05, Sep 2022 | Hartosh Singh Bal
IN JUNE THIS YEAR, the Supreme Court dismissed charges of criminal conspiracy against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others in relation to the 2002 Gujarat violence. Immediately after the judgment, the Gujarat police arrested the activist Teesta Setalvad and RB Sreekumar, a former director general of the state police. Along with the former police officer Sanjiv Bhatt, who is already in jail, Setalvad and Sreekumar were accused in a first-information report, filed by a police official, of forgery and fabricating evidence, among other things, to implicate “innocent” people.
On 27 February 2002, the Sabarmati Express carrying Hindu karsevaks returning from Ayodhya, caught fire near the Godhra railway station. Gujarat witnessed intense communal violence for three days, which spilled over into the following months. Mobs killed over a thousand people, most of them Muslims. Many more people were injured, and over a hundred and fifty thousand people were displaced. Modi, who was the state’s chief minister at the time, faced severe condemnation both at home and internationally for his government’s inaction to stem the violence. The anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 remains a bloody stain on Modi’s career, despite his meteoric rise to political power.
Zakia Jafri, whose husband, the former Congress member of parliament Ehsan Jafri, was brutally murdered by a mob, filed a petition in 2006 against Modi and 63 others. The Supreme Court set up a special investigation team in 2008. The SIT submitted its closure report in 2012, rejecting criminal charges against Modi and the others for lack of “prosecutable evidence.” Apart from a protest petition, which is more than five hundred pages long, that she filed in 2013, Jafri filed another plea to the Supreme Court, in 2018, against its acceptance of the SIT report. The recent judgment, dismissing Jafri’s 2018 petition, has relied heavily on the investigations carried out by the SIT. The court expressed appreciation for the SIT’s “indefatigable work” and declared “that no fault can be found with the approach of the SIT.” It stated that the final SIT report, “discarding the allegations regarding larger criminal conspiracy (at the highest level),” was “backed by firm logic, expositing analytical mind and dealing with all aspects objectively.”
While it is the judges’ prerogative to choose to rely on the SIT report in reaching their conclusion, no court judgment can put the SIT report itself beyond public scrutiny. A detailed study of the report makes it difficult to agree with the claim that there was no fault in the SIT’s approach or that the report was indeed guided by objectivity or “firm logic.”
To begin with, even if the court, relying on the SIT report, has found no evidence of “a larger criminal conspiracy,” this is not the equivalent of absolving the Modi government for its conduct during the pogrom. The very fact that communal violence took place over a prolonged period is suggestive of command failure at the highest levels. This conclusion is further strengthened by the evidence gathered in the SIT report itself, which raises serious question about the actions and the intent of the Gujarat government during this period.
For instance, a look at the transfer of a number of officials who did their duty during the violence suggests a pattern. Good officers who contained the riots were posted out, while ineffective officers continued to remain in place. But the SIT chooses to dismiss this by claiming transfers are the prerogative of the government. This reasoning makes little sense in a case where the government itself is the accused.
A close reading of the report also does not support the idea that the policing failure was merely a case of the Gujarat government being overwhelmed by the suddenness and the extent of the violence. It suggests that, during the first two months, Muslims were so disproportionately targeted in police firing that this cannot be explained as mere chance.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government selectively chose to favour the appointment of public prosecutors from its allied organisation, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, even in cases where those accused belonged to the Sangh Parivar. During this period, Modi gave at least one interview that sought to explain the violence as a reaction and used dogwhistles about Muslims in his public speeches. The SIT glossed over these statements by repeating a meaningless clarification by Modi.
Further, the evidence gathered by the SIT in the immediate aftermath of the Godhra fire, regarding the handling of the dead bodies, suggests undue interference of the VHP in violation of all norms and even provides evidence of a funeral procession of 12 bodies during the day in Ahmedabad. But the SIT blames the handover of bodies to the VHP on a junior official and does not even discuss the procession.
Finally, the SIT report itself provides numerous instances where observations and allegations made by Sreekumar hold up. The SIT uses the fact that he was overlooked for a promotion to cast doubt on his credentials but omits to note that he was overlooked only after it became clear he was not willing to toe the government’s line on the 2002 violence.
The petitioner, then, had good reason to come to court and ask the judicial system to look into her allegations. But the Supreme Court judgment has instead chosen to come down hard on “disgruntled officials of the State of Gujarat alongwith others,” noting their “audacity to question the integrity of every functionary involved” and accusing them of keeping “the pot boiling, obviously, for ulterior design.” The judgment makes a forceful recommendation: “As a matter of fact, all those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.”
This observance has served as the basis for the FIR filed by the Gujarat police following which Sreekumar and Setalvad were arrested. But, surely, if the petitioners have good reasons for challenging and questioning the conduct of the government during the 2002 violence, it is difficult to agree with the court’s conclusions that there is an “ulterior design” at play.
