Where politics decides everything and extinguishes the line between right and wrong?
When I first heard of the conviction of former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi in the Naroda Patiya case on Wednesday morning, my first reaction was: why is it that the associates of Narendra Modi get nailed every time but he gets off scot-free? I am referring to Modi’s former minister Amit Shah and police officers like DG Vanzara who were close to him and had a free run. Vanzara and Rajkumar Pandyan (another police officer close to him) are languishing in jail; Amit Shah is also facing charges. Today, 31 more have been convicted but Modi (who, of course, was not directly involved in the incident) is going strong. While the Congress and Keshubhai Patel will put up a stiff fight, it is likely that he will be returned for the third time in the elections that will be held four months from now. And using this victory as ‘public approval’ for everything that he may have done or not done in the past, Modi will lambast the secular forces, blaming them for everything conceivable including all the ills that afflict India. For those who came in late, the Naroda Patiya incident happened on February 28, 2002, a day after the Godhra train burning incident. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) had given a bandh call and a huge crowd gathered at Naroda Patiya in Ahmedabad and attacked members of the minority community, killing 91 people. This was the same day when at Gulberg Housing Society, former MP Ehsan Jaffri was killed along with members of the same society even as police made themselves scarce. In fact, the attack on Gulberg Society happened after the additional police commissioner MK Tandon had visited the place and said that there was nothing to fear. His departure had been taken as a signal by rioters to burn down Gulberg Society. This was also the day when rioters and other antisocials had a free run, looting establishments belonging to the minority community and killing them at will. A Muslim high court judge had to run away from his house and take refuge at the house of a colleague for no crime other than being a Muslim. The car of the collector of Gandhinagar was also stoned because the collector was a Muslim. Sitting at the police control room were two ministers of the Modi government doing God knows what and this is when Ahmedabad was literally burning. The police commissioner of Ahmedabad, PC Pande, had gone into hibernation mode that day and director general of police K Chakravarthy was fuming and fretting in private with no guts to lead his men from the front. Modi’s government should have been dismissed immediately – for failure to control law and order and for the anarchy prevailing on the streets – not only that day but also for the next few days. But there was an NDA government in New Delhi and the home minister was none other than Lal Krishna Advani, widely known as the godfather of Modi and the Prime Minister was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had mastered the art of doublespeak. It was not that they did not know what has happening — although Modi must have purveyed that it was all a “spontaneous reaction” to the Godhra incident and public anger was tremendous. A cabinet minister called George Fernandes who held the defence portfolio had been sent to Gujarat to assess the situation, but he had clearly reported to Vajpayee what was happening. To no avail, of course, other than a small reprimand from Vajapayee that ‘rajdharma’ has to be practised. Modi countered rather rudely that this was what he was doing.When I read the other day that the Gujarat high court had dismissed the prosecution case in the matter of Haren Pandya’s murder and expressed severe doubts about how the CBI had conducted its investigations, I could not agree more. My mind went back to 2003 when in the aftermath of the murder a CBI officer came to my office to investigate the ‘role’ of The Times Of India (TOI) in the affair! Don’t laugh, that’s what had happened. A CBI deputy superintendent of police (DSP) – some Gupta, first name I forget- landed up in my office in Ahmedabad where I was posted then as the resident editor of the TOI and wanted to talk to me. “We have been told that the assailants figured out where they would find Pandya after reading your paper. Can you throw some light on this matter?” I should have been stunned on hearing that but wasn’t. That was because a few days earlier one of our correspondents told me that the crime branch of Ahmedabad police had been speculating on this matter. On asking which great man in the crime branch was having these fanciful ideas, the correspondent said it was the SP, DG Vanzara (this gentleman is now in Sabarmati jail for bumping off Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bee). And what was the reason for Vanzara’s line of thought? The correspondent said because we had published how Pandya was spending his days now that he was neither a minister nor MLA. For those who came in late, Pandya had been denied a seat in the 2002 assembly elections, so the 41-year-old leader had nothing much to do in February 2003. He was busy going for long morning walks in Law Gardens of Ahmedabad in the morning and playing golf in the evening. TOI had written in a feature story about what politicians who had lost or kept away for elections were doing. The CBI DSP (in newspapers we often describe CBI men as ‘sleuths’ but I refuse to use that term for Gupta or even his bosses who must have sent him to our office) denied that he had been tipped off by Vanzara and company to follow this line of investigation. He