Readers unfamiliar with what happened in Gujarat at the time might be forgiven for believing the Gulberg society convictions are the result of Modi’s ceaseless quest for justice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

modi 2002 dd

Screengrab from Narendra Modi’s televised appeal for calm during the 2002 riots. Though the Gulberg society and Naroda Patiya massacres had already taken place in which four times as many people had been killed compared to the Godhra train killings, Modi referred only to the Godhra train incident and promised that the culprits would be severely punished. Credit: YouTube

For a government that believes in reminding us of the sin of “mass murder” committed by rulers going back five centuries, the guilty verdicts handed down for the massacre of 69 people at the Gulberg housing society in Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002, couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time. As a leader, he evokes strong feelings in people. Many believe he can do no wrong. Some believe he can do no right. Did the killings on February 28, 2002, happen because he willed it? A Supreme Court-mandated probe concluded that he did not. Those findings are under appeal and we can do no more than wait for the higher courts to rule on the matter.

But did Modi the chief minister do everything in his power to prevent the killings? The body count that day suggests he did not. And if he did try to save lives during the riots – I mean really, really try – the best that we can say is that his administrative abilities are not what he says they are.

Action and reaction

In the 14 years since then, Modi has only spoken twice about what happened at the Gulberg housing society. The first time was in an interview to Zee TV on March 1, 2002, just a day after the massacre. The second time was during his interrogation by the special investigation team (SIT) set up by the Supreme Court to examine the role of the chief minister and other senior officials – a demand that was made by Zakia Jafri, widow of former MP and prominent Gulberg society resident,  Ehsan Jafri, who was killed by the mob on February 28.

In both instances, his words are worth recalling.

To Zee TV, Modi cited press reports that Jafri had opened fire on the mob outside the housing society’s gates. Jafri’s ‘action’ of firing, Modi said, had angered the mob, leading to a ‘reaction’ in the form of the massacre. ‘Kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai. Hum chahate hain ki na kriya ho aur na pratikriya. (“What is happening is a chain of action and reaction. What I want is that there should be no action and no reaction”).

He then linked the riots to the original “action” at Godhra, in which train passengers had been killed on February 27, 2002:

“Godhra main jo purso hua, jaha par 40 mahilaon aur bachon ko zinda jala diya, is mein desh mein aur videsh mein sadma pahuchna swabhavik tha. Godhra ke is ilake ke logon ki criminal tendencies rahe hain, in logon ne pehle mahila teacher ka khoon kiya aur ab ye jaghanya apradh kiya hai jiski pratikriya ho rahi hai.” (“It is natural that what happened in Godhra day before yesterday, 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 going on.”)

Confronted with this damning ‘action-reaction’ theory by the SIT in 2010, Modi, who was still chief minister, said this by way of explanation:

“Those who have read the history of Gujarat would definitely be aware that communal violence in Gujarat has a very old history. Since long and even before my birth, Gujarat has witnessed series of incidents of such communal violence. As per available history, from 1714 AD to up till now, in Gujarat, thousands of incidents of communal violence have been recorded.

“So far as the Zee TV interview of 1st March 2002 is concerned, today, after a period of eight years, I do not recollect the exact words. But I had always appealed only and only for peace. I had tried to convey to the people to shun violence in straight and simple language.

“If my words cited in this question are considered in the correct perspective, then it would be evident that there is a very earnest appeal for refraining from any kind of violence. I deny all the allegations levelled against me in this regard.”

The SIT also asked Modi whether it was true that Jafri had called him to ask for help. Several residents of the Gulberg housing society – including Rupa Modi, a Parsi woman whose 14-year-old son Azhar went missing that day and is presumed dead – testified in court in 2009 that Jafri told her and others he had “called up Modi but had received only abuses in return”.

Modi’s reply to the SIT on this point:

“In this connection I would like to add here that no such phone call had been received by me.” (emphasis added)

Could Jafri’s call have been answered by one of the chief minister’s aides? Sadly, the SIT did not ask a follow-up question on this point.

