The ghosts of the 2002 communal pogrom keep haunting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
AS much as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi tries to push them away, the ghosts of the 2002 pogrom come back to haunt him over and over again. It has been a rough few months for Modi, who is battling detractors, including police officers and politicians he considers his staunch enemies.
August has been a particularly eventful month for Modi, who now distances himself from the worst communal riots the country has seen in recent times. To begin with, two high-profile cases came up, involving senior police officers Sanjiv Bhatt and Rahul Sharma, who reportedly have substantial evidence to show that key politicians were responsible for orchestrating much of the violence. Another officer, Rajneesh Rai, filed an affidavit alleging that some senior police officers in Gujarat sabotaged the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case.
On August 29, Modi was dealt a severe blow when the Gujarat High Court acquitted 12 Muslims charged with murdering Bharatiya Janata Party Minister Haren Pandya. Modi has been insisting for 11 years that Pandya's assassination was a revenge killing by Muslims. Modi's detractors, however, allege politics was a more likely motive. Modi and Pandya's rivalry was well known, particularly after a public spat in which Pandya refused to give up his Ellisbridge seat to Modi in the State Assembly elections.
And if Pandya's case was not bad enough, Modi's bte noire Sanjay Joshi was re-inducted into the BJP by senior leaders to manage Uttar Pradesh. Joshi's popularly in Gujarat apparently threatened Modi. In 2005, a controversy erupted when a CD suddenly surfaced with images of Joshi, a bachelor, with an unidentified woman. Joshi resigned as party general secretary over the controversy and has since been attempting to make a comeback.The Police
In March this year, Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Sanjiv Bhatt of the Gujarat cadre filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that the Chief Minister had held a meeting on February 27, 2002, a day before the communal carnage started, and ordered officials to go slow on rioters in other words close their eyes to the violence that would unfold. Bhatt claimed he was personally present when Modi issued these orders. According to Bhatt, he directed the senior police officers to allow the Hindus to vent their ire on the Muslims in the aftermath of the Godhra train fire.
Meanwhile, former Gujarat Home Secretary K. Nityanandam and former Additional Principal Secretary Anil Mukim told the Nanavati-Mehta Commission probing the 2002 riots that Bhatt was not present at Modi's residence on the night of February 27, 2002. They said they were there and were certain that he was not.
Since then, Bhatt has had several run-ins with the Modi government. Following the affidavit, Modi's team resurrected a 21-year-old custodial death case in which Bhatt was allegedly involved. When Bhatt failed to appear in court in early August for the hearing, suspension papers were sent to him.
Senior IPS officer Rahul Sharma was the Deputy Commissioner of Police in the Control Room in Ahmedabad when the 2002 riots erupted across Gujarat. Sharma was asked to assist in the investigation into the massacre at Naroda Patiya in Ahmedabad during the riots. During the course of the probe, he reportedly collected records of thousands of hours of phone calls between police officers, bureaucrats and key politicians during the two most violent days of the riots.
The data are supposed to be explosive. Informed sources say the location records of calls, which show where the people concerned were at a given time when a call was made, could provide clinching evidence in nailing the perpetrators of the 2002 pogrom.
The phone records collected by Sharma for the period between February 27 and March 4 in 2002 evidently show that after the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra and during the riots, the rioters were in touch with policemen and politicians. These conversations apparently shatter the theory that the riots were a spontaneous reaction to the burning of the train that was carrying kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya. The phone calls indicate that the violence was planned and that the police were instructed not to take calls from those who were being attacked.
Sharma submitted his findings to the Nanavati Commission and later to the Supreme Court. It was when the records of the calls came into the public domain in 2010 that the Committee for Justice and Peace (CJP), which has been fighting for justice for the riot victims, accessed the phone records and analysed the data. It believes that the evidence is crucial to the Special Investigation Team's (SIT) investigation and that the material can be used as corroboratory evidence.
The activist Teesta Setalvad is convinced that the information gained from the location records can help in charging those culpable for the pogrom. These data are explosive and if they are accepted, several of the accused will be left with little defence. Furthermore, many of those who are responsible for the atrocities committed on Muslims and who are not yet in the SIT net could be captured with this evidence, she said.
