On the trail of the real culprits

Print edition : July 08, 2016

Rana Ayyub at the launch of her self-published book "Gujarat Files" on May 27 in New Delhi. Photo: AFP

Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and Arun Jaitley in the "Gujarat Gaurav Yatra", on October 31, 2002, in Karamsad near Ahmedabad. Photo: AFP

Interview with Rana Ayyub, author of Gujarat Files.

TOWARDS the end of 2013 and in early 2014, authors and book publishers seemed to be in a race to come up with books on and around Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate at the time. Every other week, a book on Modi, usually a hagiography desperately seeking to be accepted as a biography, hit the stands. One noted author talked of Modi’s Himalayan sojourn in the mid 1970s, the time he supposedly spent in Delhi University completing his graduation. Another author went gaga over Modi’s fight with a crocodile, how the “brave man” bested the beast! Of course, all of them talked of his days as a tea vendor and his walks to the railway station in the wee hours. All that stretched the limits of credulity. In the mad rush to capitalise on the Modi fever, publishers developed cold feet over one book. It questioned Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat violence and sought to expose Amit Shah’s role in encounter killings. This was not the rags-to-riches story that other authors were happy to peddle. It was a serious investigative work, one that would question the stance and actions of the bigwigs of Indian politics. It had uncomfortable questions, seeking even more unpleasant answers.

The book had to wait for another two years before it got to the reader. No publishers showed up, even belatedly, to pick up the book. So, the author did the next best thing: she self-published the book. Rana Ayyub is an investigative journalist who assumed the avatar of a film-maker to complete her investigation into the 2002 violence, which was followed by the encounter killings. The book, suitably titled Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, hit the stands recently.

Interestingly, not much seems to have changed between 2014 and now. Then the publishers were not ready to stick their neck out for her intrepid work, now most of the media blocked out the launch. If publishers were found lacking in guts, today bookshops display much the same attitude. Many of them, almost all in Ahmedabad, have refused to stock the book. Rana Ayyub said: “In the last one week I have called most of the book stores in Mumbai and Ahmedabad and the response has been less than surprising. Most of them said they wanted to keep the book. Since I called as a reader who wanted a copy, the response was undiluted. The book stores in Ahmedabad categorically said it was not the type of book they wanted to keep. Mumbai bookstores said there was a huge demand from readers because it was an Amazon bestseller but that it was too dangerous a book to be stocked in their bookshops. One of them suggested that I order a copy from Amazon since it involved no risk.”

Incidentally, the book started in 2010 when Rana Ayyub spent eight months under cover and conducted a sting operation with bureaucrats and senior police officers who held key positions between 2001 and 2010 in Gujarat. The book contains previously unpublished transcripts from the sting operation.

Undeterred by the series of nays, Rana Ayyub fights on. Happy to take in questions from Frontline just before her launch, she talks of the pitfalls of her methodology, the dangers she faced, and the men who do not mind pulling the trigger at the slightest suspicion. Yet, she pulled it off. All by herself, against all odds. Excerpts:

The methodology adopted for the book is rare in Indian journalism, rarer still in literature. Can you describe how Rana Ayyub, an investigative journalist, assumed the avatar of Maithili Tyagi, a film-maker?

The book would not have been a part of literature had journalism and journalists not stifled it. For me, it continues to be one of my most intense politico-criminal investigations. A sting operation by its very nature is controversial, for it goes against the sacrosanct—it involves the use of a fake identity and recording without permission, two elements that strike at the core of journalistic ethics. Should undercover journalism be made a part of daily journalistic exercise? No. It should be used in the rarest of rare cases, when you have exhausted every possible means.

Journalism history tells us about the brave work of Elizabeth Cochran, who wrote under the pseudonym Nellie Bly to Donal Maclntyre, an Irish journalist who went under cover to expose the collusion of drug dealers with private security agencies. Nellie Bly went under cover in a mental asylum, and her expose was used by a grand jury to prosecute the mental ward of the hospital.

