Gujarat: A soldier’s testimony

Zameer Uddin Shah’s "The Sarkari Mussalman" throws new light on the delay in the deployment of the Army during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.

Published : Oct 24, 2018 12:30 IST

Z AMEER UDDIN SHAH, a retired Lieutenant General of the Indian Army, does not suffer fools easily. A quintessential Army man, he has no patience for prevarication either. A few years ago, when he was Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University (2012-17), he waxed eloquent about his early days. When he was two years old, he was sent away to Sardhana, his native village near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, to be looked after by an aunt as his mother had given birth to another child. Zameer’s younger brother, Naseer, would grow up to be the actor Naseeruddin Shah. Zameer spent years in the shadow of his popular brother.

The celebrity scale did not tip in Zameer’s favour even when he was made the Vice Chief of the Army Staff. In fact, a national newspaper announced Zameer’s appointment with the headline: “Naseer’s brother is new Army dy chief”. Zameer never complained. It has been that way almost all through their life. Both brothers knew each other’s mettle. If in school in Nainital, Naseer was envious of Zameer’s social charm, his big build and his way with girls, as an Army man, Zameer appreciated the popularity his brother enjoyed, which he despite his exalted status could never aspire to reach.

However, today the limelight is on Zameer. His memoir The Sarkari Mussalman: The Life and Travails of a Soldier Educationist , published by the New Delhi-based Konark Publishers and released on October 13, has upset more than a few people and has grabbed the attention of many. And politicians have begun to murmur about him. Far from a soaked-in-nostalgia memoir, The Sarkari Mussalman has shifted the attention once again to the 2002 anti-Muslim pogorm in Gujarat. Even before the book was launched, the media was abuzz with its contents. Zameer discloses in the book that he was in Jodhpur (Rajasthan) when he heard about the Gujarat riots.

He writes: “We got news about the communal upheaval in Gujarat. As a reaction to the Godhra carnage on 27 February, 2002, a statewide bandh was organised on 28 February 2002 by right wing political organisations. Permission was given to bring the bodies of burnt kar sevaks in a procession to Ahmedabad. This naturally inflamed passions. The bandh turned violent with large-scale communal killings, destruction of economic assets, arson and looting, targeting the minority community. The state government requested for deployment of the Army.”

Zameer got a call from the Chief of the Army Staff, General S. Padmanabhan, to proceed to Gujarat. “Get your formation to Gujarat and quell the riots,” was the short instruction. It is a decision Gen. Padmanabhan says he has been asked about many times. He gives his reason in his brief endorsement to the book: “Many eyebrows were raised when I nominated ‘Zoom’ (Zameer) to lead the Army complement to Gujarat. Some seniors told me of their misgivings. I told them in no uncertain terms that the choice of troops and their leader was a military decision and not open to debate. The Army moved into Gujarat, led by ‘Zoom’ whose ability, impartiality and pragmatic decision making, soon brought the situation under control.”

Although, as Gen. Padmanabhan says, things were “soon brought under control”, they could have been done sooner. Zameer writes: “When we were approaching Ahmedabad airfield I observed that the city was aflame. There were fires burning all across the city. We landed on a dark and deserted airfield. The Deputy GOC of the lodger formation received me. I asked, ‘Where are the vehicles and other logistic support we had been promised?’ He shrugged his shoulders and replied that the State government was making the necessary arrangement.”

Zameer then decided to reach Chief Minister Narendra Modi at his residence. Along the way, he found rampaging mobs, the police standing as mute spectators. He gave his list of immediate requirements to the Chief Minister to enable the Army columns to restore law and order and returned to the airfield. By March 1, 2002, there were 3,000 troops but no vehicles to carry them.

“There was no transport to take them to the riot-affected city. So they remained at the airfield. These were crucial hours lost. Our road columns reached on 2 March and so did the requisitioned civil trucks, magistrates, police guides and maps.” That is when the Army could swing into action. And the violence was soon curbed.

It is a version of the Gujarat violence that has upset many people. While some have questioned Zameer’s long silence on the subject, others have read political motives into it. Some have attempted to deny the flow of events as outlined in the book. Zameer clears the air. He told Frontline on October 13, before the book launch: “I have zero interest in politics. There has been an attempt to show that the author is a liar; that there was no such thing [delay]. To all such remarks, I can say there were hundreds of soldiers, and all the officers who were there will be prepared to back the author. The war diaries of the events concerned cannot be fudged. Those reports can be examined, and should be examined.”

To people who ask “why now” after 16 years, he says: “I retired in 2008. From 2009 to 2012, I was a member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. From 2012 to 2017, I was the Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. I did not get a chance to breathe. It is only in the last one year that I have got the time to sit down and write, play some golf, and do some other constructive work. I have written the book over the past one year.”

As for insinuations about political motive, he says: “I have called the Gujarat delay an administrative failure. I have not named any political party or any leader. I did not want to reopen old wounds. I have just stated the truth without pinpointing anybody except that I called the delay (in providing local transport in Ahmedabad) an administrative failure. I could have named names. I refused.”

The way he has sought to clear the air makes the book seem like a debt the author owes to posterity.

Tackling insurgency

But, The Sarkari Mussalman ’s value goes beyond Gujarat 2002 and his childhood memories. Zameer has described in detail his experience in the north-eastern region, and how the situation was brought under control in the face of heightened insurgency with hardly any collateral damage. He says: “We followed just the right policies in the north-east. We believed that development had to take place and development had to take precedence over everything else. There can be no military solution. We did not go around blowing up the houses. We behaved with the people like they were our own nationals, our own people. They were. It is something that is not happening in other parts of the country.”

Is he referring to Kashmir where the forces have been criticised for the use of pellet guns? The policy that has been followed in the north-eastern region should be followed in Kashmir, too, should it not?

Dye grenades

“That is for the media to say. I won't comment. I will come under fire. In the north-east, women did surround the patrols when we went there. There we used dye grenades. There were no casualties. We did not use pellet guns. The colour of the dye faded away in two weeks. The women got purple faces for a couple of weeks. That is all. I told them the colour will wash away after two weeks. I found dye grenades extremely useful in dispersing women agitators, and identifying them later, as I have written in the book.”

He writes in the book: “These grenades did not cause injury but splashed a semi-permanent dye on the faces and clothes. After use of these dye grenades, we had women complaining that they had been disfigured for life because the dye would not rub off. It did, after a few days, but it was a very effective deterrent. I think using pellet gun is abhorrent and only adds fuel to the fire with the aggrieved joining the insurgent ranks.”

Was quelling the rebellion without collateral damage the biggest challenge? He says: “Our biggest accomplishment in the north-east was that we got die-hard rebels to bear arms. We raised a special battalion of the Border Security Force. These guys had not got employment. We realised with this they had something to look forward to, something to earn their livelihood.”

Incidentally, this feat of bringing rebels into the fold of the establishment, so to say, was accomplished because of precise groundwork. The commanding officers concentrated on intelligence gathering. Zameer followed the PASSING I(n)T ON (passing it on) strategy. It meant that the officers concentrated not on the well-off or the influential as they had much to lose. Rather, they concentrated on, as an intelligence report put it, “the scoundrels and rascals. They have nothing to lose.” And once the information was delivered, the local source was paid generously “in cash”.

Will he write a sequel? “There can be a sequel. There is a lot to be said,” he says.

After the media attention around the book is done and dusted, Zameer is prepared for the spotlight to stay firmly on Naseer. “You see, the media will invariably come to him. He is the best actor in the country. I am not the best soldier of the country.” But he is a soldier who has said what had to be said, honestly and fearlessly.


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