Going gets tough

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj, L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Narendra Modi at a rally in Patna. The BJP's shrill anti-CBI campaign and its utterly unconvincing defence of Amit Shah has badly dented its credibility.-RANJEET KUMAR

BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj, L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Narendra Modi at a rally in Patna. The BJP's shrill anti-CBI campaign and its utterly unconvincing defence of Amit Shah has badly dented its credibility.-RANJEET KUMAR

The Sohrabuddin case could prove to be extremely damaging for the BJP.

ONE thing that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cannot be accused of is failure to anticipate trouble or lack of combativeness vis-a-vis adversaries, regardless of who they are and how high the price to be paid for fighting and even maligning them.

Ever since the Gujarat Police admitted to the Supreme Court in 2007 that Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a small-time extortionist, was killed in a fake encounter, Chief Minister Narendra Modi has known that his government, the Minister of State for Home Amit Shah in particular, and many senior police officers would come under critical scrutiny. The admission was made under the weight of strong evidence against Indian Police Service officers D.G. Vanzara and Rajkumar Pandiyan of Gujarat, and M.N. Dinesh of Rajasthan, leading to their arrests.

Complex cover-up

Modi and Shah launched an elaborate and complex cover-up and damage-control operation by posting and transferring key police officers with a view to killing Tulsi Prajapati, a crucial witness and a close associate of Sohrabuddin, and misleading the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Gujarat's anti-terrorism squad, which was inquiring into the encounters.

Modi and Shah nearly succeeded until the Supreme Court in January chastised the Gujarat Police for not conducting the investigation in an impartial manner and trying to subvert the case. It transferred the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which began to unravel the conspiracy behind the cold-blooded killing of Sohrabuddin, his wife Kauser Bi and Prajapati and their numerous links with Shah and other powerful functionaries.

A breakthrough came with the arrest of Abhay Chudasama, another IPS officer and Deputy Commissioner (Crime), who is a confidant of Shah. There are 197 complaints of extortion and harassment against him.

The CBI also interrogated other associates of Shah, including Ajay Patel and Yashpal Chudasama (Abhay Chudasama's cousin), who are chairman and director of the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank, over which Shah exercises great influence. In a videographed statement, they confessed to extortion, ransom-taking and threatening witnesses on Shah's behalf. Patel said he received Rs.70 lakh in ransom for Shah, to whom he had the money delivered.

The net started closing in on Shah. The BJP went ballistic once the CBI, apparently armed with formidable evidence, summoned Shah and filed a charge sheet against him and 14 others. It gratuitously decided to politicise the issue by terming the CBI Congress Bureau of Investigation and obfuscating the fact that it was the Supreme Court, and not the CBI, that had initiated the investigation. The BJP's charge sounded hollow and hypocritical not least because it has itself demanded CBI investigations into recent controversies, including the telecom scam. Shah went absconding for two days, setting a disgraceful precedent for a high functionary. The BJP's shrill anti-CBI campaign and its utterly unconvincing defence of Shah, including his flagrant violation of the rule of law that he was tasked to uphold, has badly dented its credibility and is probably eroding support within its core constituency the upper-caste urban middle class. After all, no other junior or senior Home Minister in any State has behaved so abominably.

Clearly, the BJP has little choice. It has elevated Narendra Modi to an exalted position as its top-most leader after L.K. Advani and as its principal mascot and star-campaigner. And Shah is Modi's most important protege, the only Minister who enjoys his full confidence. Modi personally inducted Shah into his team and allotted as many as 10 portfolios to him.

What Modi must fear

Personal proximity and loyalty apart, Modi has much to fear from a thorough and honest investigation into Shah's role in Sohrabuddin's killing and successful prosecution of the case.