Maithili Tyagi came into the picture only after Rana Ayyub realised that she had exhausted every possible means to cull out the truth in the Gujarat riots, fake encounters and the Haren Pandya assassination. Maithili was given birth to aid me, after my expose landed Amit Shah behind bars in 2010 for his role in the extrajudicial killing of Sohrabuddin and Tulsi Prajapati. Maithili Tyagi was extraordinarily outgoing, as opposed to me whose pictures and even gender was known to the common public, including the political class. She became an Indian-American film-maker who would shoot Gujarat in its glory, a Kayastha girl who befriended the higher-ups in the Gujarati film industry, whose father, a Sanskrit teacher, was also an ex-RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] pracharak. Aided by a French intern, the transition from Rana Ayyub to Maithili Tyagi was smooth and convincing.

You say the book would not have been a part of literature had journalism and journalists not stifled it. Please explain.

The reference here is to the various news publications I approached to publish the transcript after book publishers bailed out. This also refers to news channels, newspapers and magazines. Shoma Choudhury and Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka cited editorial decisions and gaps. The book is a bestseller and is getting rave reviews for its content. Let the reader be the judge.

A constant worry in such an investigation is that the disguise may drop any moment. Did you face such moments during your investigation, more so because you were dealing with powerful men?

On many occasions I almost thought I would be caught. On one occasion P.C. Pande [former Director General of Police in Gujarat] wanted me to meet one of his close Muslim friends who also happened to be a lawyer. The lawyer concerned was himself representing the defence in the encounters case and knew me. Pande had arranged for a spontaneous coffee with him and his family. With no other option left, I complained of a stomach upset and did not emerge out of the bathroom for more than an hour and asked Mrs Pande to allow me to use her bedroom to rest. That was the only way I could escape being identified.

On another occasion, an officer took me to see a film called No One Killed Jessica based on a Tehelka investigation. While she abused Tehelka during the film, the scarier bit was me almost caught by the metal scanners in the theatre which could have caught the camera fitted in my kurta. As luck would have it, Usha Rada, being an S.P. [Superintendent of Police], was exempted from the security process and I was saved.

I understand publishers developed cold feet about the book following Modi’s post-2012 rise. Can you recount those days? And the experience with trolls post publication?

It was embarrassing; it almost made me doubt my own strengths as a journalist and lowered my self-esteem. To be rejected by one publisher is one thing, to be rejected by a dozen publishers, including many high-profile newspaper and news channel editors was another. I started doubting my own ability as a journalist, whether I was indeed mediocre or my work was a piece of gibberish as suggested by my editors who refused to publish it, calling it a coffee-table conversation. The entire process was so agonising that I had to see a shrink; anxiety and stress took a toll on my health. The decision to self-publish the book was a selfish one, I was unable to answer my own conscience. I cried myself out in front of my therapist. I had begun to cry very often. Just a week before the publication of the book, two publications bailed out of publishing excerpts of my book, which they had promised to. I called up my lawyer friend and begged her for an answer, ‘Tell me what wrong have I done?’

What about your experience with trolls?

How does one deal with trolls really? It is a syndicate of paid twitter handles whose job is to shield the government from all criticism. They try to do this through abuses and character assassinations. I feel sorry for them because they are paid to do this. I don’t think they are personally against me. So I let them be, most of the time they are so senseless that they humour me on a dull day.

Self-published books are not exactly looked up to in our country. Does it undercut some of your brave work?

Somebody had to break this vicious cycle of self-censorship by our mainstream publications, who only wish to publish “safe books”. In a way, self-publishing this book is a slap in the face of the liberal publishers who talk about the power of literature at festivals but chicken out when asked to walk the talk. Self-publishing is not exactly a norm yet in India. It has its own pros and cons; a self-published author has limited means to distribute the book. On the night of the launch, I was busy posting Amazon stickers on the copies from the press and looking for a place to stock copies. But these are minor issues when compared with the editorial freedom that self-publishing gives to an author. I think it is about time self-publication becomes an accepted norm in India. It is the only way to get good literature and journalism to the common man. You got to beat the censorship.