Even when we set aside those documents that the SIT claims are forged and rely only on the evidence it has collected, there is enough reason to raise serious questions about the conduct of the Modi government in 2002. It also raises questions about the investigation’s methodology, which time and again undercuts the evidence the SIT has marshalled, often reaching conclusions that defy logic. Of the 32 allegations the SIT was tasked to investigate, I examine its handling of six that stand out as the most egregious.
THERE ARE AT LEAST two instances in which the SIT has examined statements about the 2002 violence made by Narendra Modi when he was chief minister. In both cases, it has taken Modi’s obfuscations at face value. The procedure followed by the SIT in this case flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s judgment that it dealt with “all aspects objectively.”
The first case involves an interview given by Modi to Zee News’s Sudhir Chaudhary, on 1 March 2002. According to the SIT, “as per his recollection,” Chaudhary questioned Modi about the Gulburg Society massacre, in which Ehsan Jafri was killed, along with many others. Chaudhary told the SIT that Modi “replied that the mob had reacted on account of private firing” by Jafri. “After refreshing his memory from the Editor’s Guild report, Shri Sudhir Chaudhary has stated that the Chief Minister was of the view that he neither wanted action nor reaction,” the report states. The document carries Chaudhary’s recollection of Modi’s answer about the widespread violence post Godhra: “Godhra mein jo parson hua, jahan par chalees mahilaon aur bachchon ko zinda jala diya is mein desh mein aur videsh mein sadma pahunchna swabhavik tha. Godhra ke is ilake ki criminal tendencies rahin hain. In logon ne pehle mahila teachers ka khoon kiya. Aur ab yeh jaghanya aparadh kiya hai jiski pratikriya ho rahi hai”—It is natural that what happened the day before yesterday in Godhra, where forty women and children were burnt alive, has shocked the country and the world. The people in that part of Godhra have had criminal tendencies. Earlier, these people had murdered women teachers. And now they have done this terrible crime, for which a reaction is underway.
Modi was also asked by the SIT about a statement he had given to the Times of India describing what had happened in Gujarat as “action-reaction.” Modi denied making that statement but he had said as much, and worse, in his Zee interview. Not only had he termed the brutal violence in Gujarat a “reaction,” he had also gone on to ascribe “criminal tendencies” to a group of people. This was hardly language that could be countenanced from a chief minister at a time when his own administration was unable to control the violence in the state.
The SIT later examined Modi over this interview. According to its report, Modi “stated that those who have read the history of Gujarat would definitely be aware that communal violence in Gujarat has a long history and the State had witnessed serious incidents of such communal violence.” Since it had been eight years since the interview, Modi claimed that “he did not recollect the exact words, but he had always appealed only and only for peace.” He added “that he had tried to appeal to the people to shun violence in straight and simple language. He had also stated that if his words cited in this question are considered in the correct perspective, then it would be evident that there is a very earnest appeal for people refraining from any kind of violence. He had denied all the allegations against him in this regard.” None of what Modi says here tallies with the statement he had made to Zee, a statement that even Chaudhary did not deny Modi made. The SIT made no attempts to examine Modi’s clarification, repeated it verbatim and then gave him a clean chit.
As for the actual interview, which would have settled the matter once and for all, the SIT report notes that “a requisition was sent” to Zee for a copy of the interview. “Despite two reminders and a notice” under Section 91 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which empowers the police to demand the handover of documents pertinent to an investigation, “the CD has not been made available,” the report says. Once again, the SIT leaves this as is, with no mention of whether Zee replied to the notice and no explanation of what, if any, action was initiated against the channel for noncompliance.
Another allegation concerns a speech Modi made at Becharaji, a temple town in Mehsana district, on 9 September 2002. “When we brought water in the month of Shravan, you feel bad,” Modi said. “When we spend money for the development of Bahucharaji also, you feel bad. What brother, should we run relief camps? Should I start children producing centers there? We want to achieve progress by pursuing the policy of family planning with determination. We are 5 and our 25!!! On whose name such a development is pursued? Can’t Gujarat implement family planning? Whose inhibitions are coming in our way? Which religious sect is coming in the way? Why money is not reaching to the poor? If some people go on producing children, the children will do cycle-puncture repair only?”
The allusions to relief camps as child-producing centres and opposition to family planning are Islamophobic dogwhistles that are so loud that no one can escape their implications. Yet the SIT goes on to conclude that Modi had “explained that the speech did not refer to any particular community or religion.” Modi told the SIT that “this was a political speech in which he has pointed out the increasing population of India and had remarked that ‘can’t Gujarat implement family planning?’ Shri Narendra Modi has claimed that his speech was distorted by some interested elements who had misinterpreted the same to suit their designs. He has also stated there were no riots or tension after his election speech. No criminality has come on record in respect of this aspect of allegation.”
The SIT did exactly what it had done in case of the Zee interview: it allowed Modi to evade responsibility by denying the straightforward implications of the speech he had made. This seems like a procedure that was designed not to get at the truth but to obfuscate it.
