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 no irrefutable evidence that the Chief Minister actually directed the slaughter of Muslims 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. It did not examine the secretly recorded statements by journalist Ashish Khetan with activists of various Sangh organisations which provided corroborative evidence of a high-level political conspiracy behind the massacre.
But Manoj Mitta in his carefully researched book The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra demonstrates convincingly that the SIT treated its influential first accused with kid gloves, never registering a FIR against him, nor pinning him down on a number of questions such as his public statement on Feb 27, 2012 that the train burning in Godhra was a “pre-planned inhuman collective violent act of terrorism”. This is a claim which has not been borne out in the courts, and which was significant in igniting and fuelling 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 Gulberg Apartments massacre in which Ehsan Jafri lost his life at 8 in the evening of February 28, 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 Gulberg Apartments. How could Modi claim, Manoj Mitta asks, to have been unaware, for nearly five hours, of the first post-Godhra massacre, which took place at Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society? How does this claim square with his admission that he was tracking the violence as it unfolded?
Why did Modi take five days to visit riot-affected areas in Ahmedabad and a month to meet Muslim victims in a refugee camp? Why were forensic experts called to see the burnt Godhra coach only after two months, although it had been open to the public throughout that period?
What exactly did Modi celebrate in his Gaurav Yatra, which he launched within six months of the carnage? Why did the Gujarat police sit for six years on the call data records of the riot period?
As Siddharth Varadarajan notes:
The authenticated transcript reveals a static question-and-answer session in which the SIT’s interrogator runs through a list of questions, many of them excellent ones, without ever challenging Modi’s answers, asking a follow-up question or confronting him with evidence from documents and depositions in the SIT’s possession that contradict what the chief minister was saying.
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 further believes that there were grounds not to dismiss the version of suspended and now dismissed Indian Police Service 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, 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 the 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.
The “clean chit” to Mr Modi by both the SIT and the trial court were of critical value in paving the way for his eventual candidature as the BJP nominee for the highest office in the land. A similar clearing of the road was undertaken for BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani’s national prime-ministerial ambitions, who left a trail of blood following his Rath Yatra in 1989 and who was a key contributor to the Ram Mandir movement to violently pull down the Babri Masjid in 1992 in brazen defiance of the courts and the law of the land. His role was sought to be substantially erased from public memory by a systematic campaign of his re-invention as a moderate statesman.
Earlier, the role of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a lifelong member of the RSS, in instigating communal massacres such as in Nellie, Assam in 1983, and his rationalisation of many attacks on Muslims and Christians, was erased with his reinvention as a genial, liberal poet-politician. A similar exercise was feverishly undertaken in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to whitewash the hawkish and violent past of the BJP’s new prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi. Barring his core Hindu nationalist constituency, he was reinvented as the messiah of market growth.
But Mr Modi’s role in the brutal communal massacre of 2002 in Gujarat was potentially the greatest stumbling block to his prime-ministerial ambitions and to his reinvention.
This is partly because until his meteoric rise on the national stage, he was proud rather than apologetic about the carnage which occurred during his leadership. 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, for their alleged role in terrorist attacks, and for harbouring pro- Pakistan sympathies. He alluded to his own chhapan chhaati or chest of 56 inches, suggesting his exceptional manly courage in taming the implied “enemy within”. He resolutely refused to express regret for the carnage, until he was propelled to the national stage, there he said that if the car he was riding in (but not driving) ran over even a puppy, he would feel anguished. The Hindi phrase he used for the puppy, kutte ka bachcha, is frequently used as a term of abuse.
Given his barely suppressed triumphalism surrounding the carnage of 2002 even until months before he was chosen as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi’s transition to secular statesmanship required an exceptionally wilful flight of fancy among those who supported him. Leaders of industry like Ratan Tata, the Ambani brothers, and Sunil Mittal applauded his leadership for market growth, rejecting the idea that his national ambitions were disqualified by his alleged role in one of the most brutal communal massacres after Independence. They counselled that we should focus on the “big picture” of growth, as though the violent suppression of minorities was a minor blemish. Many European ambassadors and world leaders lined up to meet and endorse him in the hope of participating in Gujarat’s growth story. All of them needed a fig leaf to cover the nakedness of their choices. (It’s the economy, stupid!)
This fig leaf came with the closure report led by SIT and the “clean chit” of the trial court.
In 2004, the Supreme Court had used harsh words to describe the abdication of state responsibility by Modi in protecting perpetrators of the 2002 massacre and in bringing justice thereafter. Quashing the acquittal of all 21 accused in the infamous Best Bakery case and directing its retrial in a Maharashtra court, Justice Doraiswamy Raju and Justice Arijit Pasayat of the Supreme Court passed severe strictures against the Gujarat government led by Narendra Modi. In their words, “The modern day Neros were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be protected.”
This, in fact, was the unequivocal conclusion held by the President of the Indian Republic at the time of the 2002 Gujarat riots, KR Narayanan. He is unarguably one of the most distinguished even among the many illustrious people who have held India’s highest public office. In a rare interview, after he retired, to a Malayalam monthly Manava Samskriti, he was categorical in his indictment of the role of the political leadership in Gujrat and at the Centre in the 2002 carnage:
There was governmental and administrative support for the communal riots in Gujarat. I gave several letters to Prime Minister Vajpayee in this regard on this issue. I met him personally and talked to him directly. But Vajpayee did not do anything effective. I requested him to send the army to Gujarat and suppress the riots. The Centre had the Constitutional responsibility and powers to send the military if the state governments asked. The military was sent, but they were not given powers to shoot. If the military was given powers to shoot at the perpetrators of violence, recurrence of tragedies in Gujarat could have been avoided. However, both the state and central government did not do so. Had the military been given powers to shoot, the carnage in Gujarat could have been avoided to a great extent. I feel there was a conspiracy involving the state and central governments behind the Gujarat riots.
The “clean chit” given to Narendra Modi, therefore, is at best a technical clearance in the absence of cast-iron evidence that he actively or explicitly directed the carnage. But there can be no doubt of his grave culpability in inflaming majoritarian public anger and sectarian passions against innocent Muslims and for the openly partisan actions of his government, which facilitated the murderous carnage committed by Hindu mobs for many dark days in 2002.