Haunted by the past

Published : May 20, 2011 00:00 IST

A senior police officer's affidavit in the Supreme Court revives memories of the Gujarat carnage.

in New Delhi

ON April 22, 2011, the ladies' wing of the Southern Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry organised a women entrepreneurs' exhibition in Surat, where Hindi film actor Sherlyn Chopra was one of the guests. Speaking on the sidelines of the programme, the actor gushed that Chief Minister Narendra Modi is the most dynamic person she had ever met, and given a chance she would like to be his personal assistant. Sherlyn Chopra went on to add that Modi spoke with style and confidence and that he spoke all the time about progress and a shining India.

Other Modi fans, including many in the blogosphere, picked up the actor's statement to come up with laudatory comments highlighting how a range of personalities from different strata of society, from anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare to actor Sherlyn Chopra, were endorsing Modi, his politics and his style of functioning. The thematic premise of all this commendation was Modi's commitment to progress and development.

However, news that emerged that evening from New Delhi once again drew attention to certain areas of Modi's political personality that go beyond commitment to progress and development. The news was about the affidavit filed by a senior Gujarat police officer, Sanjiv Rajendra Bhatt, in the Supreme Court, accusing Modi of instigating Hindus in 2002 to teach a lesson to Muslims. This instigation, the affidavit asserted, preceded the genocide of Muslims in the State. Naturally, this served to bring down the excitement Chopra's praise generated.

This sequence of events, which unfolded over a period of around eight hours, signified a roller coaster of sorts for the Modi image. This is not the first time Modi has found himself in such a situation. Time and again, the Gujarat Chief Minister and his supporters have sought to underplay or even obliterate his association with the 2002 carnage and present him as the leader who created a new, progress-oriented Gujarat, which is waiting to be replicated at the national level under his consummate leadership. Such has been the force of the campaign that it packs sustained assertions that even large sections of the Muslim minority community are now Modi supporters on account of his development initiatives.

It is not as though this campaign has not had its successes. It has indeed spread far and wide, particularly among a section of the urban middle class. Despite all that, Modi's role in the 2002 carnage has come back to haunt him and his Hindutva-oriented political organisation repeatedly in one forum or the other. The unambiguous message from each of these episodes has been that Modi and his party will find it impossible to live down the Gujarat carnage however much they may try.

In fact, references to the carnage have come up most forcefully when Modi and his supporters have sought to advance the development man image aggressively. The BJP's National Executive meeting held in Patna in June 2010 is a case in point. A number of his close supporters had earmarked this conclave as the starting point of an aggressive campaign to project him as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). As part of this campaign, advertisements were placed in several newspapers in Bihar extolling Modi's governance skills and personal virtues. These hailed him as a model administrator whose record in Gujarat was worthy of emulation in Bihar and the rest of the country. The message was clear: here is your future Prime Minister.

One advertisement made a special reference to Gujarat's contribution towards relief work for the victims of the floods in the Kosi river and went on to suggest that Modi had taken care to wipe Bihar's tears too when the State suffered.

Another full page advertisement had the picture of Muslim girls in burqas working on computers and the slogan that the Muslim community in Gujarat was advancing much faster than in other parts of India. Barely a day after the publication of the advertisement, it was revealed that the picture was actually taken from a college in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. In others words, it was a blatant trick.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar made his displeasure clear at what was going on. He perceived the advertisement relating to the Kosi floods as a direct affront and a challenge to his own administrative skills. As regards the advertisement with the picture of Muslim girls, he lampooned it as a third-rate gimmick. The Janata Dal (United) leader even went to the extent of cancelling the dinner he had planned in honour of his NDA ally's leadership. A couple of days later Nitish Kumar also returned to the Gujarat government the Rs.5 crore grant it had given for flood relief.

Nitish Kumar followed this up with instructions that Modi should not come to campaign in Bihar during the Assembly elections, which were held in October-November 2010. His contention was that Modi's presence would alienate the considerable Muslim support base that the JD(U) had in the State. He also highlighted the advertisement trick using a photograph of Muslim girls to buttress his argument. Ultimately, Modi and the BJP were forced to comply with this direction.