“THE FACT THAT VICTIMS of riots and police firings were predominantly of the Muslim community, will establish that the rioters, the administration, cohorts of the ruling party (BJP) were moving in collaboration for achieving the satanic objectives of the CM,” the SIT report states as one of the allegations. It goes on to refer to statistics provided by RB Sreekumar to the Navavati–Shah commission of inquiry that followed the pogrom.
The numbers listed by Sreekumar to back his allegation, in a report submitted to the government on 24 April 2002, make for stark reading:
the loss of life and property was heavily weighed against Muslims inasmuch as 636 Muslims were killed (including 91 killed in police firing) as against 181 Hindus, (76 killed in police firing). 329 Muslims injured as against 74 Hindus and loss of property of Muslims came to Rs 600 crores as against 40 crores to Hindus. It was also mentioned that in Ahmedabad City 278 Muslims were killed in the riots (including 57 killed in police firing) as against 91 Hindus (Including 30 persons killed in police action) Further, the figure amongst Muslims injured in Ahmedabad was 408 as against 329 Hindu victims of incidents of stabbing and arson.
The Ahmedabad police commissioner at the time, PC Pande, told the SIT that, “during the riots, it is difficult for the police to identify as to whether any individual belongs to a particular community.” Pande attempted to prove that there was no overt discrimination by pointing to one date: 28 February 2002. On this day, he said, the 17 people killed in police firing included 11 Hindus and six Muslims. “He has also stated,” the SIT adds, “that in the succeeding days, the retaliation started from the Muslim side also and therefore, wherever force was used by the police casualties resulted on both ‘the sides.’”
Pande also told the SIT that 442 people—113 Hindus and 329 Muslims—died between 28 February and 30 April. “These figures included over 100 dead in police firing and over 33 in private firing,” the report notes. “He has further stated that during this period 780 criminal cases were registered and 2862 persons arrested of whom 1755 were Hindus.” From this Pande concluded, “it is incorrect to say that the administration and police were moving in collaboration with the rioters and were targeting the persons from the minority community with an intention to achieve the alleged objective of the CM.”
This is subterfuge. You cannot use a single day’s statistics to counter a pattern that is available in data collected over a period of time extending into months. It is worth examining what Pande’s words do suggest. The overall figures for Ahmedabad given by Pande and Sreekumar are close approximates, given that Pande’s figures include the additional period of 24–30 April 2002. Interestingly, Pande’s figures do not give the overall breakup of the Muslim and Hindu dead due to police firing, choosing to conduct that analysis only for a single day.
If 11 Hindus and six Muslims were killed in police firing on the first day, then it suggests—if we take Sreekumar’s breakup of 30 Hindus and 57 Muslims for Ahmedabad—that at least 51 Muslims and 19 Hindus were killed in police firing in Ahmedabad between 1 March and 24 April. Again, if we go by Pande’s words and assume the police showed no discrimination, since they could not identify members of any particular community, then these numbers suggest Muslim mobs outnumbered Hindus by a ratio of five to two.
Even though Pande has claimed that more Muslims came out on the streets on subsequent days, this ratio is untenable. It is difficult to imagine how the SIT could take this at face value if it were dispassionately examining the evidence. We do not even have to look at the demographics of Ahmedabad or the testimony of eyewitnesses to challenge this claim. Given this ratio on the streets, it is impossible that, once we leave aside those killed by police firing and once again consider Sreekumar’s figures, the clashes resulted in 221 Muslims being killed as against 61 Hindus, or that 408 Muslims were injured against 329 Hindus in incidents of stabbing and arson.
When we examine Sreekumar’s numbers for the entire state, the figures suggest that, setting aside deaths caused by police firing, 545 Muslims and 105 Hindus were killed in the communal violence. This indicates that Hindu mobs far outnumbered Muslim ones. Given this, it is impossible to compute how 91 Muslims were killed in police firing as against only 76 Hindus, if the police was not actively choosing its targets.
To use a single data point as a counter to a data pattern collected over a longer period of time is an error that would not be allowed in any basic class of statistics. Simply put, the data leads to no other conclusion than the selective targeting of Muslims in police firing. This fact is further bolstered by a damning disclosure made by a superintendent of police about Gordhan Zadafia, Modi’s junior home minister at the time, who was keeping a tab on the number of Hindu and Muslim deaths.
MANY POLICE OFFICIALS WERE TRANSFERRED from field postings immediately after they had taken effective action to stop the violence in the areas under their jurisdiction. Among the officials was Rahul Sharma, Bhavnagar’s superintendent of police.
This is the situation Sharma described to the SIT:
Bhavnagar police had succeeded in controlling the communal riots by the evening of 02-03-2002. Shri Rahul Sharma has stated that Shri Gordhan Zadafia spoke to him over phone on 16-03-2002 and informed him that he had done a good job in controlling the communal riots but the ratio of deaths, as a result of police firing in the riots was not proper, i.e., more number of deaths of Hindus than Muslims. Shri Rahul Sharma has also slated that on 23-03-2002 a mosque was attacked by a riotous mob following which 21 persons were arrested and that he was pressurised by the local leaders to release them, to which he did not agree. As a result, of which he had difference of opinion with the Collector, IGP, Junagadh Range and DGP. Shri Rahul Sharma was transferred as DCP, Control Room, Ahmedabad City and he was relieved from the charge of post of SP, Bhavnagar from 26-03-2002.
