Frontline May, 2013

A protest petition filed by Zakia Jafri weaves together evidence, from contemporaneous phone and police control room records, pointing to the role of the powers that be in manipulating the Godhra incident to plan the violence against the Muslim community. By TEESTA SETALVAD

Criminal conspiracy under the law is defined as an agreement between at least two persons to commit one or more illegal acts or acts by illegal means. By its criminal intent, such a conspiracy is masterminded under a cloak of secrecy. When, and if, such a conspiracy involves a powerful, constitutionally elected head of a state, it is unlikely that the masterminding of such a series of dastardly criminal acts will be closely recorded (minuted).

The first, sharp indication that the series of acts of commission and omission by the Gujarat government under its Chief Minister in 2002, following the tragedy at Godhra, came in succinct terms from the former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma, who was heading the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC): “The Commission would like to observe at this stage that it is the primary and inescapable responsibility of the State to protect the right to life, liberty, equality and dignity of all of those who constitute it. It is also the responsibility of the State to ensure that such rights are not violated either through overt acts, or through abetment or negligence. It is a clear and emerging principle of human rights jurisprudence that the State is responsible not only for the acts of its own agents, but also for the acts of non-State players acting within its jurisdiction. The State is, in addition, responsible for any inaction that may cause or facilitate the violation of human rights” (Interim and final reports, 2002). The NHRC was also scathing in its observations regarding the blatantly discriminatory governance displayed by the government of the day —differential rates of compensation and an obdurate refusal to visit the relief camps (1,68,000 persons were forcibly displaced because of the violence and arson) where innocent members of the minority community were housed, having been made to “pay” for the “heinous” crime at Godhra.

The report of the Concerned Citizens Tribunal (Crimes Against Humanity—Gujarat 2002), headed by Justices V.R. Krishna Iyer, P.B. Sawant and Hosbet Suresh, further detailed the gruesome conspiracy, making sharp and telling recommendations. While these reports were being documented, in parallel, chilling corroboration of the depth of the planning behind the perpetrated violence came from serving Indian Police Service (IPS) officers of the Gujarat government, former ASGP Intelligence R.B. Sreekumar, and S.P. Bhavnagar and DCP Crime Branch Rahul Sharma. They filed their affidavits before the Nanavati-Shah Commission within months of the violence. By 2004, when two of the criminal trials arising out of the state-perpetuated carnage, the Best Bakery and the Bilkees Bano cases, had been transferred out of Gujarat for trial, these officers had been examined by the Nanavati-Shah Commission, and Sharma had produced a CD of five lakh phone records that provided more evidence of complicity and planning behind the attacks.

All this material was put together in a criminal complaint by Zakia Ahsan Jafri, assisted by the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), and sent to the by then Director General of Police (DGP) P.C. Pandey, an officer seriously indicted for connivance in allowing Ahmedabad to burn for weeks in 2002. He had been the happy recipient of a series of promotions by the man at the helm, the State’s Home Minister who was, and is, also the Chief Minister. Expectedly, this criminal complaint dated June 8, 2006, was treated with contempt, compelling Zakia Jafri and the CJP to petition the Gujarat High Court and later the Supreme Court of India for an order for the registration of a first information report (FIR) against the 60-plus accused. Today, arguments for and against charge-sheeting the 59 accused (two have since died, former Health and Law Minister Ashok Bhatt and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or VHP, ideologue Prof. K.K. Shastri) have begun before a magistrate’s court in Ahmedabad.

Unique legal effort

The courts will adjudicate on a unique legal effort at pinning criminal and administrative culpability and responsibility on the political and administrative leadership and the frontrunners of non-state actors (from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, or RSS, and the VHP) who were given the run of Gujarat’s streets. Between 2006, when the complaint was first sent to the DGP, Gujarat, to September 12, 2011, when the Supreme Court gave the complainants the right to approach a court in Ahmedabad, a detailed (if wanting) investigation was completed and, in criminal law terms, the stage was set for charge-sheeting some or all of the accused. In the interim, finding the high-profile Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by it wanting, the Supreme Court of India had on May 5, 2011, directed the amicus curiae in the case, Raju Ramachandran, to assess the evidence—he found enough material to prosecute accused number 1, the State’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, and at least three others. The SIT, in its final report filed on February 8, 2012, gave a clean chit to everyone.

Students of law and politics can learn much from a close study of this legal drama. Serious efforts at weaving together the threads of the sinister and massive conspiracy that had been alleged in the complaint were expected from such a high-profile SIT. From the start, however, the SIT deliberately set its bar low, preferring to look at only stray, discreet and superficial aspects alleged in the complaint, deliberately ignoring the import and consequences of a series of criminal and negligent acts and their impact. It ignored contemporaneous documentary evidence, the systematic use of instigative vitriol by the state and non-state accused, and rigidly refused to record statements of independent agencies like the officers of the Indian Army and Central intelligence who were privy to the consummate failures of the time.

