On Their Watch

Mass violence and State apathy in India, Examining the record

ISBN(s) 978-81-88789-87-0, 978-81-88789-98-6
Pub. Date October 2014
Pages pp xx + 374, includes bibliographies and index
Dimensions Demy octavo 8.5 x 5.5 in.
  India Elsewhere
Paperback 978-81-88789-98-6
₨. 500
Hardcover 978-81-88789-87-0
₨. 750
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In 2005, India passed a law giving individuals the right to information on the State’s acts and decisions. Using this law, the authors in this edited volume applied for official records about four of the worst episodes of mass violence in independent India. These traumatic events had not previously been scrutinised using the recently-minted law on this scale. The authors filed over 800 applications for information; the results of their unusual endeavour led to this book.

Sifting through hundreds of government documents on criminal justice, administrative discipline, commissions of inquiry, emergency relief and monetary compensation, the authors examine the State’s response to sectarian violence in Nellie in 1983, Delhi in 1984, Bhagalpur in 1989 and Gujarat in 2002.

Hundreds of people, most of them religious minorities, were killed, injured, displaced from their homes, and stripped of their livelihoods in these episodes of mass violence. In each instance, violence was encouraged by the politically powerful and tolerated by the police.

This book examines official records and shows how State apathy in the wake of violence thwarted attempts to rehabilitate survivors and punish perpetrators. These failures are not simply an unfortunate coincidence. The State’s own records reveal that national and state governments have been negligent in recurring, systematic ways. By detailing how State processes have failed, this disquieting book demonstrates that the State could have pursued justice and reparation for victims of mass violence in the past, and could, in substantial measure, still do so.


1. Introduction

Part I: Extracting State Records
2. Exercising the Right to Information

Part II: Four Episodes of Mass Violence
3. Nellie 1983
4. Delhi 1984
5. Bhagalpur 1989
6. Gujarat 2002

Part III: Examining the State’s Record
7. Access to Criminal Justice
8. Holding Public Officials Accountable
9. Relief, Compensation and Rehabilitation

10. Conclusion

Appendix: Battling a Corrosive Menace

Photograph on the cover by Bhupinder Brar. Cover design: Asad Zaidi


On Their Watch shows the enormity of the wrongs that have been done in India to the victims of mass violence as state authorities failed to ensure elementary standards of justice, accountability or rehabilitation. It is a powerful example of how the Right to Information Act can be used to lay bare the structures of power and oppression. This is a model of research for action.

— Jean Drèze, Honorary Professor, Delhi School of Economics

On Their Watch is a clinical study of the signal failure of the Indian State to provide justice to the victims of mass communal violence. It pierces though the miasma of silence and secrecy to excavate public records, the transcripts of the State, as it were, to make a powerful indictment of the State. This is social forensics at its finest.

— Manisha Sethi, Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library

On Their Watch is a comprehensive assessment of the response of the state to mass violence and genocide as well as a fascinating practical guide on how to use the RTI Act to extract sensitive information from a recalcitrant bureaucracy. A must-read for those who want to understand why and how the state is apathetic to victims of mass violence, and for those who want to use the RTI Act as a research instrument.

— Shekhar Singh, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information

Communal, targeted violence has been the bane of Indian society. The core point of violence is the failure of state apparatus to contain it and punish the guilty. This well researched book gives us an insight into the phenomenon of the failure of the state to curb this menace.

— Ram Puniyani, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism

This seminal work makes it amply clear that the primary objective of transparency namely, establishing accountability of the Government and its instrumentalities to the governed, is a far cry in the world’s largest democracy. As the RTI Act enters the 10th year of implementation, its success needs to be measured in terms of people’s ability to access quick, inexpensive and effective justice besides ration cards and passports. An eye-opener for anyone who thought India had established a regime of transparency in 2005.

— Venkatesh Nayak, RTI activist, New Delhi

In my opinion this is the first well documented study focusing on the role of the state in mass violence. It provides undisputed evidence to show that the Indian State irrespective of political party in power has failed in its primary responsibility of protecting citizens from communal, mass-scale violence and in providing justice as well as material and non-material restitution to the victims… The volume is very useful manual to Human Rights-RTI activists as well as to those scholars and students of of law and social science who wish to analyse the nature of Indian state.

— Ghanshyam Shah, National Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study

About Surabhi Chopra & Prita Jha Read full profile ›

Surabhi Chopra is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law, Chinese University of Hong Kong. She researches transitional justice, national security and the rights of the poor. Prita Jha is a legal activist and researcher based in... Read more

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