Here is a serving police officer who goes on record to say that Zadafia was actually keeping tabs on the ratio of Muslim and Hindu deaths in police firing and that he was explicit about how the ratio was not skewing as intended—there were “more number of deaths of Hindus than Muslims.” This fact has a bearing on one of the key allegations the SIT had to consider: the question of police bias against Muslims. The SIT report chooses not to even engage with the claim. Instead, it simply says: “However, Shri Rahul Sharma has stated that he would not be able to comment on the circumstances that led to his transfer/posting from Bhavnagar to Ahmedabad City as transfer posting is the prerogative of the Government.”
The word “however” is itself indicative of the problem with how the SIT makes its case. Sharma was a serving police officer who could in no way impute motives to a government. What he could do was describe the circumstances that led to his transfer. The SIT asked him a question that he could not possibly answer in good faith and used that answer to summarily dismiss his testimony. Far from displaying “firm logic” or “analytical mind,” here too the SIT’s method suggests the suppression of an uncomfortable truth.
This becomes more glaring when we consider the testimony of Vivek Srivastava, another police officer. Srivastava told the SIT about an incident at a dargah outside Nakhatrana, a town in Kutch district. A Muslim family had been attacked by “sharp edged weapons.” In the subsequent investigations, a commandant of the home guard, who was affiliated to the BJP, was arrested. Srivastava told the SIT that “he got a few phone calls from the office of Home Minister and Chief Minister asking him about the details of the case and also as to whether there was adequate evidence against all the accused to which he confirmed that sufficient evidence was available against all the accused persons for effecting their arrest.” Towards the end of March 2002, he was transferred to a different post. “However, Shri Vivek Srivastava was unwilling to comment upon the reasons, as according to him, transfers were the prerogative of the Govt,” the SIT report states.
The SIT made no attempt to examine why the chief minister’s office and the home minister’s office were so interested in this case. Was it common for these offices to be calling about the evidence in every serious case relating to the violence?
Another testimony, by the police officer Satish Chandra Verma, bears witness to the same approach. Between 2003 and 2005, when Verma was posted as deputy inspector general at the Kutch–Bhuj headquarters, a criminal case registered in the Radhanpur police station was brought to his notice. In the communal violence that ensued after the Godhra incident, two Muslims had been reportedly killed in police firing. Shankar Chaudhary was the BJP legislator representing Radhanpur at the time. Verma told the SIT that “the death of these two Muslims by police firing was not substantiated by available evidence and instead evidence was available against private individuals including Shri Shankar Chaudhary, MLA for committing acts, which led to the death of these persons.” He added that he ordered Chaudhary’s arrest and was later transferred to Junagadh, as the principal of a police training institute. “However, Shri Verma has stated that he can not say that this transfer was a consequence of this aforesaid order,” the SIT notes. “He has also stated that he cannot call the post of Principal of a training institution unimportant.”
Based on these accounts, the SIT concludes that, even though the statements of Sharma, Srivastava, Verma and others “would go to show that though their transfers were immediately after certain events in their jurisdiction,” their admission that postings and transfers are the prerogative of the government meant that “the same cannot be linked to certain events that took place immediately before their transfers.” This is a non sequitur. The officers are duty-bound not to comment on the government’s intention. This can by no means lead to the conclusion that the transfers cannot be linked to certain events that took place immediately before them. In fact, the nature of statements where the officers mention specific incidents of the government being concerned about their actions is enough to substantiate the allegation the SIT was examining, not to dismiss it.
ANOTHER ALLEGATION THE SIT was tasked to investigate had to do with advocates associated with the Sangh Parivar being appointed as public prosecutors in cases pertaining to the communal violence. This allegation is of particular interest given that the SIT was investigating the possibility of a criminal conspiracy by those in power.
The SIT report lays out the procedure for the appointment of public prosecutors.
Enquiries revealed that the procedure for the appointment of a Public’ Prosecutor in a town is that the vacancy is notified by the Collector & District Magistrate in the local news papers. In response to the advertisement a number of eligible candidates are interviewed by a Board comprising Principal Sessions Judge and District Magistrate. Thereafter, a panel of three or four advocates selected by the Board is forwarded to the Govt. for the appointment of the Public Prosecutor. The Govt. exercises its own discretion, select and notify one of the empanelled candidates as a Public Prosecutor for a period of three years. It may thus be seen though the selection procedure is transparent yet the Govt. has got the discretion to appoint a particular lawyer out of the panel of 3-4 advocates forwarded to them.