It is no wonder then that it took the complainant, Zakia Jafri, a whole year after the final report was filed by the SIT on February 8, 2012, to get the Supreme Court to order full and complete access to all the documents and investigation reports, on February 7, 2013. The SIT did everything within in its power not just to give a clean chit to all the powerful accused but to deny the complainant her legal and moral right to access all investigation papers to facilitate and lend meaning and authority to a comprehensive protest petition.

Evidence of a cold-blooded conspiracy to manipulate the tragic Godhra incident—from the moment of the terrible news—has emerged. The petition weaves together evidence from an analysis of phone records, as also documentary contemporaneous records, and alleges that the conspiracy involved the Chief Minister, accused number 1, who was in close consultation with the then Health Minister Ashok Bhatt (accused no. 2), Urban Development Minister I.K. Jadeja (accused no. 3) and other co-accused Cabinet colleagues, and especially VHP leader Jaideep Patel (accused no. 21), to fully exploit the tragedy at Godhra for fuelling the meticulously planned massacre of Muslims all over Gujarat. The petition makes the following points:

Phone call records show that Narendra Modi was in close touch with Jaideep Patel immediately after information of the Godhra tragedy came in, even before he met Home Department officials and Ministers. Thereafter, there was a hasty and publicly conducted post-mortem at Godhra, out in the public against all law and procedure while a crowd of VHP workers was present. Narendra Modi was present while this happened. While passions were being so cynically stoked, another decision to hand over the bodies of Godhra victims to VHP strongman Jaideep Patel was taken at a mini Cabinet meeting presided over by the Chief Minister in Godhra, at which the co-accused Ministers were present. Jaideep Patel too was present at the meeting. Senior members of the administration and police were intimidated and neutralised. Other co-accused, the then Gujarat Director General of Police, K. Chakravarti (A-25), the then Police Commissioner, Ahmedabad, P.C. Pandey (A-29), the then additional Chief Secretary, Home, Ashok Narayan (A-28), and other key members of the bureaucracy and police were co-conspirators.

The SIT seems to have deliberately ignored the documentary evidence collected during the investigation. Key field reports from the State Intelligence Bureau (SIB) from all the districts were given to the SIT by January 2010, that is, a full three and a half months before the SIT submitted its first investigation report to the Supreme Court on May 12, 2010. These reports reveal a grim ground-level reality: gross provocations and bloodthirsty slogans by VHP workers from 4 p.m. onwards on the afternoon of February 27, 2002 (“Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge”, blood for blood) while Narendra Modi had still not left for Godhra. The late-night meeting at Narendra Modi’s residence effectively neutralised the police and the administration from doing its constitutional duty. The protest petition states that the credibility of the evidence relating to the critical February 27, 2002, meeting must be tested during trial and that it was not the job of the investigating agency to pre-judge the issue, acting like a court, overstepping its jurisdiction to protect and save the powerful accused. This is also what the amicus curiae, Raju Ramachandran, had opined.

Damning evidence

Evidence from the Police Control Room (PCR) records submitted by P.C. Pandey to the SIT after March 15, 2011 (that is, after the Supreme Court ordered the SIT to further investigate the complaint of Zakia Jafri dated June 8, 2006) reveals a cynical and cold-blooded mobilisation of RSS workers and VHP men at the Sola Civil Hospital from 4 a.m. onwards on February 28, 2002, in aggressive anticipation of the arrival of the dead bodies. Yet, both the SIT reports state that the funeral processions were peaceful. Repeated PCR messages, messages that the Home Department under Narendra Modi (A-1, who held the Home portfolio) and P.C. Pandey (A-21) were trying to conceal, show that both in Ahmedabad and in several locations all over Gujarat, crowds were mobilised to parade bodies with bloodthirsty sloganeering, inciting mobs to attack innocent Muslims. Repeated PCR messages desperately ask for bandobast; they speak of the staff and doctors of the hospital being under threat; of a 5,000-6,000-strong mob accompanying the bodies and, finally, one message also says that “riots have broken out”. Equally volatile mobilisations were allowed simultaneously at Khedbrahma, Vadodara, Modasa, Dahod, Anand, and so on. A cynical government under Narendra Modi and his co-accused have done their best to conceal this evidence. The SIT ignored such hard documentary evidence completely.

The PCR records also reveal that the Ahmedabad Police under P.C. Pandey and the Home Department under Narendra Modi and the then Minister of State, Home, Gordhan Zadaphiya (A-5) had enough forces to escort a VHP leader known for his inciteful slogans, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, from the airport to the Sola Civil Hospital to accompany the processionists. But they did not have enough forces to protect the hapless citizens of Naroda Patiya and Gulberg, where over 200 persons were massacred the same day. Narendra Modi allowed and openly supported the bandh during which RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal mobs had a free run of the streets.

Judicially, the Modi government has received several reprimands, and even warnings, right from the 2004 Best Bakery case to the more recent findings of the higher courts, for its attitude towards the rebuilding of 297 masjids and durgahs wilfully destroyed in 2002. Yet, the same government which has received consistent and serious setbacks on issues relating to constitutional governance won three elections. A serious dilemma or battle between electoral and constitutional governance?