Astonishing claim

The SIT also asked Modi: “Did you receive any information about an attack by a mob on the Gulberg society? If so, when and through whom? What action did you take in the matter?”

To this, Modi replied:

To the best of my recollection, I was informed in the Law and Order review meeting held in the night about the attack on Gulberg society in the Meghaninagar area and Naroda Patiya.” (emphasis added)

By any yardstick, this is an astonishing claim. The violence in Ahmedabad had started in the morning and nearly 200 Muslims had been massacred at both locations by the afternoon. Yet Modi was saying that as chief minister, he first learned of these attacks only at night! Despite the fact that Modi prefaced his answer with the tell-tale caveat “to the best of my recollection”, the SIT chose to accept his version at face value rather examining its plausibility based on other evidence on record.

In his book, The Fiction of Fact-Finding, Manoj Mitta suggests that the reason Modi made this implausible claim was to protect himself from the charge of bias for speaking only about the specifics of the Godhra train incident in his televised address on Doordarshan that afternoon, and not making any reference to these two massacres. Since it is incontestable that his address was recorded after the violence at Gulberg society and Naroda Patiya had ended, says Mitta, the only way to justify his failure to talk about them despite the shocking death toll was to claim he learned about the violence late at night.

Since then, mercifully, Modi has made it a point to be briefed – and to act – on important developments in time.

Sabotaging justice

Beyond the question of legal culpability and administrative competence lies a third imponderable: If Modi indeed tried to save lives and failed – may be he meant well but was inexperienced – did he at least redeem himself by ensuring that those who committed the most heinous crimes in his state were punished? We know that Rajiv Gandhi failed this test following the November 1984 massacre of Sikhs, even if we assume for a moment that he too was powerless to stop the killings.

Readers unfamiliar with what happened in Gujarat at the time might be forgiven for believing the Gulberg society convictions are the result of Modi’s ceaseless quest for justice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In 2003, at a time when the BJP-led government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power at the Centre, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding that the Gulberg case, and cases stemming from other major incidents during the Gujarat riots, be moved outside the state. Why did the NHRC make this unusual demand? Because the trial of the accused in the Best Bakery riot case, in which 14 people were murdered, had ended in acquittals thanks to the shoddy prosecution mounted by the Gujarat police and government. This is what the NHRC’s petition said:

“Deeply concerned about the damage to the credibility of the criminal justice delivery system and negation of human rights of victims, the National Human Rights Commission, on consideration of the report of its team which was sent to Vadodara, has today filed a Special Leave Petition under Article 136 of the Constitution of India in the Supreme Court with a prayer to set aside the impugned judgement of the Trial Court in the Best Bakery case and sought directions for further investigation by an independent agency and retrial of the case in a competent court located outside the State of Gujarat…

“The Commission has also filed a separate application under Section 406 Cr.P.C. before the Supreme Court for transfer of four other serious cases, namely, the Godhra incident, Chamanpura (Gulberg society) incident, Naroda Patiya incident and the Sadarpura case in Mehsana district, for their trial outside the State of Gujarat.”

Rahul Sharma, a Gujarat cadre police officer who acted to protect Muslims in Bhavnagar where he was posted, has testified on oath before the Nanavati Commission set up by the Modi government in Gujarat about how the police in Ahmedabad did their best in the aftermath of the riots to sabotage the investigation and prosecution of cases. As DCP (control room), he examined the chargesheet for the Gulberg case (which stated that the violence happened because Jafri fired on the mob), and found that this was inconsistent with the FIR. When he pointed this out to his superiors, he was soon transferred out. To this day, he is paying the price for going against the Modi government’s official line.

Although the Supreme Court stayed the ongoing trials in Gujarat in these cases in 2003, it took another five years to order the setting up of a special investigation team (SIT) headed by R.K. Raghavan. The court declined to move the trials outside the state but tasked the SIT with reinvestigating 14 of the worst incidents, including Gulberg society. In 2009, the apex court lifted its stay and ordered the SIT to directly oversee the prosecutions. In other words, even seven years after the riots, it was clear to the Supreme Court that Modi, as chief minister, could not be entrusted with the task of prosecuting these cases.