The 'Gujarat Model' of Dealing With Dissent and Challenges

The constant resurrection of the Ishrat Jahan case, and the dubious arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar and other JNU students have played out like a re-run of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah method of dealing with dissent and challenges.

Credit: PTI

Credit: PTI

It’s not what you believed would finally come, but after two years of waiting for the hailed and trumpeted ‘Gujarat Model’ that was promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is here in Delhi. Alas, it’s not the illusory model of development but what we have got is the ‘Gujarat Model of Fraud and Dirty Tricks’. The constant resurrection of slain Ishrat Jahan’s identity as an alleged terrorist and the dubious arrest of JNU students’ union leader Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition have played out like a re-run of the Modi-Amit Shah method of dealing with dissent and challenges.

There’s a vivid history of such duplicity by the Modi-Shah duo, from the Godhra riots case to the Sohrabbuddin fake encounter case and even the snoopgate scandal.

The Ishrat Jahan case

In the Jahan case, which has got the media all agog, the crux of the matter should really be why the trial has not begun despite the chargesheet being filed nearly three years ago. Both the special investigation team (SIT) and the CBI investigation have independently concluded the encounter was fake, and indicted seven Gujarat police officials and four IB officials for the unlawful abduction and killing of Jahan and three others.

But there seems to be a calculated attempt in public discourse to focus on Jahan and her identity as a Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) terrorist, rather than focus on the commencement of the trial and ensure the culprits are punished and the innocent vindicated. First, there is the submission of LeT operative David Headley declaring Jahan was a terrorist. Then there are the affidavits that were changed by former Home Minister P Chidambaram to say there was inconclusive proof of Jahan being a LeT operative. The latter is being used triumphantly by the BJP to say the Congress-led UPA government was keen to frame Gujarat’s police officials, and target Modi and Shah in Jahan’s killing. On March 1, 2016, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a contempt of court plea against Chidambaram, even as the fake encounter trial is yet to begin.

Why are moves afoot to delay the beginning of the trial which should put all doubts to rest? The facts are plain to see. The Gujarat police and state government could have gotten away with the terrorist story, except Shamima Kauser, Jahan’s mother, filed a writ petition two months after the murder asking for a CBI investigation. The SIT and the CBI have conclusively proved through investigation, telephone records and other forensic evidence that Ishrat and her three companions were first taken into custody, shot dead 24 hours later, and then their bodies were laid out with machine guns to look like they had been killed in a gun battle with the police.

Now since Modi came to power, officers suspended in the case have almost all been reinstated with promotions or released from prison. Police officers GL Singhal, NK Amin and PP Pandey have been promoted, while IPS officer DG Vanzara was given bail and has since retired. The Modi government has also refused to allow the CBI to prosecute four IB officials who were also involved in the Jahan murder, including Rajinder Kumar, who is today a media favourite in debates on Jahan’s alleged terror links.

So, who is afraid of the trial once it begins? Why is there such a massive effort to steer public discourse to prove Jahan was a LeT terrorist? Will the proceedings show the extent of the involvement of the Gujarat government in the fake encounter case?

The sedition plot

In the JNU sedition case, while Kumar may be out on bail, his arrest, subsequent incarceration, the propaganda machine that was kick started to implicate him, the role of the police and lawyers, a biased mainstream media and doctored evidence is a plot that is eerily familiar.

Here’s the narrative: Kumar was arrested on February 11 on charges of sedition, two days after a gathering to commemorate the judicial killings of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhatt. While two Delhi policemen attended the event and reported there was nothing untoward, former Delhi Police Commissioner BS Bassi bizarrely ordered the arrest a day later based on news video reportage by Zee TV of the event, where anti-national slogans were heard being shouted.

It is another matter that the tapes were later found to be doctored to falsely implicate Kumar. JNU gate records also show Zee TV, the only news channel to be present at the event, was invited by the ABVP, the BJP’s student wing. The tapes also made their way onto social networks and major news channels like Times Now and NewsX to whip up public opinion against the student leader.

Then the political brass and judiciary were unleashed to bolster the state’s case against Kumar. Home Minister Rajnath Singh claimed the event had been backed by LeT founder Hafiz Saeed. The accusation was based on a tweet from a fake Twitter account in Saeed’s name. Singh’s folly not only exposed the failure of his ministry’s intelligence gathering but also the extent to which a senior minister could go to implicate a student. It also transpires that the Twitter account of Shilpi Tiwari, a former aide of Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani, hosted one of the clips of the doctored videos. There has been no denial from either the bellicose Irani or Tiwari.

In an audacious move by the government, it ensured the Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung removed the Delhi Police counsel in favour of its own counsel, Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, just before Kumar’s bail came up the first time. Mehta is Modi’s trusted legal aide and has been his lawyer since the Godhra riots. The lawyers’ mob that assaulted Kumar, JNU teachers, students and journalists in court was led by none other than a BJP MLA and a former aide of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

The Godhra experience

The art of pushing an investigation in a certain direction appeared visible even after the Godhra carnage. The burning of a coach of the Sabarmati Express, in which 59 people were killed, was declared an “accident” by Jayanthi Ravi, the then district collector of Panchmahal, Godhra, following an altercation between kar sevaks and Muslims at the station. Then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee too made a statement in parliament on the day of the incident that “from the preliminary reports, it appears that the train was stopped maybe because slogans were being shouted in the train and clashes took place. The Gujarat government has ordered an inquiry.” Soon, Modi publicly announced the burning was “an organised terrorist attack.” The Centre then began to speculate the Godhra attacks were “pre-meditated” and the “handiwork of the ISI.”

