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Time to answer

Print edition : Apr 23, 2010 T+T-
in Ahmedabad

The will he wont he suspense eventually ended on March 27 when Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi presented himself before the Special Investigation Team (SIT) to be interrogated for his alleged complicity in the 2002 riots.

For a man who holds such a high office and, more importantly, is known for his power and control, this was a humbling experience. He is the first Chief Minister in the country to have been questioned on a criminal complaint. He is accused of aiding and abetting riots in Gulberg Society, a residential colony in Ahmedabad, where 68 people were killed in a mob attack on February 28, 2002.

Modi has been indicted in a petition filed by Zakia Jafri, whose husband Ehsan Jafri, a former Congress Member of Parliament, was killed in the attack on Gulberg Society. Zakia Jafri has accused Modi and 62 others of instructing officials not to heed cries for help by Muslims during the riots. She says her husband made frantic calls to Modi and several police officers and politicians, but no one came to their aid. She believes that the attack on Gulberg Society was a planned one and that her husband was targeted.

Until Modi reached the SIT headquarters in Gandhinagar, there was no confirmation whether he would actually make it. However, around noon a convoy of vehicles carrying the Chief Minister and his entourage arrived at the SIT office. He went in for questioning and did not emerge until a little past 5 p.m. He came back a few hours later for a second session, which went on past midnight.

For those who have been fighting a tireless battle to seek justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots, the fact that Modi was questioned for almost nine hours indicates that the SIT does mean business and also perhaps that the Chief Minister has a lot to explain. It is true that some politicians, such as Maya Kodnani and Jayesh Patel, have been brought to book for their involvement in the riots, but they are relatively small fry.

Teesta Setalvad, who heads the Committee for Justice and Peace (CJP) and has been working for the past eight years on several cases connected to the 2002 riots, including Zakia Jafris, says: This is a significant step in many ways. To begin with it would be the first time a sitting Chief Minister has been accused and interrogated for a crime such as mass murder. Secondly it is finally a beginning in the long road to justice. What is even more important in this case is that the victims surviving family has been central to the legal process.

Failure on the part of Modi to rebut the allegations will enable the SIT to recommend that a first information report (FIR) be filed against him. If an FIR is filed, Modi could be questioned again under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and, more importantly, could face arrest. Many organisations such as the CJP and individuals such as Zakia Jafri have been asking why an FIR has not already been filed, given that there is plenty of evidence to implicate him.

The SIT, appointed by the Supreme Court, says it is currently not in a legal position to reveal any information on the questions put to Modi or on his answers. The SIT chief, R.K Raghavan, however, said that the Chief Ministers interrogation was a major step in unravelling mysteries. According to him, Modi may be called back for questioning if the SIT finds any grey areas in the responses. The Supreme Court has asked for the report by April 30, and Raghavan is determined to complete the interrogation by then.

If Modi was shaken, he did not show it. When he walked out after the first round of questioning, he told the media that he had answered most questions but since he preferred to complete the process in a single day he would come back. He said he was taking a break and was giving the SIT some time to do its homework.

He added: My appearance here is a karara jawab [fitting reply] to my detractors. I have given a proper reply to those who doubted my intentions. I hope such talks by vested interests will stop.

We spoke in detail, he said, adding: Under the Indian Constitution, the law is supreme. As a common man and CM, I am bound by the Indian Constitution and law. No one can be above the law.

Raghavan said that Modis questioning was part of a preliminary inquiry to determine whether the allegations made by Zakia Jafri constituted a prima facie case and warranted a formal investigation under the CrPC against Modi and the other accused.

Raghavan added that Zakia Jafris complaint also pointed to the polices failure to protect members of the minority community and their inefficiency in conducting a proper investigation, recording evidence and taking cases to trial. She has stated that witnesses have been intimidated and that the public prosecutors appointed for the riot cases are biased and have links with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Raghavan said the SIT would look into these allegations.

The SIT chief said that neither he nor any officer from Gujarat was involved in the interrogation process. Protocol kept Raghavan out, while accusations of partisanship kept the Gujarat officers out.

Modi will also be questioned on his incendiary speeches in the lead-up to the Gujarat Assembly elections in 2002.

Achyut Yagnik from the Ahmedabad-based Centre for Social Knowledge and Action said that Modis questioning was also significant because of the precedent it has established. When there is a breakdown in the state machinery, there has to be some accountability and the Supreme Court has established this. This is the majesty of the Indian republic, he said. Even if he is proven not guilty, at least it has established that a Chief Minister has to appear before the law. Nine hours and 68 questions is not a joke.

Speaking to Frontline (see interview), Zakia Jafri said: Let us see what he says. If he admits to his guilt, that itself would be a punishment for someone like him.

With the summoning and subsequent interrogation of Modi, she believes that the process of justice has begun not just for her family but for the thousands who lost their loved ones in 2002.

Ever since the 2002 pogrom, Modi has made every effort to distance himself from what is now a huge blot on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as the countrys history.

Close to 1,500 people lost their lives in the days of rioting that followed the burning of a coach of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra, in which 59 kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya died. The investigation into the Godhra incident and the Gujarat riots has been going on for eight years.

With Modis questioning, the determined battle waged by activists and affected families finally seems to have borne some results.