Modi & his past

Print edition : April 04, 2014
While Manoj Mitta unravels Narendra Modi’s efforts to fudge facts and reality to serve narrow political ends, Ward Berenschot highlights how communalism and politics are intertwined.

AS Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi projects himself as the Prime Minister-in-waiting on the eve of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, much of the nation appears to be in a forgetting and rationalising mode on his alleged complicity in the 2002 post-Godhra carnage in the State.

It is not unusual to find even well-reasoned people among the chattering classes suggesting, oblivious of the facts that remain hidden even from the mainstream media, that the matter should be treated as closed in view of the Supreme Court’s “clean chit” to him. However, if one were to ask the same people about the facts behind the clean chit to Modi, it is very likely that they may plead ignorance or express their belief in half-truths. Perhaps, such a serious issue is side-stepped or even ignored by even Modi’s rivals to avoid the risk of its potential to polarise the voters further, which they apprehend may work to Modi’s further advantage.

The silence of his rivals on the issue has helped Modi to campaign on the theme of development and inclusiveness, without being compelled to be defensive on the charges of complicity in the carnage.

Besides, Modi himself appears inclined to see the shadow of 2002 as a serious liability in his campaign, so much so that he boasts of his impressive record post-2002 of ensuring a riot-free State. However, if examined closely, it is a clear contradiction in claims. If Modi can take credit for any absence of riots in Gujarat post-2002, should he not take the blame for the carnage which he let happen in the first place? If secularism is an article of faith to him, as he now claims in his campaign speeches, what prevented him from adopting a similar stand before and after the Gujarat carnage? If Modi is convinced today that a bid for the prime ministership of the country requires the eschewing of communal poison from the campaign rhetoric, did he seriously believe that the chief ministership of Gujarat required him to pander to compulsions of communal politics of the worst sort? These are questions that Modi himself would find it difficult to answer, if engaged in an objective and serious dialogue with his critics. He might have perhaps thought that such embarrassing questions are better left unanswered.

The two books under review precisely help his critics to raise valid questions about the “clean chit” that he purportedly received from the Supreme Court on his role in the 2002 carnage against Muslims in Gujarat, which followed the burning of the S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express allegedly by miscreants at Godhra railway station, resulting in the killing of 59 karsevaks returning from Ayodhya. The books also help us understand, in the absence of convincing explanations from Modi and his backers, how and why Modi and the Sangh Parivar succeeded in polarising Gujarati society in pursuit of their narrow political agenda. By helping to unravel the past, so influenced by Modi in Gujarat, these two books also leave interesting questions about the future of respect for institutions and social diversity under a possible Modi dispensation at the Centre.

Digging the past

The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi & Godhra by Manoj Mitta, a journalist of impeccable integrity and objectivity, can be credited with several first-time revelations. Mitta had earlier co-authored another book on the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage in Delhi ( When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath, co-authored with H.S. Phoolka).

A comparison of the 1984 carnage against Sikhs in Delhi and the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat can lead to an observer judging both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) equally guilty of complicity in communal violence against minorities when in power. But a vital change, as the author describes it, distinguishes one from the other: the evolution of the institutions of democracy and the rule of law since the days of the 1984 massacre.

The Rajiv Gandhi government blocked Parliament from holding any discussion on the 1984 violence even after the report of a commission of inquiry had been tabled in 1987. In contrast, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s coalition government was forced to allow both Houses, under the non-voting as well as voting clauses, to discuss the Gujarat carnage even before a commission of inquiry had begun its proceedings.

The Supreme Court’s activism was too nascent in 1984 to have responded with the kind of alacrity and vigour it displayed in the case of the 2002 violence. In 1984, judicial activism was not yet ready to take on politically motivated crimes. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had come into existence only in October 1993, and Gujarat was indeed the first major outbreak of communal violence witnessed by this watchdog body.

Godhra and after

This review, for reasons of space, highlights only a few revelations in the book, about the unravelling of Godhra and the post-Godhra violence, and hopes it will persuade readers to apprise themselves of the rest, by reading the book.

