘Genocide’) as not applicable while rejecting Zakia’s petition.

The court goes into the origin of the expressions and notes that “ethnic cleansing” was first used during the struggle that broke out over the division of Yugoslavia, where people were killed based on community…

And “genocide is a Greek and Latin usage which means the killing of people on the basis of race,” reads the order.”

While discussing what ‘Genocide’ means, Metropolitan Magistrate Ganatra says –

“For this, we have to see the definition of ‘genocide’ as per the dictionary which is as follows: Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups,”

A quick perusal of the entry on definitions of ‘Genocide’ on Wikipedia offers up no less than twenty five definitions of the word. The one that Magistrate Ganatra offers us is the first in this table of twenty five. It comes not from ‘the’ dictionary, as his lordship says, but from a dictionary – from the Oxford English Dictionary. In the OED, we encounter this passage, not as a definition (although the definition is based on this citation), but as a supporting citation, taken from Raphael Lemkin’s ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (1944)‘. It was in fact Lemkin who coined the word genocide, and he pioneered work in international jurisprudence to address the crisis produced by mass exterminations that took place during the Second World War.

In Metropolitan Magistrate Ganatra’s eyes, Gujarati Muslims do not constitute either a ‘national’ or an ‘ethnic group’, and because his dictionary (or brief Wikipedia moment) does not offer anything outside the boxes of ‘national’ and ‘ethnic’ categories while referring to genocide, he decides that the term has no bearing on India, Gujarat, and the matter at hand.

Perhaps his lordship got tired of too much Wikipedia browsing, and neglected to go down the page, because had he done so, he might have found some other ways of thinking about genocide as well, – including, for example, article 2 of The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) (adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948, effective as of 12 January, 1951) which states that –

“Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

It may be noted, in passing, that it is this UN convention, which forms the basis for the current jurisprudential understanding of genocide in international law.

Or, had the learned magistrate remained interested in how Raphael Lemkin himself was thinking about genocide just two years after (1946) the publication of ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’ (the citation from which forms the basis of Gantra’s favorite OED entry, he might have read the following –

“The crime of genocide should be recognized therein as a conspiracy to exterminate national, religious or racial groups. The overt acts of such a conspiracy may consist of attacks against life, liberty or property of members of such groups merely because of their affiliation with such groups. The formulation of the crime may be as follows: “Whoever, while participating in a conspiracy to destroy a national, racial or religious group, undertakes an attack against life, liberty or property of members of such groups is guilty of the crime of genocide.”

[Genocide, Lemkin, Raphael, published in American Scholar, Volume 15, no. 2 (April 1946), p. 227-230]

So here is Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the word genocide, enlarging his understanding of what he means when he deploys the term by including a third category – ‘a religious group’ – along-with ‘a nation’ and ‘an ethnic group’ as the object of the violence that he terms genocidal.

So, if his Lordship Ganatra had been possessed of the patience necessary to follow through a process of definition to its logical conclusion, he would have been forced to admit, that following Lemkin’s evolving understanding, it is impossible to define the violence of genocide without referring to the fact that it includes within its ambit the desire to exterminate members of a group because of their attributable or self-ascribed religious identity. How can the category ‘Gujarati Muslim’ possibly escape this understanding ?

Incidentally, contrary to Magistrate Ganatra’s philological exegeses, the word ‘Genocide’ does not exist in the corpus of either classical Greek or Latin, it was coined in modern twentieth century English by Lemkin, in 1944, by joining two separate root words, one from Greek (genos) and another from Latin (cide) to create a new English word ‘Genocide’, (analogous to an extant word like Homicide, which does exist in Latin and older English and French, and, which does have a major part to play in the Indian legal system’s understanding of the crime of murder). Lemkin felt compelled to coin a new word, because the crime he was confronting, the systematic extermination of entire peoples, backed by a bureaucratic apparatus and the force of modern arms, was in his view, unprecedented in human history.

Genocide may be Greek to Ganatra in 2013, but it was not to Anthony Mascarenhas in 1971. Mascaranhas was denounced in Pakistan by Yahya Khan’s minutemen as a traitor for understanding what the word genocide meant then, and Ganatra may well be hailed as a patriot by those who wait on Narendra Modi’s pleasure for failing to understand (cursory consultations of the OED notwithstanding) what it meant in 2002 or what it means today. But the discomfort around the word itself has a habit of straddling the big crime scenes of recent South Asian history.

In 1971 it was a profound arrogance that blinded the Pakistani military elite intent on justifying its bloodlust in the East in 1971 (the Pakistani state or judiciary have yet to act on the findings of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission that looked into the conduct of the Pakistani army before and during 1971) and today it is the consensus around Modi that makes a faction of the Indian elite, and its institutional branches up and down the apparatus of the judiciary blind to the pogrom of 2002, just as it was (and is) the chorus of sycophants around what was then Rajiv Gandhi’s court that continues to make it impossible to address the pogrom of 1984.

Genocide is the word that no one wants to utter. “We don’t do that here”, they say, its roots are Greek and Latin, our home grown atrocities need Sanskrit or Perso-Arabic pedigrees. Would justice be more swiftly delivered if we were to argue that our Narendras presided on Narsanghar, and that our Rajivs justified Prajadroh, that our Yahya Khans conducted Quatl-e-Aaam. When a great language falls, does a dictionary quake?

Recent judicial pronouncements in Indian courts, be they on sexual intercourse by consenting adults in private, or now, on genocide, have demonstrated a curious pattern – the dismissal of something politically inconvenient (queer sex, or, as in this case, a sensitivity to the reality of genocide) by referring to it as being of ‘foreign origin’ – without any regard at the same time to the complicated, and mainly anglo-saxon origins of the vast majority of current Indian legal norms and traditions.

This philological terrorism, that simply takes an act, cloaks it in a phrase or a word or a name, and then pronounces on the non-native provenance of that phrase, word or name as a means of arriving at a judgement is the kind of exercise that converts the terrain of language and thought into a scene of crime. The bombs thrown by these judgments at the substance of language leave behind massive craters, which are then filled by draconian readings of the law.

The ability to sustain the paradox of dismissing something as being ‘foreign’ without being aware of how alien, or irrelevant, that dismissal itself is one of the hallmarks of a narcissistic political culture that evaluates everything on the basis of its own petty xenophobia. Perhaps Magistrate Ganatra, in making his pronouncement in defense of Gujarat’s reigning caudillo, has done us all the favor of revealing the destiny that awaits all institutions as the shadow of Narendra Modi lengthens on the Indian scene. When the meaning of genocide gets forgotten or misunderstood so easily, it is time to pray for the interventions of St. Anthony (Mascaranhas).

Welcome to a new scene of crime, the state of homicide of words and meaning. This is how law and language gets Modi-fied.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta is a media practitioner, filmmaker and writer with the Raqs Media Collective.  This article first appeared in Kafila

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.


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