'It Stretches Credulity that Court Rejected Conspiracy in Gulberg Society Case'

In conversation with Manoj Mitta about the Gulberg society massacre verdict, the SIT's probe into the Gujarat riot cases, the role of the Gujarat police and political administration.

Survivors of the Gulberg Society visit their building. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood/Files

Survivors of the Gulberg society visit their building. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood/Files

On February 28, 2002, a Hindutva mob attacked the Muslim-dominated Gulberg society in central Ahmedabad. The six hours of rioting and arson that followed left 69 people dead, including former Congress parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri. After 14 long years, 24 of the 66 accused in the case were convicted on June 2 by a special court in Ahmedabad. However, 36 people were let off the hook, including two of the main accused – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) corporator Bipin Patel and K.G. Erda who was the then deputy superintendent of police in the area.

The Gulberg society massacre, as it has come to be called, has evoked mixed responses over the years. While a section of politicians, including those in the ruling BJP and the Congress, have welcomed the judgement for giving the victims some closure, others have panned it for ignoring crucial evidence against the accused. Jafri’s wife Zakia and their son Tanvir have expressed their dissatisfaction with the judgment, as have many other political activists. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, levying a serious charge, accused the prosecution lawyer of shielding the main accused.

Explaining the court cases and evidence in an interview, Manoj Mitta, senior journalist and author of the book The Fiction of Fact Finding: Modi and Godhra, said that the Supreme Court’s intervention in all cases relating to the Gujarat riots was undoubtedly significant, but also criticised the role of the special investigation team (SIT) that the apex court had constituted to investigate the riots. Mitta’s book is a comprehensive and dispassionate account of the official documents relating to the riot cases. In this interview, he explains how the SIT and its chief R.K. Raghavan chose to ignore the obvious hand of Gujarat government’s officials, including that of then chief minister Narendra Modi, in orchestrating the riots. Excerpts:

What are your initial responses to the special court judgment in the Gulberg society massacre case?

Manoj Mitta. Credit: amnesty.org

Manoj Mitta. Credit: amnesty.org

As somebody who studied the big picture of the Gujarat violence of 2002, I am struck by the contrast between the verdicts in the Naroda Patiya and Gulberg society cases, relating to the two biggest massacres of the time, on the key issue of conspiracy. While the charge of conspiracy was upheld in 2012 in the Naroda Patiya case, it has been rejected four years later in the Gulberg society case, involving the other big massacre of Ahmedabad. This stretches credulity as the massacre of 69 people at Gulberg society, including former Congress member of parliament Ehsan Jafri, came at the end of a siege of the Muslim pocket stretching over six hours. The Modi regime in the state took none of the obvious measures to prevent the mob violence despite, as recorded by the SIT, a flurry of messages within the police establishment on the escalating crisis at Gulberg society.

Any objective appraisal of the evidence could not have missed the obvious collusion between the organisers of the violence and the administration. Yet, in its much delayed judgment, the trial court would now have us believe that the killings at Gulberg society were all spontaneous, unlike the bloodshed around the same time in the nearby locality of Naroda Patiya. I can’t help recalling what judge Jyotsna Yagnik held in the Naroda Patiya case: “This was a pre-planned conspiracy and it cannot be mitigated just by saying it was a reaction to [the] Godhra train burning incident.”

The judgment has acquitted Patel and Erda but convicted VHP leader Atul Vaidya. In that sense, none of the Gujarat government representatives have been convicted. Did you find any evidence regarding these three main accused during the course of your investigation?

Since the full text of the judgment is not available yet, let me refrain from commenting on the merits of specific acquittals and convictions in the Gulberg society case. But this much I can surely say: though Erda is the only police officer to have been arraigned in the Gulberg society case, the evidence recorded by the SIT on the related complaint of Zakia Jafri – alleging a high-level conspiracy behind the post Godhra violence – raises serious questions (however unwittingly) about the accountability of his superiors, right up to Modi. Despite its exoneration of Modi in the Zakia case, the SIT admitted that during the prolonged siege on the Gulberg society complex, Erda and others had sent messages about the impending massacre. Judging by its own evidence relating to Gulberg society, the SIT should have gone way beyond Erda in naming conspirators from among state actors.

You have been critical of the SIT’s findings. It gave a clean chit to Modi, following which he became the prime minister. In your book, you have shown how the SIT overlooked crucial evidence. Could you elaborate a little?

Yes, the closure report filed by the SIT on Zakia’s complaint is riddled with internal contradictions which undermine the credibility of its so-called clean chit to Modi. Take the one related to Gulberg society. On the one hand, the SIT patted Modi for holding a series of meetings with officers from the police and home departments to track the violence as it unfolded on February 28, 2002, the day after the Godhra incident. But, on the other hand, the SIT allowed Modi to get away with the claim that he had been unaware of the Gulberg society violence, the first post-Godhra massacre, until about five hours after it had been carried out. Though its investigation is supposed to have been monitored by the Supreme Court, the SIT exonerated Modi without any pretence of questioning him on the ignorance feigned by him in a bid to save face. For all his claims to have been firm on law and order, Modi was also not questioned about the failure of the police to react with alacrity to the prolonged siege at Gulberg society despite all the documentary evidence of their real time information.