The conviction of the accused by the trial court in the Godhra incident of February 27, 2002, relies on the testimony of an employee of Kalabhai petrol pump, which had allegedly supplied the petrol in huge quantity for the arson. One of the employees, Ranjitsinh Patel, gave no indication of the transaction in his initial testimony. He vouched for it only after an accused, Behra, had confessed in February 2003 that petrol had been bought from Kalabhai petrol pump on the eve of the Godhra arson. Four years later, in a sting investigation by Tehelka magazine, Ranjitsinh Patel was caught admitting that he had been induced by the police to corroborate Behra’s confession. Ranjitsinh Patel said on camera that he and his co-employee, Prabhatsinh Patel, had each been paid Rs.50,000 in 2003 by investigating officer Noel Parmar to depart from their earlier testimonies and identify as accused those whose photos were shown to him.

When he deposed in the trial court on March 4, 2010, Ranjitsinh Patel said he had given the statement on April 10, 2002, under the influence of the petrol pump owner, a Muslim. On his admission to the Tehelka sting reporter later, Ranjitsinh Patel claimed he thought he was being considered by the reporter for a TV serial. He further claimed that he had been paid Rs.2,000 by the reporter for an audition, and was asked to make the allegation as part of the deal. The trial court accepted Ranjitsinh Patel’s claim by observing that “no prudent man would dare to take such a risk of giving false evidence, against huge number of accused belonging to Muslim community without thinking about his entire future life”. Behra was one of the 31 accused whom the trial court had convicted for the criminal conspiracy behind the arson, on the basis of this corroboration.

The trial court found that the conspiracy was hatched on February 26, 2002, during a meeting held in Aman guest house in Godhra. One of the conspirators, Bilal Haji, was among the 12 accused who were convicted on the basis of Behra’s confessional statement. The trial court even awarded the death sentence to Bilal Haji. Ranjitsinh Patel’s volte-face and the trial court’s acceptance of his revised statement raise doubts about the correctness of other convictions.

The author also raises serious questions about the trial court’s dismissal of concerns over the delay in calling officials of the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL), Ahmedabad, to make a physical inspection of the burnt S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express. The officials visited the scene of the crime for the first time only on May 1, 2002, more than two months after the occurrence of the crime. Although the trial court accepted the official line that the coach was kept under the watch of police guard until the visit of FSL officials, the author reveals that independent observers who had visited the scene had reported that it was unguarded and stray people entered it at will. The outcome of the FSL’s belated inspection, he says, was a simulation experiment in May, suggesting that the petrol had been thrown from inside the coach. The miscreants, the prosecution alleged, had broken into the coach through the sliding door. The FSL simply confirmed it. Would the results have been different had the FSL examined the scene of the occurrence immediately?

The role of SIT

The author raises valid questions about the “clean chit” given to Modi by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by the Supreme Court to investigate nine cases of carnage and the complaint of Zakia Jafri, widow of former Congress Member of Parliament Ehsan Jafri, who was killed in the post-Godhra massacre. Zakia Jafri had filed a complaint with the SIT to investigate allegations against 63 influential persons, including Modi himself, for complicity in the carnage that took place in 14 of Gujarat’s 25 districts. According to the author, the clean chit to Modi is vulnerable on the following grounds:

1. A former Minister in Modi’s Cabinet, Maya Kodnani, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Jaydeep Patel were arrested for the Naroda Patiya massacre on the basis of their phone call records, which indicated their movements on February 28, 2002. However, as the SIT did not handle this evidence with due diligence, the trial court rejected this evidence and convicted the accused on the basis of witness testimonies. Had the SIT pursued this evidence with diligence, the investigations would have led to the office of Ahmedabad’s Police Commissioner and gone further up to the Home Department, headed throughout that period by Modi.

2. Had the Supreme Court not directed security to witnesses by a Central police force, they would not have testified in the Ahmedabad court against Maya Kodnani, a Minister.

3. According to the author, the SIT refrained from confronting Modi with questions on the wide gap in his narrative between the time of the mass killings at Gulberg Society and Naroda Patiya and the time he had come to know about them.