said: “We have talked to the house owner where the assailant had rented a room. And he has told us that the suspect only used to read TOI. In fact he used to pore through TOI the whole day.” By this time I was maha miffed. Earlier that day some stationery retailer had gifted me two fancy note books and two perfumed rubbers. This was lying on my table. I took this stuff and told him: “Mr Gupta you must be having children at home. Take these as gifts for them.” Nonplussed, the CBI man took the stuff and I saw him off. Even as he left it was clear to me that the CBI was upto some shoddy investigation and this opinion got only strengthened when I read about the recent high court order. I would imagine that Haren Pandya’s wife Jagrutiben also feels the same about the investigations of CBI. In fact when the sessions court had sentenced the accused in 2007, instead of feeling happy she had gone public seeking a reinvestigation in the matter. Before his death earlier this year Haren’s father, Vithal Pandya, had waged a long battle in this matter quite vociferous in stating that his son’s murder was political. Now two sisters of Haren, along with Jagruti, have sought to reopen the case and have said that they would be representing to the Prime Minister. Actually it is not too difficult to figure out that the prosecution case was faulty. According to the prosecution version, Haren Pandya was shot dead just as he arrived at Law Garden in his Maruti 800 for his morning walk around 7.20 am. The assailant pulled the trigger before he rolled up the window of his car and got out. But a forensic expert – who had deposed in the court – told me the injuries that Haren had showed that he could not have been shot from a gun pointing down at him (as would be if the assailant put the gun from outside). In fact the injuries had been down up. Add to this, the fact that no blood was found on the seat of the car and it is easy to see that Haren was probably murdered somewhere else and his body brought to the site from somewhere else in his car and dumped there. It is also strange that the body of Haren Pandya lay there outside the busy Law Garden for three hours till his friends heard and rushed to the spot three hours later. Haren Pandya, earlier having been the home minister of the state, was quite well known and it looks unlikely that nobody discovered his body for so long. In fact many voices were heard in undertones in the aftermath of Pandya’s murder that a large crowd had collected around the body at 8.30 am but they had melted perceiving it as a political murder. In fact due to this reason the area around Law Garden became unusually quiet. I also know that some top cops had also learnt of the murder before 9 am but they too kept silent -again perceiving it to be a political murder. The prosecution’s case was that Haren had been killed by assailants from Hyderabad to avenge the Gujarat riots of 2002. But the fact of the matter is that Haren was the minister in the Gujarat government who had secretly deposed before the Citizen’s Tribunal about the riots and let it know many facts then not public. He had also in a cabinet meeting advocated that the bodies of the victims of Godhra carnage not be brought to Ahmedabad because that would arouse passion. But he was shouted down at the meeting by some ministers. Whatever be the reason, Narendra Modi had thrown Haren Pandya out of his ministry in July 2002. Modi also ensured that Pandya was denied a ticket from his Ellisbridge constituency in the December 2002 assembly elections. This was even when pressure was put on Modi by Advani and Arun Jaitely to relent. In fact Jaitely found Modi’s behaviour churlish and Advani happened to be the political guru of Pandya. After being forced out of electoral politics, Pandya was out in the cold contemplating what to do next when somebody decided to bump him off. The million dollar question is: who was that person? I did not believe in 2002 that there was an organised conspiracy that led to the Godhra train burning and nine years later in 2011 my belief remains the same. Notwithstanding the judgment delivered by the trial court. Well, it was always not like this. For the first month after the February 27, 2002, carnage, I believed like most others that coach S6 of Sabarmati Express had been deliberately put on fire. But at that time I had not visited Godhra. I went to Godhra at the end of March 2002 and ran into the deputy superintendent of police Bava, who was investigating the case and his boss inspector general of police Agja. Both were at the police post adjacent to the platform of Godhra station when we ran into them. (I say we because with me was our then bureau chief in Vadodara and now editor of Chandigarh edition, Raja Bose). I asked the duo how far they had proceeded in unravelling the conspiracy. The cops said that if there was a conspiracy they were yet to come across any evidence. I could not believe what they were saying but managed to keep a straight face. “If there was no evidence how did the coach get burnt?” I asked. Mr Agja said that he was not sure but added that at any time there were 20-30 vendors on the platform hawking their wares like tea. Most of them carried small-sized gas cylinders with burners with them. In the midst of a fracas that had broken out between the kar sevaks and these vendors things could have turned ugly with some vendors throwing in burning rags inside the train. This could have caused a fire, Agja concluded but emphasized that this was a possibility but not his definitive account of what had happened. I asked the inspector general whether he could be quoted by name