Early forensic evidence was either not included in the chargesheet or simply debunked later. The May 2002 report of the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Ahmedabad categorically said the fire was started inside the coach (it actually challenged the FIR and investigations, which had until then said the train was attacked from outside), but the report was overlooked as it was included in the chargesheet only five days before it was submitted. It is another matter that by July 2002, the FSL unearthed new evidence to prove the burning was premeditated. Subsequent court orders on the Godhra incident also suggested that it was more a case of rioting by a mob than a premeditated terrorist conspiracy.

It’s also no secret that in the aftermath of the Godhra riots there was subversion of the criminal justice system – the willful negligence of the administrative and police forces in protecting pleading Muslim victims of rioting, murder and rape, and the wanton disregard for clinching evidence like telephone call data records, incriminating testimonies. Besides, the injustices meted out to bold and dissenting police officers, and the rewards that were given to pliant policemen has been documented extensively. RB Sreekumar, Neerja Gotru, Anupam Gahlot, Rahul Sharma, MD Antani and other conscientious officers were transferred, sacked or neglected in promotions for arresting VHP-BJP leaders and simply doing their duty in stopping the riots.

The Snoopgate scandal

In the Snoopgate scandal, the comedy of terrors unleashed by the Gujarat government is stupendous – in November 2013, two investigative websites uploaded audio excerpts from taped conversations between senior police officer GL Singhal and Shah, who was the Gujarat minister of state at the time. The audio tapes reveal conversations between Singhal and Shah about a snoop operation that lasted through August and September 2009, where a close watch was kept on the movements of a 35-year-old female architect working from Ahmedabad and Bhuj. At the centre of the surveillance were also IAS officer Pradeep Sharma and a mysteriously named “Saheb” at whose behest the surveillance was launched.

For two months, the state machinery was unleashed to monitor the architect’s calls, tailing her daily movements, including trips outside Gujarat, who she met and spoke to, and conversations meticulously recorded. The tapes were leaked when Singhal had submitted the audio clips to the CBI when he was arrested in the Jahan fake encounter case. It was seen as a ruse to turn approver in the case in return for bail. But a year later, Singhal was soon rehabilitated by Modi, perhaps because of the explosive evidence in his possession.

As Snoopgate hit the headlines, Modi and Shah put their forces together to counter the attack – first, Team Modi released a letter signed by the architect’s father, Pranalal Soni, to say he had personally asked Modi for the surveillance as he had feared for his daughter’s safety. It was an inadvertent admission of using state machinery and soon there were demands of an enquiry by opponents. But Modi’s defenders reasoned that since both father and daughter didn’t want an enquiry into a personal matter, it should be ditched.

Sharma, the architect’s confidante in the tapes, paid a heavy price for the friendship. In 2010, he was arrested and jailed for over a year, for five corruption cases in land deals during his time as Kutch collector between 2003 and 2007. In his petition, Sharma listed out reasons for being victimised by the Gujarat government: his brother IPS officer Kuldeep Sharma had taken on Shah in the 1200 crore rupees Madhavpura bank case, and he knew of Modi’s relationship with the architect. He also placed on record three sets of statements by Singhal, damning details of the Jahan fake encounter, that allegedly point a finger at Modi. But the UPA government at the Centre, a known political adversary and so-called champion of the secular polity, chose to look the other way.

The Sohrabuddin Sheikh episode

In the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, the known extortionist was accused by Gujarat police of being part of a LeT-ISI plan to kill Modi, though the plans were never officially released. Sheikh was abducted and killed three days later in an alleged staged encounter on a highway. His wife, Kauser Bi, who was also picked up, was killed two days after in a farmhouse but her body was never found. Sheikh’s associate Tulsiram Prajapati, who was a witness to his killing, was shot dead a year later in police custody. The case gained prominence after Sheikh’s brother Rubabuddin wrote to the Supreme Court for an investigation into his brother and sister-in-law’s disappearance. The police officers involved were DG Vanzara and two officers from Rajasthan.

The findings of a Supreme Court-supervised CBI investigation were revealing. On the basis of call records (where the accused policemen were in constant touch with Shah during the encounter) and testimonies of witnesses, the CBI said in its chargesheet that Shah had presided over an extortion racket and it was on his orders that the Gujarat police tried to cover up his involvement. Shah was arrested in July 2010, given bail in October 2010, and managed to keep it despite an appeal by the CBI. However, the court ordered a ban on Shah entering Gujarat. The ban was finally lifted two years later. He returned to contest the state assembly polls in 2012 and won resoundingly from Naranpura.

Not surprisingly, after Modi’s ascension to the prime minister’s post, the CBI did a spectacular U-turn by not challenging the dismissal by a Mumbai sessions court of Shah’s case to put him on trial. IPS officer Ajay Chudasma who spent four years in prison, was reinstated by the Gujarat government in August 2014, with a promotion. The two policemen from the Rajasthan cadre were taken back by the Vasundhara Raje government.

It was also not long before Rubabuddin withdrew his case challenging the discharge in Mumbai. As he helplessly told a news website, he was terrified for his family. Prajapati’s mother also gave up on his case.

Vrinda Gopinath is a senior journalist.