4. The Supreme Court Bench headed by Justice D.K. Jain allowed a member supervising the Gulberg Society case to continue in the SIT even after its own prosecutor had blown the whistle on its attempts to conceal state complicity. In Zakia Jafri’s case, the Supreme Court overlooked deficiencies as glaring as the ones in the questioning of Modi.

5. Amicus curiae in the Jafri case, Raju Ramachandran, failed to notice the farcical nature of the SIT’s questions to Modi. Ramachandran missed the import of Modi putting the imprimatur of his office on the VHP’s terror allegation, following the Godhra incident. Eventually, Modi’s initial allegation that terrorism was behind the Godhra incident—the basis of the charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act—was punctured because the charges had to be dropped for lack of substance.

6. Zakia Jafri had alleged that on returning from Godhra, Modi had told police officers at a closed-door meeting in his Gandhinagar residence to let Hindus give vent to their anger during the VHP-organised bandh the next day. In its May 2010 report to the Supreme Court, the SIT held that there was “no reliable material” available to prove the allegation against Modi. In his interim report in January 2011, Ramachandran recommended further investigation under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), going beyond the preliminary inquiry done by the SIT. This recommendation was reinforced by the incisive observation of Ramachandran that Modi did not take any decisive action the next day to control the post-Godhra violence. The SIT balked at calling Modi afresh even as it recorded the statements of as many as 48 witnesses in connection with the allegations against him. In his final report submitted on July 25, 2011, Ramachandran held that there was sufficient ground for proceeding against Modi.

Ramachandran said: “As far as the SIT’s conclusion with regard to the steps taken by Shri Modi to control the riots in Ahmedabad is concerned, the same may be accepted, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary.” The author feels that Ramachandran’s failure to notice the evidence to the contrary in Modi’s interrogation was a major reason why the Supreme Court’s monitoring of the investigation proved to be illusory. Unlike its choice of SIT members, the Supreme Court’s selection of Ramachandran as amicus curiae was beyond reproach, the author, however, adds.

7. The handing over of the bodies of 54 of the 58 victims of the Godhra tragedy to Jaydeep Patel, the then joint secretary of the Gujarat unit of the VHP, by the mamlatdar (revenue officer) of Godhra, through a letter, on the night of February 27, 2002, is the subject of a separate chapter in the book. The Nanavati Commission held that the decision to send the bodies to Ahmedabad was that of the local authorities in Godhra, and the bodies were of passengers who were VHP members. This was despite the fact that 19 of the 54 bodies could not be identified on February 28. The commission was at pains to reject any suggestion that the letter might have been issued with Modi’s blessings.

The SIT, on the contrary, conceded that Modi had been involved in the decision to send the bodies to Ahmedabad. But it insisted he had nothing to do with the revenue officer’s letter drafting Patel into the operation. However, Modi’s claim that the custody of the bodies remained with the government authorities was a perfect cue for the SIT to confront Modi with the mamlatdar’s letter. “He would have been hard pressed to rebut the charge of collusion, had the SIT questioned him on the import of the letter and the accompanying receipt of dead bodies signed on behalf of the VHP,” he says.

8. As an Inspector-General of Police (IGP) in Tamil Nadu, SIT chief R.K. Raghavan was in charge of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s security at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, where the latter was due to address an election meeting. In his affidavit to the Verma Commission probing the security lapses leading to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Raghavan alleged that Rajiv Gandhi had beckoned to a group standing behind a police cordon on the right of the red carpet. Raghavan was admittedly focussed on preparing for the return journey during the few minutes before the blast occurred.

Mitta notes that had the fact-finding on the 1991 incident not been so opaque, Raghavan was unlikely to have been chosen to supervise the probe into the 2002 violence. He records that Justice Verma declined to go on record when asked about his opacity on the most shocking part of Raghavan’s affidavit on the Sriperumbudur tragedy. Raghavan was among the key officers to have been questioned in-camera by the Verma Commission. The commission, in the first volume of its report, in June 1992, rejected the “beckoning” theory and concluded that Raghavan and two other officers were responsible for the proximate cause for the assassination. It was their failure to adhere to the prescribed standard that allowed the human bomb to gain access to Rajiv Gandhi, according to the report. The shadow of the beckoning theory did not fall on Raghavan.