In your book, you have been critical of Raghavan’s role in ignoring crucial evidence. Could you give us some examples of that? And why do you think he was unsuited for the post of SIT chief? After all, he was appointed as the SIT chief during the UPA regime.

Though there is much the UPA regime could have done to help secure justice for the 2002 carnage, it is the Supreme Court that chose Raghavan, a former CBI chief, as the SIT chief. He was unsuited to hold anybody accountable because he had himself been indicted by a commission of inquiry for security lapses leading to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. He was subsequently rehabilitated by the Vajpayee government because, as my book showed, much of the documentary evidence against him had fallen through the cracks.

Thus, the shoddy fact-finding into a political assassination, in a quirk of history, led to another shoddy fact-finding, this one relating to communal violence. Many of the conclusions arrived at by the SIT were undermined, as in the context of Gulberg society, by the testimonies recorded by the same investigating agency. There were also serious discrepancies in the status reports given by the SIT to the Supreme Court and the closure report that was submitted to an Ahmedabad magistrate after it had ceased to be monitored by the apex court.

The clean chit that came in 2012 bore no trace, for instance, of the criticism made by Raghavan two years earlier before the Supreme Court of Modi’s disparaging statement against Muslims in the wake of the Godhra incident. “Modi’s statement accusing some elements in Godhra and the neighbourhood as possessing a criminal tendency was sweeping and offensive, coming as it did from a chief minister, that too at a critical time when Hindu-Muslim tempers were running high.” Without any explanation, such damning observations were excised from the SIT’s final report, paving the way for Modi’s ascendance on the national stage.

Ehsan Jafri’s son had alleged earlier that the then police commissioner P.C. Pande had visited Gulberg society and promised them help. But the police never came back to help. Many people have accused the Gujarat police of complicity with Hindutva activists. What do you think about this?

On this specific allegation that Pande had visited Gulberg society during the prolonged siege, the SIT, to be fair, came up with a credible finding that the witnesses had mistaken another senior police officer for the commissioner. In keeping with its pattern of cover up, the SIT made no attempt, however, to pin down Pande on his claim to have largely remained in his office on the fateful day. All that Raghavan said to the Supreme Court was that though February 28 was “the worst day of the riots”, Pande was “mostly confined to his office, did not directly handle any field situation and chose to be content with giving telephonic directions to his officers.”

Could you talk a little about the Gujarat police’s role in the initial investigations? How politically-partisan was it?

Well, it was precisely because the Gujarat police had been found to be partisan in their handling of the riot cases that the Supreme Court entrusted some of the most egregious ones to the SIT created and monitored by it. The conduct of the police under Modi had belied the BJP’s much trumpeted slogan of securing “justice for all”.

After wholesale acquittals in a series of cases, the Supreme Court at the instance of the National Human Rights Commission first ordered a retrial of the Best Bakery case outside Gujarat. Next, it ordered fresh investigation into the Bilkis Bano gang rape and multiple murder case, which again was tried successfully in Maharashtra. And then, in 2008, it hit upon the strategy of entrusting nine select cases, including Gulberg society, to the SIT, which had a mix of officers from Gujarat and outside.

In the Naroda Patiya case, the Gujarat police’s investigation had been so partisan that, ignoring the wealth of call data records available to them, they had failed to take any action against influential persons like Modi’s minister Maya Kodnani. She came to be arrested only after the handing over of the investigation to the SIT, that too on the basis of information unearthed by whistle-blowing police officer Rahul Sharma. Needless to add, Sharma has since been hounded by the Gujarat government while errant officers like Pande were promoted and given post-retirement assignments.

Yet, these convictions have come only because of the court’s intervention and the subsequent SIT findings. Gulberg was, perhaps, the last of the nine cases. What is your overall assessment about the way Gujarat riots cases were heard and decided?

No, there is still one more SIT case that is awaiting judgment. It’s the one relating to Naroda Gram, where the accused include Kodnani and VHP leader Jaideep Patel. The significance of the last named is that he was the one to whom the dead bodies of Godhra victims had been handed over, in a departure from the norm of giving them only to the next of kin. But, in its closure report on Zakia’s complaint, the SIT held that though Modi had visited Godhra, he had nothing to do with the official letter illegally transferring custody of the bodies to Patel. This offence, which helped the VHP parade the bodies in Ahmedabad amid inflamed passions, was blamed entirely on a junior officer in Godhra. Despite such partisanship displayed by the SIT too, the investigations conducted by it made a dent in the endemic problem of impunity for communal violence. This is thanks largely to the safeguard adopted by the Supreme Court in providing witnesses with security by Central paramilitary forces. Thus, the Supreme Court’s intervention made a big difference to the outcome of Gujarat riot cases. The cause of justice could have been better served though, had the Supreme Court’s monitoring of the SIT, through its amicus curiae and otherwise, been more rigorous, and the composition of the investigating team not been so flawed.