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2002 riots to Ishrat Jahan: How deep is the rot in Gujarat police?

Politically loaded insinuations and crude guesswork easily overwhelms valid information on the 2002 riots and the spate of police encounter cases between 2002 and 2006.

Based on selective, calculated leaks from investigating agencies and unidentified sources elsewhere and interpreted according to political leanings, these have formed an important part of the political narrative in the last one decade. It is par for the course when the state is Gujarat.

Nothing is clear here till court verdicts settle matters. This applies to the Ishrat Jahan case too.

However, there is something deeply unsettling about the state. It has to do with its police machinery. While police forces all over the country are known to kowtow to their political masters, the Gujarat police is in an entirely different league. It would be difficult at this point, without the support of a court verdict indicting a big politician, to conclude that the force has been serving as a tool of ideology, but there’s reasonable ground to believe that many in its top brass were too eager to please their political bosses in 2002 and the years after it.

Here’s a look into the developments in 2002 and beyond:

 D G Vanzara (C) and Rajkumar Pandiyan (L), two of the three senior officers arrested in the Soharabuddin Sheikh fake encounter: AFP

D G Vanzara (C) and Rajkumar Pandiyan (L), two of the three senior officers arrested in the Soharabuddin Sheikh fake encounter: AFP

* The May 2002 report of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) says state officials (read police officials) were directly involved in the riots and they undertook a massive cover-up operation to conceal the state’s role in the violence. NGOs fighting for riot victims have been making the same claim from the beginning.

* The Supreme Court virtually endorsed their position in its August 2004 judgement where it ordered the opening of 2,108 of the 4,000 cases relating to the Gujarat riots. All these cases had been closed by the police after shoddy investigations. Under pressure from the court, more than 1,600 have been opened and in some there have been convictions. Most of the cases are yet to come to court.

* Several police officers who played an active role in containing violence - indeed violence was less intense where police officials intervened! - were transferred to inconsequential positions. RB Sreekumar, former Director General of Police, says officials who played a proactive role were subjected to disciplinary proceedings and transfers. A few upright officers had to leave the state on deputation.

* In March 2008, the Supreme Court pulled up the Gujarat government for being lackadaisical while probing several massacres and ordered a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate nine crucial cases. The court had earlier stayed trial in some of these cases responding to complaints from civil society organisations that the police had conducted no proper investigation.

* Again in February 2012, the Supreme Court criticized the Gujarat government for using the police force to harass activists fighting for justice with false charges.

* Between 2002 and 2006, the police conducted an unusually high number of encounters, which the civil society organisations claim to be fake and aimed at a particular community. In March 2012, the Supreme Court appointed Justice HS Bedi to head an authority to monitor of 22 alleged fake encounter killings.

This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of the lapses of the Gujarat police during and in the aftermath of the riots. There are just too many allegations against it, levelled by its own officers,present and former, and the civil society. As we mentioned earlier, the extent of the rot would be clear only through court verdicts.

However, what is troubling about the narrative is the recurring theme of police apathy and complicity in extra-judicial killings, and the involvement of very senior police officials in the ideological agenda of the political bosses. There’s no way right now to ascertain whether they were following orders from the top or just getting over-enthusiastic.

The Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case would expose to some extent the real face of the Gujarat police.

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