Mitta also alleges that Raghavan made an abortive attempt to get the film in the slain photographer Haribabu’s camera processed in a local studio with a desperate hope to find some evidence that could divert attention from his lapses. Yet Raghavan was credited by the commission as well as the judiciary for finding the camera on the body of Haribabu, even while his role in tampering with it was glossed over. According to the author, Raghavan’s tendency to cover up inconvenient truths, despite the responsibility of steering an investigation entrusted to him by the highest court of the land, has to be understood in the context of this flawed exoneration. This also explains why the author is thoroughly dissatisfied with the Supreme Court’s abrupt end to its monitoring of the SIT’s role on September 12, 2011.

9. The Nanavati Commission, appointed by the Gujarat government to probe the Godhra and post-Godhra violence in the State, held a rare in-camera hearing on September 30, 2011, to question retired police officer R.B. Sreekumar, who was in charge of the State intelligence branch during the riots, on Modi’s alleged subversion of the judicial process. Modi allegedly asked him to release Rs.10 lakh from the Secret Service Fund to “manage” Mallika Sarabhai, who had filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Supreme Court to seek its intervention in the riots case. Mallika Sarabhai approached the commission seeking its probe into the matter. The commission asked Sreekumar to file an affidavit in this regard, and when he filed it, held the in-camera hearing to ask him to delete the reference in the affidavit to a direction from the commission to do so, as in the commission’s view it was just an option to him. Sreekumar refused to comply with the commission’s request. On December 31, 2013, the commission received its 21st extension to accomplish its task.

Politics of communalism

In Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State, Ward Berenschot, a political scientist and a postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden, seeks to understand through his experience of living in Ahmedabad’s most violent neighbourhoods for more than a year, how Hindu and Muslim friends share a feeling of helplessness and an inability to resist the hurricane of communal hatred that occasionally engulfs them.

In the three neighbourhoods the author studied, local politicians played a prominent role during the intense rioting that took place in 2002 in two, while in the third local leaders managed to maintain peace.

Mitta’s book is an instance of a top-down argument on communal violence that political leaders create communal tensions and provoke riots to serve their electoral interests. Such an argument, Berenschot suggests, cannot fully explain how and why the instigators of violence manage to tap into the existing fears, hopes and drive of those who actually perpetrate violence. The alternative to this, that is, the bottom-up approach also risks losing sight of the deliberate political strategies behind violence. Berenschot, therefore, aims to merge the merits of both the approaches, by discussing different connections between the dependence of citizens on political intermediaries and the capacity of political actors to instigate and organise communal violence. He observes that unlike other Indian States, Gujarat has not seen a sustained and successful political mobilisation on the basis of caste or class divisions over the past 30 years. As the competition for control over the resources of the State often has been fought under the banner of religion, a barrage of accusations and grievances have constantly reinforced the tensions between the two religious communities. The gradual liberalisation of Gujarat’s economy has further cemented this political atmosphere, he notes.

Berenschot concludes that Hindu and Muslim friends join the rioting mobs because of their dependence on political mediation, which makes them vulnerable to the conflict-mongering of politicians and their supporters. Therefore, by reducing the dependence of citizens on political mediation, the prospect of Hindu-Muslim violence can be reduced, he concludes. For this, he suggests that measures must be taken to improve the capacity of poorer citizens to deal successfully with state institutions without political interference and to make economic growth more inclusive.

Addressing the scarcity of basic amenities and enacting measures to ensure a stricter separation of the executive and legislative wings of the government are two such measures that he advocates. Strengthening the ability of the police and the law enforcement machinery to prevent riots from happening and punishing the guilty is another that the author suggests. Modi’s pride in realising a riot-free Gujarat after 2002 may well be tested on whether he is successful in reducing the prospects of Hindu-Muslim violence in the future.