After sifting through the backgrounds of the public prosecutors appointed through this process, the SIT concludes that, although it appeared that political affiliation had held weight in the selections, no specific allegations of the prosecutors “showing favour” to the accused, either during bail hearings or trials, had come to light. However, it is difficult to point to a specific favour in such a situation. It makes more sense to consider the overall impact on cases when there is a possible conflict of interest in the work of the prosecutors. Equally important is the fact that the SIT has been forced to admit there was intent in the government to favour those with a background in the VHP or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Having established this general intent, the SIT should have ensured that every act of the government at this time judged against this fact.
Given this, it becomes even more difficult to see how the SIT could have concluded there was no wrongdoing in the transfer of certain police officials. As we have seen above, in each case there was specific reason for a government inclined to favour the RSS and VHP to act against them. Once it has been established that the intent of the government is questionable, it is impossible to dismiss the charge simply by saying transfers are the prerogative of a government.
THE TRANSPORT OF THE GODHRA dead to Ahmedabad is another instance in which the Gujarat government was accused of obscuring its motivations. This allegation involved two charges: that the bodies of the Godhra dead had been handed over to the VHP and that they were subsequently brought to Ahmedabad with a view to parade them.
These are the facts collated by the SIT. On 27 February 2002, Jaydeep Patel, the VHP’s state general secretary, arrived at Godhra at 12.48 pm. That evening, between 8.03 and 9.15 pm, he remained in constant touch through phone calls with Zadafia. He also received calls from RJ Savani, the deputy commissioner of police, throughout the day. “The aforesaid call detail records establish that Shri Jaydeep Patel remained at Godhra till about 2358 hrs on 27-02-2002,” the report states. It establishes that the bodies were then officially handed over to Patel—the executive magistrate of Godhra, ML Nalvaya, “issued a letter addressed to Dr. Jaydeep Patel of VHP, in which he had mentioned that 54 dead bodies were being sent through five trucks.”
The report further elaborates:
One Shri Hasmukh T. Patel of Vishwa Hindu Parishad had acknowledged the dead bodies. It may be mentioned here that the handing over of the dead bodies to their legal heirs/guardians was the duty of the railway police, who had registered a case in connection with this incident. Shri M. L. Nalvaya has stated that these dead bodies were handed over officially to Shri Jaydeep Patel and Shri Hasmukh T. Patel of VHP as per the instruction given by Smt. Jayanti S. Ravi, DM and Late B. M. Damor, ADM, Godhra. Shri M. L. Nalvaya has filed an affidavit before Nanavati Commission of Inquiry to this effect on 05-09-2009.
This testimony implicating the district magistrate is undercut by the following sentence: “However Smt. Jayanti Ravi has stated that no such instructions were given to Shri Nalvaya to hand over the dead bodies to Shri Jaydeep Patel or Shri Hasmukh T. Patel of VHP and that Shri Jaydeep Patel was merely to accompany the dead bodies to Ahmedabad.”
Anyone who knows the Indian bureaucracy will find it difficult to believe that on a day when national attention was focused on Godhra, with the chief minister himself present and overseeing arrangements, an executive magistrate would act on his own. Even more astounding is that he should put this down on paper, all the while defying the instructions of the district magistrate. Further, Nalvaya’s testimony directly indicts Ravi and suggests that there is evidence that the bodies were formally handed over to the VHP. For the SIT to accept Ravi’s denial of giving Nalvaya instructions as final—when she is the one being indicted—cannot be easily reconciled with claims to logic and objectivity. Ravi also denied to the SIT that the decision to transport the dead to Ahmedabad by road was taken against her wishes, which was also one of the allegations.
The SIT report says that, “though a letter had been addressed by Shri M.L. Nalvaya in the name of Shri Jaydeep Patel of VHP and the dead bodies were acknowledged by Shri Hasmukh T. Patel of VHP, yet the dead bodies were escorted by the police upto Sola Civil Hospital, Ahmedabad situated on the outskirts of Ahmedabad City.” There, it adds, Patel “handed over the letter to the hospital authorities and the local police as well as the hospital authorities took charge of the dead bodies.”
The SIT argues that a police escort was provided to the convoy carrying the bodies after they were handed over to the VHP. It uses this technicality to suggest that no handover to the VHP actually took place and that it was Patel who happened to be accompanying the police, not the other way round. Again, this has to be read against the fact that the intent of the government to please and oblige the VHP, even when it went against the interests of impartiality and justice, has already been established by the SIT.
The SIT concludes:
the allegation that CM’s decision to bring the dead bodies of those killed in Godhra carnage to Ahmedabad was with a view to parade them in the City is not established. Further, the allegation that the dead bodies were handed over to Shri Jaydeep Patel, is also not established, inasmuch as he only accompanied the dead bodies from Godhra to Ahmedabad, and that the custody of the dead bodies remained with the police escort and thereafter with the Sola Civil Hospital Authorities, Administrative and Police authorities. The allegation that the dead bodies were transported to Ahmedabad against the wishes of Smt. Jayanti Ravi is proved to be incorrect. Shri M.L. Nalvaya Mamalatdar had acted in an irresponsible manner by issuing a letter in the name Shri Jaydeep Patel in token of having handed over the dead bodies, which were case property, is being dealt with departmentally for this lapse.
