It’s curious to see the Central government so keen to appoint advocates of its choice as special public prosecutors for cases related to the Delhi riots and the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests. Does the Centre want to appoint lawyers of integrity and impartiality to dispense justice? One hopes so. Because when Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, abuse of the office of public prosecutors was key to subverting justice in riot cases.
In 2007, I went undercover in Gujarat, in search of the truth of the Gujarat riots. Over six months, I secretly recorded the extra-judicial confessions of many rioters and key conspirators who narrated before me how they killed, lynched, burnt men, women and children. They told me they could kill such a large number of people only because of the support of the police. The 60 hours of sting tapes later proved to be critical in convicting the accused like Babu Bajrangi, Maya Kodnani, Suresh Charra, Prakash Rathod and others. The CBI examined the tapes forensically and certified them as authentic. The Supreme Court constituted Special Investigation Team produced them before the trial courts as evidence. I testified in the courts as a prosecution witness. In the Naroda Patiya case, the trial court called the sting operation ‘cogent, reliable and trustworthy evidence’.
But there was one set of revelations in the tapes that the SIT didn’t find as “prosecutable evidence”. These were the admissions of key public prosecutors appointed by the state of Gujarat who talked of the larger plot to systematically weaken the riot cases by appointing public prosecutors who were either members of Sangh parivar groups such as the VHP or RSS or Hindutva sympathisers. Believing that I was an extremist Hindu, they confided in me the details of various cases where they had threatened the Muslim victims to withdraw their statements or had negotiated a settlement between the Hindu accused and the riot victims or witnesses.
Three top prosecutors—Arvind Pandya, Dilip Trivedi and Bharat Bhatt—were on the tape, making self-incriminatory statements. Dilip Trivedi, the then general secretary of the VHP’s Gujarat unit, was appointed by the Gujarat government as the senior pleader in the Mehsana district. Mehsana was among the worst affected areas during the riots. His confession implied that groups in the state police, the prosecution and the defence were acting together to shield the rioters.
“I have coordinated all the cases in Gujarat. Being the general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, I have coordinated all the matters in all the courts, hence all the advocates gave their honorary services to me and that is why they are all very close to me,” Trivedi was caught saying on the tape. Besides coordinating with both defence and the prosecution, Trivedi said, he was also coordinating with “the DGP, and the people under him, like the DIG and the AGP”.
To see how this was made possible, some important excerpts of the recordings follow.
Khetan: How many cases have been registered in Mehsana?
Trivedi: A total of 182 complaints were filed in Mehsana, out of which chargesheets have been filed in 78 cases. In two cases it was filed later… Out of these 80 cases, three are pending… three or four… the other 76 are now complete…
Khetan: In favour of the Hindus?
Trivedi: In only two cases there were convictions. In the remaining 74 cases, all the accused were acquitted. In the two cases where there was a conviction, we appealed in one and got the accused acquitted. In the second one, we have filed an appeal in the high court. The appeal has been admitted and the accused have got bail. That conviction was also wrong. Yes, in some districts they are still in jail but more than 3,000 Hindus were arrested, out of these only 100-150 people haven’t got bail as yet.
Khetan: So Mehsana was most affected by the riots that followed Godhra?
Trivedi: It turned serious at a lot of places like Beesnagar, Beejapur tehsil…
Trivedi: Beejapur. There is a village there called Sardarpur. In Sardarpur, where the houses of the Muslims were set on fire, 14 people were accused. This was a big case. The Supreme Court has imposed a stay on it. Now I am not worried because all the accused in the case have got bail.
While I was sitting in Trivedi’s chamber, two people walked in to discuss a riot-related case in which Hindus were accused. The men needed Trivedi’s help to engage a lawyer who could represent the accused. Trivedi called up a few lawyers and tried to find his visitors a suitable one. After the two men left his office, Trivedi said that the defence lawyer who is handling their case had fallen ill, and the responsibility of finding a new defence lawyer had again fallen upon him.
In the Sabarkantha district, Narendra Patel and Mohan Patel — both members of the RSS — told me that after the riots, the RSS had formed a body called Sankalan to provide legal aid to Hindu rioters. Many of the VHP’s lawyers, who had their own private practices, became defence counsels for the accused and public prosecutors who were either members of the VHP or sympathetic to the Sangh extended indirect assistance to the rioters.