First, if Shah is proved to have been complicit in the murders of Sohrabuddin, Kauser Bi and Prajapati and the subsequent cover-up, Modi will also be widely held morally and politically culpable. This will be extremely damaging, probably to the point of making Modi a political liability and an outcast for the BJP outside Gujarat, and putting paid to his possible bid for the Prime Minister's post, an ambition that Modi nurtures and which many BJP leaders endorse. Second, Modi's role was reportedly crucial in cases of postings and transfers of police officers who are believed by the CBI to be responsible for Kauser Bi's rape and murder and Prajapati's killing, a year later, and also in the cover-up.

Of pivotal importance here, were the transfer of Vanzara, credited with 15 encounter killings, as Deputy Inspector General, Border Range, just before Prajapati was killed, and the posting of O.P. Mathur as Ahmedabad's Police Commissioner. Mathur is accused of having erased a part of the record of an astounding 155 telephone calls between Shah and police officers such as Vanzara and Pandiyan. However, the CBI has a copy of the original record.

Third, the CBI reportedly has evidence of Modi's direct involvement in the Sohrabuddin cover-up through a file noting in which he gave instructions on the posting of police officers Abhay Chudasama and N.K. Amin to the SIT, headed by Inspector General Geeta Johri, just when it was about to investigate a crime in which the two were suspects ( The Times of India, August 2). The noting says: The composition of the SIT is being changed on the instructions of the Chief Minister. This was done to keep track of the direction of the investigation so that critical information could be leaked.

Thus, Prajapati was killed in a fake encounter just a day before Geeta Johri was supposed to question him. Geeta Johri was also put under pressure to take the probe in a wrong direction, according to CBI sources. She was told that her husband, an Indian Forest Service officer, would be charged under the Official Secrets Act unless she cooperates with the government. In a secret note, she complained to the Supreme Court of political pressure. Yet, eventually, she made a misleading report. The Supreme Court reprimanded her for not conducting the investigation in a fair manner.

Incontrovertible facts

Whatever the accuracy of the CBI's charges, four facts are incontrovertible. First, Shah, Vanzara and company ran a major extortion racket through which they collected sums such as Rs.70 lakh and Rs.40 lakh from businessmen and builders for dropping trumped-up charges implicating them. For instance, brothers Raman and Dashrath Patel have testified before a magistrate that they were implicated in a firing case and for hiring underworld operators to settle personal rivalries: To settle the matter, we paid Rs.60 lakh to Vanzara, Rs.40 lakh to Abhay Chudasama and Rs.70 lakh to Amitbhai Shah. Ajay Patel confirmed to the CBI that he received Rs.70 lakh in three instalments on Shah's behalf. There are similar allegations.

Second, Sohrabuddin regularly collected ransom on behalf of Shah and Vanzara but eventually got to know too much and had to be eliminated. Similarly, Kauser Bi and Prajapati were possibly witnesses to Sohrabuddin's abduction and killing and were killed. Amin, who has applied to become approver, could add further evidence and corroborate many details regarding this.

Third, the Gujarat Police cynically used nationalism and counterterrorism as a cover to commit sordid crimes. Appallingly, IPS officers took the lead. Perhaps in no other State have so many IPS officers been as criminally compromised as in Gujarat. Vanzara convened a press conference in November 2005 to announce that Sohrabuddin, a Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist, who planned to assassinate Modi, was killed in an encounter. This was part of an effort to build up Modi's image as a heroic fighter against terrorism and threats to the nation.

Fourth, Modi has demagogically tried to turn Shah's indictment into an issue of Gujarat's pride and accused the Centre of treating it like an enemy state. Modi and the BJP are playing for broke as they run their hysterical campaign with the utmost duplicity. It is hard to see how the public, including fence-sitters and BJP sympathisers, will not be repelled by this.

In 2002, the BJP regrettably escaped well-deserved political punishment and Modi, criminal prosecution for independent India's worst state-sponsored anti-Muslim violence. Justice demands that they are brought to book at least for the lesser crimes that followed. Gujarat will remain a benighted State as long as the BJP rules it with an amalgam of communalism, criminality and unparalleled venality. Gujarat deserves better. So does India.

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