By now, several cases prove that Modi has no tolerance for officers who go against him. And in vintage Modi style, he uses the law to his advantage to persecute those who go against him. In February this year, Sharma was served a show-cause notice and asked why he should not be charge-sheeted for collecting the data when he was not authorised to do so.
Sharma took on the State government by demanding documents under the Right to Information Act, to prove that he had not done anything illegal or out of his jurisdiction. However, the Gujarat High Court rejected his writ petition asking for documents to prove his case. A day later, on August 13, the officer was charge-sheeted.
The Congress has slammed the charge-sheeting. Ambika Soni, Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, said, The BJP government in Gujarat is stifling all opinion that goes against them.
Party spokesperson Manish Tiwari said, The Gujarat government is pulling out all stops to see that the truth about the Gujarat massacre remains buried forever. We had earlier pointed out that the allegations made by Sanjiv Bhatt are extremely serious in nature because they deal with obstruction of justice.
Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram recently accused the Gujarat government of persecuting IPS officers and said that until the officers took the matter to the Centre there was little he could do.Political foes
Undoubtedly, Haren Pandya was a thorn in Modi's side. He was a staunch supporter of Keshubhai Patel, a colleague in the State BJP with whom Modi has not had very warm relations. Pandya and Modi had bitter differences, mainly over the Ellisbridge constituency which Modi believed was a safe BJP seat and felt Pandya should let him contest from it. Pandya refused. Although Pandya supposedly played a significant role in orchestrating the riots once they started, he was never rewarded for that. In fact, he was not given the party ticket to contest the 2002 Assembly elections and was further sidelined when the BJP came to power.
Pandya's murder in 2002 came soon after the riots and most people were convinced it was a vendetta killing in response to his active participation in the murder of more than 1,000 Muslims. Gunmen led by one Asghar Ali reportedly stopped his car and shot him in broad daylight. A dozen men, mostly from Hyderabad, were convicted for the murder.
On August 29, 2011, a Division Bench of the Gujarat High Court dropped the murder charges (under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code) against all of them, noting that the prosecution had failed to prove the commission of murder by the accused beyond doubt and that the investigation was botched up. However, the Division Bench retained all the other charges, including those under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), Section 307 of the IPC (attempt to murder) and Section 120-B (criminal conspiracy).
The POTA court had given the life sentence to Asghar Ali. The Bench reduced the sentence to seven years' rigorous imprisonment in the case of Asghar Ali. For the remaining 11, the sentences were reduced to the period they have already spent in jails.
The two judges said the investigating officers ought to be held accountable for their ineptitude resulting in injustice, harassment of many persons and enormous waste of public resources and time of the courts. The judgment, they said, was based completely on scientific evidence. An activist said that the judge presiding over the POTA court had convicted these men on the basis of just one eyewitness account. We have maintained from the beginning that it was a political murder, not vengeance by Muslims over the Gujarat communal carnage as claimed and projected by the government, said Asaduddin Owaisi, a Member of Parliament from Hyderabad.
Owaisi, who helped the accused from Hyderabad fight the eight-year-long legal battle, said: Now there are bigger questions that have to be answered. Why did the government of Andhra Pradesh cooperate in the conspiracy hatched by the Narendra Modi government to make people from Hyderabad accused in cases that had nothing to do with them? The other question is about the biased investigation carried out by the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation]. The UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government should find out why the CBI officials followed the local police line in this case, he said. I don't know whether the scars of accusations and trial will ever heal.
The implications of the judgment for Modi are still unclear. It does perhaps vindicate the stand that maybe Pandya was not murdered by Muslims and there could be a larger agenda behind the killing. The timing worked for the conspirators as the riots had just taken place and elections were looming large.
Meanwhile, another salvo has been fired at Modi in the form of the appointment of a Lokayukta by Gujarat Governor Kamla Beniwal. The BJP has called it undemocratic and has accused Kamla Beniwal of violating the federal structure. Are Modi's days numbered? For now it appears he will remain a big fish in a small pond. But the writing is clearly on the wall.