Even as all the evidence clearly shows the bodies were indeed handed over to Jaydeep Patel, the SIT also cites evidence about a procession of bodies through Ahmedabad on 28 February. The SIT report states that “twelve (12) charred dead bodies of Godhra carnage were brought to Ramol, Ahmedabad City from Sola Civil Hospital.” All of them were from the area, and officials made sure that the bodies were carried in vehicles and not on foot, “as the same would have escalated the tension,” the report says. The deputy commissioner of police, RJ Savani, “succeeded in persuading the relatives and the wellwishers of the deceased to take each body in a vehicle and the funeral procession was guarded by the police up to Hatkeshwar cremation ground, about 4 kms away from Ramol-Khokhra. The funeral was over by about 1400 hrs. and the crowd which had gathered on the highway dispersed thereafter.”
What this seems to suggest is that, sometime in the late morning or afternoon that day, a procession of 12 vehicles, each carrying a body, proceeded four kilometres through the streets of Ahmedabad while guarded by the police. Since the SIT makes no mention of this procession apart from in this paragraph, we are left in no position to decide what the impact of this procession was, what the nature of the vehicles carrying the bodies was and whether this amounted to a parade of the bodies.
RB SREEKUMAR IS A KEY FIGURE through much of the SIT report, and a great deal of it is devoted to examining the allegations that have surfaced due to official notes written by him while he was heading the state intelligence bureau and affidavits submitted by him before the Nanavati–Shah commission. In effect, the SIT report is, in part, a response to all the evidence that has been put forth by Sreekumar.
Sreekumar told the SIT that, between 9 April and 18 September 2002, he had sent to the government and the director general of police several reports that implicated supporters of the Sangh Parivar, demonstrated the anti-Muslim bias of government officials and showed “the general subversion of the Criminal Justice System.” One of these reports, titled “Current Communal Scenario in Ahmedabad City,” speaks of how “of late the minority community was found to be taking an increasingly belligerent postures as they felt themselves, as a section of population left at the total mercy of the radical communal elements of Bajrang Dal and VHP,” the SIT notes.
After listing the statistics on the number of Muslims and Hindus killed in the violence, the report goes on to elaborate what Sreekumar told the government. This makes for damning reading about the actions of leaders of the VHP and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal. The SIT does not mention that the BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal are allied organisations within the Sangh Parivar or that, in effect, Sreekumar, the serving head of the state intelligence wing, was indicting the government. Thus, it was a given that the government would begin taking a hostile stance towards his actions in the aftermath of the violence.
The report notes:
Shri Sreekumar had further observed that the Muslim Communities being the major victims of the riots had developed a major grudge against the Criminal Justice System, which they felt was highly biased against them. In addition, it was mentioned that the Muslims alleged that the police officers were not fair in recording the FIRs lodged by them inasmuch as they had used pressure tactics to dissuade the complainants from giving the complaints, reduced ingredients of an offence and sometimes the police officers themselves became the complainant and also omitted the names of specific accused persons with a view to favour them. Further, many different acts of crime pertaining to different transactions were clubbed together to register a single FIR … Shri Sreekumar had further mentioned that the majority of Muslims complained that the police officers avoided the arrest of Hindu leaders, though they had been named in the FIR.
Sreekumar’s report also suggested a number of concrete measures to deal with the issues he had raised. But Ashok Narayan, the additional chief secretary for home affairs at the time, told the SIT that the “letter contained general observations and concrete details were missing.” Narayan then discussed the matter with Sreekumar and asked him to “take action at his level as far as possible.” The report states that Narayan “does not recollect having shown or put up this letter to the Chief Minister.”
K Chakravarthi, the director general of police, told the SIT that most of points raised by Sreekumar had been “dealt with by him in the months of March and April 2002.” He said that the Ahmedabad police commissioner, PC Pande, had earlier sent a report about “the undesirable activities of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal in indulging in extortion of money and publishing/distributing pamphlets containing the elements of communal instigation,” and that he had shared this report with Narayan, “who said that he would bring it to the notice of the Govt.”
In subsequent reports, Sreekumar repeated some of these points and suggested that the annual Rath Yatra in Ahmedabad should not be taken out in July 2002. The government disagreed. By 20 August 2008, Sreekumar had written another letter stating that “the communal tension continued and the communal gap between Hindus and Muslims had widened to an unprecedented degree.” Narayan responded to this letter on behalf of the government, stating that Sreekumar’s assessment was “not in tune with the feedback received from other agencies like Revenue and District Officials.”
The SIT report notes that the file containing these letters could not be traced. “However, keeping in view the versions of Shri Ashok Narayan and Shri K.Chakravarthi, the facts about Rath-Yatra and discussions that took place between ACS(Home) as well as reply sent to Shri R.B. Sreekumar … it cannot be said that no action had been taken on (the) letters.”