Modi's anti-minority image once again came into sharp focus during the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the Sohrabuddin Sheikh Murder case and particularly after the July 2010 arrest of Amit Shah, his trusted associate and the then Minister of State for Home. Shah was the first Minister to be arrested in the country in a case of fake encounter.

Revelations that a senior Minister of Modi's Cabinet had allegedly taken part in organising an encounter killing of a small-time criminal and his wife, who had no role in any crime, brought back memories of the 2002 carnage and Modi's alleged complicity in it.

All these developments, which signified the return of the 2002 carnage as a major point of discussion in the polity, did cause problems and place impediments in the assiduous image-building exercise that Modi and his associates undertook.

The latest in this series, Sanjiv Bhatt's affidavit, delineates Modi's alleged complicity in the 2002 carnage in concrete terms. Social activists who have tried to bring justice to the victims and survivors of the carnage over the past nine years believe that Bhatt's affidavit will impart greater strength to the legal points against Modi with regard to his alleged involvement in the carnage.

Call of conscience

Social activist Teesta Setalvad, who has been in the forefront of efforts to bring justice to the riot victims and survivors, points out that from time to time conscientious people have decided to end their silence on the carnage and come out with what they know. Bhatt's action also needs to be seen in this light, she told Frontline (see interview).

At a broader level, the revelations that have harked back to the 2002 carnage have also underlined the general anti-Muslim thrust of the politics and policies of Narendra Modi and his government. Bhatt's affidavit has brought into sharp focus this thrust. An important point of discussion has been a recent study on Relative Development of Gujarat and Socio-Religious Differentials carried out by Dr Abusaleh Shariff, Chief Economist of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and member-secretary of the Sachar Committee, which prepared a comprehensive report on the state of Muslims in the country.

Shariff's study points out that Gujarat's Muslims fare badly on parameters of poverty, hunger, education and vulnerability on security issues. According to the study, levels of hunger are as high in Gujarat as they are in Orissa and Bihar. It also points out that the poverty of Gujarat's Muslims is eight times more than that of high-caste Hindus and 50 per cent more than that of Other Backward Class (OBC) communities. Twelve per cent of the Muslims have bank accounts, but only 2.6 per cent get bank loans.


The study also states that Muslims in Gujarat face high levels of discrimination, even in their enrolment for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). In the context of this study, questions have also been raised about Gujarat's claims about vibrant growth in other areas such as infrastructure development and industrialisation.

In the midst of all this, Modi and his associates have sought to launch a strong counter-attack against Bhatt, highlighting the senior police officer's alleged misdemeanours in service. Central to this counter-attack are certain official proceedings against Sanjiv Bhatt, which allege a recruitment scam while he was chairman of a district police recruitment board.

It is pointed out that Bhatt was charge-sheeted on December 12, 2010, as part of a departmental inquiry into police recruitment that took place in May 1996. It is also pointed out that through a Confidential Memorandum, the Home Department had served a show-cause notice on Bhatt on December 29, 2010. A case that came up against him in Rajasthan is also highlighted as part of the counter-attack. It involves allegations by a section of lawyers of Rajasthan that Bhatt had falsely implicated one of their colleagues in a narcotics case in 1996. Bhatt was charge-sheeted in this case by the Rajasthan Police's Crime Branch before a trial court in Jodhpur on April 13, 2000. The IPS officer's appeal against the charges is pending before the Supreme Court.

The argument of the BJP leadership, as also Modi's supporters, is that Bhatt has sought to implicate Modi in the 2002 carnage only to cover up his own culpability in many cases and escape punishment. In any case, an officer who has been thus implicated and charge-sheeted has no moral authority to raise charges against the Chief Minister. We are sure that his affidavit will not stand up to a good judicial scrutiny, Prakash Javadekar, BJP spokesperson, told Frontline.

Notwithstanding such assertions, the fact remains that the return of the ghost of the 2002 Gujarat carnage signifies yet another round of political battles and legal wrangling for the BJP, and particularly for Narendra Modi, who continues to cherish an elevation to the top leadership in national politics before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

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