13 February 2014
To pave the way for BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani’s national prime ministerial ambitions, the trail of blood which followed his Rath Yatra in 1989 and his signal contribution to the movement to violently pull down the Babri Masjid in 1992 were sought to be substantially erased from public memory by a systematic campaign of his re-invention as a moderate statesman. A similar exercise is feverishly under way to whitewash the hawkish and violent past of the BJP’s new prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi. Except for his core Hindu nationalist constituency, he is being reinvented as the messiah of market growth.
But the erasure of Mr Modi’s role in the brutal communal massacre of 2002 in Gujarat is even harder to accomplish. This is partly because until his meteoric rise on the national stage, he was proud rather than apologetic about the carnage which was accomplished during his stewardship. He led a ‘gaurav yatra’ or ‘procession of pride’ in the aftermath of the carnage which swept him to power. In his speeches then and over many years, he often taunted the Muslim people for their large families, and alleged their role in violence, terror and sympathy in Pakistan. He alluded to his own ‘chhapan chhaati’ or chest of 58 inches, suggesting his exceptional manly courage in taming the ‘enemy within’. He resolutely refused to express regret for the carnage, until again when propelled on the national stage, when he awkwardly said that if the car he was riding in (but not driving) ran over even a puppy, he would feel anguished.
Given his own discourse until recently of barely suppressed triumphalism surrounding the carnage of 2002, his transition to secular statesmanship required an exceptionally wilful flight of fancy among those who support him. Leaders of industry like Ratan Tata, the Ambani brothers and Sunil Mittal applaud his leadership for market growth, rejecting the idea that his national ambitions are disqualified by his alleged role in one of the most brutal communal massacres after Independence. They counsel that we should focus on the ‘big picture’ of growth, as though the violent suppression of minorities is a minor blemish. Many European ambassadors are lining up at his door in the hope of participating in Gujarat’s growth story. All of them need a fig-leaf to cover the nakedness of their choices.
This fig-leaf came with the closure report filed by the Supreme Court appointed SIT (Special Investigation Team) which absolved Narendra Modi of any role in the carnage, concluding there was no ‘prosecutable evidence’ against the Chief Minister. These findings were endorsed by the ‘clean-chit’ given the lower court which heard Zakia Jafri’s petition of April 15, 2013 alleging a high-level conspiracy to manipulate the Godhra tragedy to organise and fuel the carnage which followed. The first name among the 59 accused in Zakia Jafri’s petition was of Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Zakia’s lawyer Mihir Desai argued in the court that the political head of the State, the Home Ministry and the administration were in full knowledge of and allowed the ‘build-up of aggressive and communal sentiments, violent mobilisation, including carrying of arms, and a general outpouring against the minority community…’ Relying on documents collected by the SIT itself, Zakia’s petition attempted to establish that there was a conspiracy at the senior-most levels of the state administration not just to generate hatred against Muslims, but also to target Muslim people and their property and religious places and ‘aid and abet this process by acts and omissions of persons liable under law to act otherwise.’
How much does the SIT’s closure report and the lower court’s ‘clean chit’ for Mr Modi really free him from any taint of the Gujarat carnage? At best, these suggest that there is not irrefutable evidence that the Chief Minister actually directed the slaughter of Muslims be allowed to continue, giving free rein to enraged ‘Hindus’ to violently vent their rage. The SIT chose not to give credence to the statements of one serving and one retired police officer. But Manoj Mitta in his carefully researched new book ‘The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra‘, demonstrates that the SIT treated its influential first accused with kid gloves, never registering an FIR against him, nor pinning him down on a number of questions such as his public statement on 27 Feb 2012 that the train burning in Godhra was a ‘pre-planned inhuman collective violent act of terrorism’, a claim which has not been borne out in the courts, and which fuelled public anger in the acts of mass revenge against Muslims which followed. It likewise did not question him about his claim that he first heard about the Gulbarg apartments massacre in which Ehsan Jafri lost his life at 8 in the evening of 28 Feb 2002, many hours after the slaughter, even though he was closely monitoring the events at the Circuit House Annexe just a few kilometres away from the Gulbarg apartments.
Senior advocate Raju Ramachandran, amicus curie appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate allegations of Narendra Modi’s complicity in the Gujarat riots, also disagreed with the conclusions of the SIT. His opinion reported to the Supreme Court is that ‘the offences which can be made out against Shri Modi, at this prima facie stage’ include ‘promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and acts prejudicial to (the) maintenance of harmony.’ He believes also that there were grounds not to dismiss the version of suspended police officer Sanjiv Bhatt out of hand by the SIT, that on February 27, 2002, hours after 58 passengers were set on fire in a train near the Godhra station, Mr Modi held a meeting at his residence with senior police officers and told them that Hindus should be allowed to ‘vent their anger.’ He states: ‘I disagree with the conclusion of the SIT that Shri Bhatt should be disbelieved at this stage itself. On the other hand, I am of the view that Shri Bhatt needs to be put through the test of cross-examination, as do the others who deny his presence’.
Mr Ramachandran also points to evidence that two senior ministers were placed in police control rooms on February 28, as the riots raged in Ahmedabad and across the state. The SIT did not find evidence that they interfered with the police’s independent functioning, but ‘There is the possibility that the very presence of these two ministers had a dampening effect on the senior police officials.’ He concludes, ‘While there is no direct material to show how and when the message of the Chief Minister was conveyed to the two ministers, the very presence of political personalities unconnected with the Home Portfolio at the Police Control Rooms is circumstantial evidence of the Chief Minister directing, requesting or allowing them to be present.’
Chief Minister Modi’s appointment of MLA Maya Kodnani as his Minister for Women and Child Welfare after she was charged with leading the mob which brutally killed more than a 100 people, including women and children, in Naroda Patiya, further suggests his active complicity and endorsement of the carnage. Maya Kodnani was subsequently convicted and punished with imprisonment for life for the mass hate crimes.
However, the guilt of Mr Modi in the carnage of 2002 should not hinge in the end on proving beyond doubt that he directed police officers to allow Hindus to ‘vent their anger’, or that his Ministers were obeying his commands by interfering in independent police functioning or leading murderous mobs. The fact that the carnage continued for not just days but weeks should be evidence of the criminal complicity of senior state authorities in the carnage, coupled with his intemperate statements and the parading of bodies of people killed in the train whi
ch further inflamed public anger. Similar guilt should be attached to those who allowed other communal carnages to continue, whether on the streets of Delhi in 1984 and Mumbai in 1992-93 or the killing fields of Nellie in 1983 and Bhagalpur in 1989.
The ‘clean chit’ given to Mr Modi is at best a technical clearance in the absence of cast-iron evidence that he actively and explicitly directed the carnage, although even this absolving of his direct guilt is disputed by experts. But there can be no doubt of his grave culpability for inflaming sectarian passions by holding Muslims guilty for an offence without evidence, and for the openly partisan actions of his government which facilitated the continuance of the murderous carnage for many dark days in 2002.