The report does not make any mention of the disappearance of the file, which would actually have contained notings, details of who saw the letters and the action taken in this regard. Neither does it mention what action was taken against the VHP and Bajrang Dal. In the convenient absence of the file, we only have the word of Narayan and Chakravarthi for the actions that followed the first letter. Given that the letter indicted the police force for the manner in which the law-and-order machinery was biased against Muslims, in effect, the testimonies of those accountable—the senior-most bureaucrat in the home ministry and the chief of the state police—are then used to dismiss its contents.
These same officers are invoked while dealing with another allegation based on what Sreekumar revealed, which is based in part on the same report that is no longer available on file. The state intelligence bureau had recommended that certain officers should be transferred. In a note to Narayan and Chakravarthi on 24 April, soon after he took over as the additional director general for intelligence, Sreekumar suggested “the replacement of the present incumbents from executive posts at the cutting edge level from those cities and districts, where police either remained inactive during the riots or played a collaborative role with the rioters.” But, according to Sreekumar’s affidavit to the Nanavati commission, the report notes, this was not done until the veteran police official KPS Gill arrived in the state. (Disclosure: The writer is related to Gill, but all the information used here is drawn directly from the SIT report.)
On 4 May 2002, Sreekumar told the SIT, Gill, who had been appointed as a security advisor to Modi, held a meeting with senior police officials. Besides Chakravarthi, Sreekumar and Pande, the attendees included Maniram, the additional director general for law and order, and MK Tandon, the joint commissioner of the Ahmedabad police. Chakravarthi and Pande “observed that the situation was normal due to effective police measures, but Maniram, who was responsible for maintaining Law & Order in the state, totally disagreed with their assessment,” Sreekumar said.
Sreekumar’s claim is backed by Maniram’s own statement to the SIT, in which he says that he informed Gill that “tension continued to prevail in Ahmedabad city amongst the Hindus and Muslims” and that the police officers “who were responsible for not preventing the riots resulting in loss of life and property in their jurisdiction should be transferred immediately irrespective of their status and good officers posted in their place.” Maniram also stated that “wherever effective officers had been posted,” such as Saurashtra and south Gujarat, “the Law & Order situation was under control.”
Sreekumar further testified that Gill had told him, on 8 May, that most police officers at decision-making levels in Ahmedabad would be transferred and replaced by a new team. In response, Chakravarthi said that, during initial discussions with Gill, he and Narayan “were given to understand that CM wanted to transfer the senior officers of Ahmedabad City and wanted alternate proposal.” Chakravarthi said he gave his suggestions to Narayan, who prepared a note that was approved by Modi, and the transfers came into force at the end of the first week of May. He added that “the matter relating to the shifting of jurisdictional officers was already under consideration and was not taken up at the insistence” of either Maniram or Sreekumar. “In view of this, the allegation of Shri Sreekumar that the transfers of the jurisdictional officers as suggested by State IB on 24-04-2002, were not carried out till the arrival of Shri K.P.S Gill, an Adviser to CM, is therefore, without any basis,” the SIT concludes.
This is not an obvious conclusion. In this case, Sreekumar’s version is backed by Maniram. Moreover, at the meeting where the transfers were suggested, Chakravarthi and Pande, who would be one of the officials transferred, claimed there was no issue with the policing in the state. If this was the director general’s view, how did he end up recommending the transfer of many senior officers shortly after?
There was a simple way in which this issue could have been resolved: by taking Gill’s testimony. But the SIT chose not to do so. In this context, the Supreme Court judgment states:
This analysis has been criticized amongst others on the ground that Mr. K.P.S. Gill has not been examined by the SIT. Non-examination of Mr. K.P.S. Gill by the SIT can have no adverse impact on the otherwise well-considered opinion arrived at by the SIT in the final report on this aspect. In any case, not translating the recommendation of SIB (dated 24.4.2002) into transfer order until end of first week of May, 2002, does not provide any direct link regarding the allegation of hatching larger criminal conspiracy at the highest level for causing or precipitating the violence across the State from February, 2002 onwards. Viewed thus, no fault can be found with the opinion of the SIT … The opinion of the SIT in this regard is a plausible view and had rightly commended to the Magistrate, as well as, the High Court.
But we are not seeking to determine whether there was a criminal conspiracy. Rather, we seek to determine what conclusions can be reached based on the evidence the SIT has marshalled. When we do so, we get a picture that strongly endorses Sreekumar’s version of a police force in collapse, biased against Muslims and ineffective in stopping the violence. It is only with the arrival of Gill that the transfers took place, in keeping with Sreekumar and Maniram’s advice, and, in fact, shortly after these changes, the communal violence in the state tapered off.
The case made out by Sreekumar against the Modi government does not end here, but, since the register he kept through this period has been called into question by the SIT, no reliance is placed on it in this report.
THE SIT HAS PUT on record a lot of evidence related to the 2002 Gujarat violence but has used that evidence to come to several unsound conclusions. It has repeatedly placed complete reliance on the very officials who would be held directly responsible for the failure of law and order in the state if those charges were established. In contrast, when Sreekumar’s testimony undermines the government’s narrative, he is treated as an unreliable witness whose words must be discounted.