In Aravalli district, I met public prosecutor Bharat Bhatt, who also happened to be the VHP’S district president. Bhatt said he had been doing his best to help the accused by pushing for out-of-court settlements.
Bhatt: In Modasa, the total number of cases are 1,400… out of which 600, or around 550, were committed in the beginning itself… The rest were re-opened… When they were re-opened, people were again disturbed… Due to the stand the Supreme Court has taken now, the people are scared. These judges in the lower court aren’t courageous enough… not daring…
Khetan: Did they show some courage in the beginning?
Bhatt: They did in the beginning… Actually right now, the ones in the upper courts have ordered the retrial of the Baroda case…
Khetan: Best Bakery…
Bhatt: The Best Bakery one… after that, the morale of new people went down…
Khetan: But there is still some support from people…
Bhatt: We are trying to fulfil our responsibility… whatever matters I have dealt with here, I was very hard with the Muslims… They kept changing their statements… gave additional statements… I said these don’t have evidentiary value.
Bhatt then narrated that he facilitated the payment of Rs 10 lakh to the victims to get a case against one Hindu accused closed. He then went on to narrate another case in which he raised money to pay the victims so they withdrew the charges.
Khetan: How was the money raised?
Bhatt: These people themselves contributed…
Khetan: The accused?
Bhatt: The accused contributed… Before this, when I used to handle all the cases in the district, I never used to take any money from the accused. I used to hold meetings in the villages of the accused and tell the rich people there that there were people in Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana and UP who had property worth crores of rupees but had lost everything once madrasas opened nearby. What is the point of having money if you can’t even put it to use for the welfare of your own community? While some gave Rs 5,000, others gave Rs 10,000, sometimes even a lakh, this is how we collected Rs 5-7 lakh which is what it took to settle the case since it was a daylight murder and he had used his sword to cut the man to pieces. Five people did it but they [the victims] named some decent people instead, for instance, the medical store owner
Khetan: In Modasa?
Bhatt: No, in Biloda. I got it settled for Rs 4,60,000, out of which four lakh was collected by me from the people…
I stung a Gulbarg case accused named Prahlad Raju, who said that while he was on the run, he was being advised by the public prosecutor about when he should surrender before the police.
Arvind Pandya, the then Gujarat government’s counsel in the Nanavati-Shah Commission, told me that he was trying to “manage” the proceedings of the commission.
“A Hindu-based government was there when this incident took place, so the people were ready and the state was also ready… this was a happy coincidence,” Pandya said.
I met Pandya twice – on June 6 and on June 8, 2007. On both occasions, Pandya emphasised that had there been a non-BJP government in power in 2002, the riots would never have happened. He said that Narendra Modi was so upset after the Godhra carnage that he would himself had dropped bombs on Juhapura – a Muslim neighbourhood in Ahmedabad – but his position as chief minister constrained him.
Pandya said he believed that the mass killing of Muslims in Gujarat should be celebrated every year as “victory day”. He said that crippling Muslims was better than killing them, as that would not only invite lesser punishment but a crippled Muslim would also serve as a living “advertisement” of what Hindus were capable of. Inflicting economic loss on Muslims was as important as killing them, Pandya asserted.
After the sting operation, Pandya’s position became untenable and he stepped down.
The SIT report dated May 17, 2010, authored by the inquiry officer A.K. Malhotra confirmed the fact that the government appointed VHP and RSS-affiliated advocates as public prosecutors in sensitive riot cases. The report stated:
“It appears that the political affiliation of the advocates did weigh with the government for the appointment of public prosecutors.” (page 77)
The SIT’s chairman R.K. Raghvan further commented that ‘it has been found that a few of the past appointees were in fact politically connected, either to the ruling party or organisations sympathetic to it.’ (page 10 of SIT chairman’s comments)
But the SIT dropped the case of a larger conspiracy against senior state functionaries, including chief minister Narendra Modi, because it believed that there was not enough prosecutable evidence to press charges. The lack of prosecutable evidence has since then been celebrated by the BJP as a “clean-chit” for Modi.
With the Centre pushing for special public prosecutors of its choice for the Delhi riot cases, one hopes that it is to ensure that justice is served to all victims and not to let the history of subversion of justice in the Gujarat riot cases be repeated.
Ashish Khetan is a former chairperson of the Dialogue and Development Commission of the Delhi government.