on what he had said: “Yes,” he said and became emotional and said that he had merely a year and a half of service and at this stage he cared for nothing other than the truth. He looked at Bava and said: “He has only a month left, why should he bothered either?” Before running the story I checked Agja’s story with many top police officers. They agreed with the argument and said that the belief in the top police echelon was also this. Curiously when the story was front-paged in TOI, in all its editions, the reaction was muted. Late in the afternoon, a distressed Agja called me and said: “Nag sahib, yeh kya kar diya apney?” I said I had checked with him and asked him to cool down. Later in the evening an apologetic public relations officer of the police department called me. “Everyone knows what you wrote is correct, but yet Mr Agja wants us to issue a clarification. You are free to do whatever you want to. When the clarification arrived I found it wishy-washy and threw it into the dustbin. Later I came to know that Narendra Modi had summoned Agja who told him that he had not said anything. This was recounted to me by none other than Mr Modi and when I told him that in fact Agja had said so, the Gujarat chief minister kept quiet. A little later Agja was transferred. It appeared to me that thereafter there was an effort by the police to quickly fit the conspiracy angle. In their zealousness, the cops started recording all sorts of evidence including that of purported eyewitnesses. One such eyewitness was found to be present at a school where he taught some 25 km away from Godhra! Random arrests were made from Singal Falia, the area located next to the Godhra railway station, whose main inhabitants were Ghanchi Muslims (many of them poor). Ultimately this was to spoil the police case because my belief is that this zealousness to fit evidence to a pre-decided theory, all sorts of dubious evidence was collected. The police investigation at this stage was to influence the future of the case. Thus when a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was put in place to supersede the earlier Gujarat police probe, this went further using information gathered by the previous investigations. The investigating officer (of the rank of DSP) also continued to be the same. The end result is there for everybody to see: the judge says that there was a conspiracy behind the burning of the train but lets off the main conspirator, Umarji. Well, if you ask me here is where the conspiracy angle is knocked out straight away. Interestingly the case is proven on the testimony of some of the accused who later retracted their statements. Little surprise that the judge upholding the conspiracy angle has let off most of those arraigned before his court of law. I am aware that many of the readers of this blog post will heap many accusations on me: of being a pseudo-secularist and going out of the way and appeasing the minorities. Of being anti-Hindu and not being sympathetic to the families of all those who perished. My submission to them: Don’t treat Godhra like the Ramajanmabhoomi issue as a matter of faith. Truth is often stranger than fiction. It is the merely the trial court that has delivered its judgment. There are two more levels of courts that the verdict will have to pass through. The last word has not been heard on Godhra. From day one, those not enamoured with Modi have asserted that the role of the chief minister was more than that of being a helpless spectator. In fact, Modi’s revenue minister Haren Pandya (subsequently assassinated) deposed before the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal that Modi had told his ministers in the aftermath of the Godhra incident (on the evening of February 27) that the public reaction that would happen in Ahmedabad should be allowed. IPS officer Sanjeev Bhatt (then in the intelligence department), who had attended a meeting of officers with Modi, also said that the latter had wanted that the reaction be allowed to happen. The then home secretary of Gujarat, Ashok Narain, also is on record saying that he had warned that bringing the bodies of the victims of the Godhra train burning incident to Ahmedabad would incite violence but his warning was not heeded and a decision was taken to bring the bodies to the city. On Wednesday (August 29, 2012), Maya Kodnani (who was an MLA then but was subsequently promoted as a minister; the question remains: if she was in the eye of a storm, why did Modi promote her?) was convicted under more than a dozen sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) including 302 (murder) and 120B (criminal conspiracy). Ditto for Babu Bajrangi. For those who do not know who he is, he is a VHP member who saw himself as a ‘social reformer’. Eyewitness accounts on which the court relied to convict Maya Kodnani spoke of how she had incited the mobs to murder. I do not know what Modi’s reaction is to the convictions in the Naroda Patiya case. He will probably say that it only proves that his government has not tampered with the law and justice machinery in the state. Well that’s not that simple as that because this was a case monitored by the Supreme Court and witnesses protected by central paramilitary forces and legal aid from luminaries. But the question still buzzes in my mind: everything happened when Modi was at the helm of affairs. How is it that he is not being made to take responsibility for what happened in Gujarat in those fateful days. Does merely winning elections absolve him of everything? What sort of system is this where politics decides everything and extinguishes the line between right and wrong?