The testimony of Shri R.B. Sreekumar is motivated inasmuch as he had started collecting data/evidence during posting as Addl. DG (Int.). Even subsequently, he clandestinely recorded his conversation with Shri G.C. Murmu, Home Secretary and Shri Arvind Pandya, Govt. Advocate before the Commission with a view to level the allegation of pressure tactics against him. He had also recorded his conversation with Shri Dinesh Kapadia, an under Secretary, Budget and Co-ordination in the Home Department to be utilized subsequently, as evidence against the Govt. Surprisingly, he kept all these things a well guarded secret till he was superseded in promotion in February, 2005 and made it public in his third affidavit filed before the Commission on 09-04-2005. All these actions on the part of Shri R.B. Sreekumar therefore, appear to be motivated.
This analysis completely ignores the fact that, from April 2002 onwards, Sreekumar had taken enormous risks to point out the failure of the police under the Modi administration as well as the immunity enjoyed by the VHP and Bajrang Dal. It would not be unsurprising for him to try and anticipate action by the government and prepare for it.
“As regards the allegation leveled by Sreekumar, that numerous illegal verbal instructions were given by CM and that he had maintained a register in this regard, Shri O.P. Mathur, the then IGP (Admn.), has stated that the register was totally blank on 18.04.2002, when he had certified the number of pages in the same and that Shri Sreekumar had not disclosed the purpose of maintaining such a register,” the report says. “According to Shri Mathur, the register did not contain the ‘secret’ stamp and also did not have any title as well as the circular stamp of the office of the Addl. DG, CID (Int.). According to Shri Mathur, Shri Sreekumar had recorded the first entry as on 16.04.2002, the second and third entries on 17.04.2002, and the fourth entry on 18.04.2002, which goes to show that Shri Sreekumar had not only antedated these entries, but also affixed the stamps subsequently.”
Interestingly, while the report has several statements given by Sreekumar to the SIT, there is not a single place where Sreekumar has been asked to clarify these charges. What the SIT has compiled is but his word against that of Mathur, a serving officer under the same government that the register indicts. Sreekumar is not given a chance to respond to Mathur’s claims.
Yet, at the same time, Sreekumar’s word is relied upon to dismiss the testimony of his co-accused Sanjiv Bhatt. The report cites a 2011 media interview in which Sreekumar said that Bhatt had never informed him about attending a meeting at Modi’s residence on 27 February 2002. It adds that Sreekumar “has further stated that at that time of filing an affidavit before Nanavati Shah Inquiry Commission, he had asked all the officers of State IB to provide him with the relevant information and documents in respect of Godhra riots but Shri Sanjiv Bhatt did not give him any information about the said meeting.”
In an earlier piece on the enquiry commissions into the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, I wrote about the reports of two commissions: “Each recorded testimonies from numerous victims and witnesses, and took depositions from some of those accused, including police officers who had been on duty in badly affected areas. Yet there is not just a complete mismatch between the testimonies recorded and the conclusions reached—the commissions’ own observations contradict their findings.” Similarly, here, the SIT has time and again attempted to dilute the seriousness of the evidence it has collected. Modi is allowed to get away with a clarification that does nothing to address the actual content of the interview he had given. Serious charges of the government moving to transfer those who had taken firm action during the violence and attempted to hold people from the Sangh Parivar responsible were dismissed by claiming that this was the government’s prerogative. The easy dismissal of the disproportionate number of Muslim casualties in police firing is even harder to accept. Going by these arguments, it would seem that the government can do no wrong.
The mandate of a commission of enquiry into communal violence, such as the Misra commission for 1984 or the Nanavati–Shah commission for 2002, differs greatly from the job entrusted to the SIT by the Supreme Court, which was to look into specific allegations. But the gap between the evidence collected and the conclusions reached is apparent in all of these.
It has been nearly four decades since the events of 1984, and two decades since the violence of 2002. In both cases, the person bearing overall responsibility for governance either held charge as prime minister, as in Rajiv Gandhi’s case, or went on to become prime minister, as with Modi. Both of them made public statements dismissing the gravity of the killings as a reaction and both benefitted from a subsequent election campaign built around dogwhistles about a minority. Even if we set aside the question of political culpability, how is it possible that no senior police officer has been taken to task for the force’s failure to tackle the violence?
Perhaps what we are now witnessing is a new step in the process of denial of justice. It is an irony that the director general of the Gujarat police and the police commissioner of Ahmedabad at the time of the pogrom have not spent a single day in jail for running a police force that managed to selectively target a disproportionate number of Muslims, while the man who took enormous personal risks to expose their failure is in jail. The experience of 1984 has not made our justice system better. It has made it worse. In the case of 1984, the state and the justice system were unable to provide satisfactory answers to the questions raised about the government’s conduct. With regard to 2002, have we reached a point where even the process of raising questions is being criminalised?
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan.
The original piece may be read here