The truth about the Gujarat violence is yet to come out officially. What, in the light of your experience, is the Gujarat truth? Is it state complicity or state sponsorship of hate violence? Or is it merely incompetence of the government?

Honestly, I would not like to pass judgement here, and neither have I taken a stand on this. I have quoted verbatim from the tapes and left it for the reader to decide. It is now for an independent agency to come forward and check the veracity of the tapes and take the process of justice to its logical end. As a journalist, I have done my work. I would be no different from a politician if I were of the opinion that my findings could not be contested. I want the commissions of inquiry to give these tapes a serious look and ask the management at Tehelka to hand over the master copies to them. I am more than willing to help with all assistance that the agencies would seek of me.

Zakia Jafri has voiced her dissatisfaction with the recent convictions in the Gulberg Society case. Who exactly was behind the Gulberg Society massacre? There have been so many reports of calls being made to the Chief Minister’s office in the face of impending doom...

I cannot comment on the convictions, all I can say is that it is too little too late. Like the book suggests, it is always the foot soldiers who are punished, while the masterminds get away.

You have talked of Sanjiv Bhatt not being present in the February 27, 2002, meeting. What does one conclude about all those who were there, like Ashok Narayan? And where exactly does Bhatt fit in with his crusader avatar?

I do not wish to comment on Sanjiv Bhatt and the authenticity of his statement. But I can tell you that most officers on tape who have almost corroborated the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] findings in the cases and hold Modi and Amit Shah accountable in the riots and fake encounters do seem to suggest that the entry of Sanjiv Bhatt looked fishy and could have been a part of a political set-up. But yes, this would be best left to the agencies to give a verdict on. I have included every bit of what the officers said, so it was only pertinent that I transcribe everything including the Sanjiv Bhatt bit.

For the common man, Babu Bajrangi and Maya Kodnani are the instigators of some of the most cruel criminal assaults and killings in Gujarat. But do you not think they were merely the face of the violence and that their leaders remain unnamed?

Precisely the point that I make in the book. Babu Bajrangi and the likes of Maya Kodnani were foot soldiers. The book helps in the tracing of the masterminds, the real culprits whose journey from Gujarat to Delhi is a bloody trail of cold-blooded murder.

There is a disparaging reference to Kauser Bi’s relationship status. How does that justify encounter killing?

How can anything ever justify the killing of Kauser Bi? Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Tulsi Prajapati and Sohrabuddin were indeed criminals. Why cast aspersions on the character of Kauser Bi? According to the CBI charge sheet, Kauser Bi was raped, sedated and killed by the officers involved in the extrajudicial killings.

It was nauseous to see some officers justify her killing and even go to the extent of character assassination, including a woman top cop, Geeta Johri.

In the Haren Pandya case, his wife expressed dissatisfaction with the probe. Are we ever likely to see the facts before us? Or even punishment of the guilty?

I have known Jagrutiben for a while, and she has in as many words named those in power as responsible for her husband’s murder.

The transcripts of the investigating officer, too, point in the same direction. I will now leave it to the courts, investigating agencies and the collective conscience of this country.

Finally, there are ethical issues involved with your methodology.

The book aims to cut through obfuscation in the investigation. Stings have in the past been used as corroborative evidence in courts of law. Let us not forget that G.L. Singhal, the officer who shot Ishrat Jahan, himself did a sting operation on senior officers in Gujarat, including the Minister of State for Home, the Secretary to Chief Minister Modi and the Additional Advocate General, talking about irregularities in the SIT probe into the Ishrat Jahan case. This sting was placed as evidence in court.

I have immense faith in the judiciary and I hope this journalistic work does exactly what it was meant to: expose the rot in the police-politician nexus and also the process of biased criminal investigations and political patronage for these crimes.

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