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How the 'Rashomon Effect' haunts the Gujarat riots probe

In his epochal film Rashomon, the legendary Akira Kurosawa uses a crime thriller narrative to introduce us to the concept of “multiple realities” and the futility of reconciling them – even in an open-and-shut case.

In the film, set in a forest, a woman is either seduced or raped by a bandit and her samurai husband is murdered. The narratives offered by four of the protagonists – the bandit, the wife, the dead samurai (whose spirit is invoked through a ‘medium’), and a woodcutter who claims to have been an eyewitness to the crimes – are all equally plausible as stand-alone strands, even if they are all self-serving. When we hear each of their testimonies, we’re convinced of the certainty of each of them. Yet, seen together, the various accounts are so fantastically at odds as to be mutually irreconcilable.

Narendra Modi. Reuters

During the shooting of the film, the somewhat befuddled actors themselves were known to have repeatedly approached Kurosawa asking for clarity on what the “truth” was. Kurosawa, however, wanted the film to be seen as an allegorical exploration of “multiple realities”, not as the revelation of The Truth.

Sociologists have since coined the term ‘Rashomon Effect’ to refer to the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection: on how our biases shape our memories and/or recollections of past events. It goes some way to explain why many observers of an event may offer vastly different (yet equally plausible) accounts of it.

The same Rashomon Effect now haunts the many strands of the investigations into the Gujarat 2002 riots.

The Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team headed by former CBI Director RK Raghavan and the amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran have both submitted their reports – and they show up the impossibility of framing “one truth” of exactly what happened at pivotal moments of the days following the Godhra carnage of 2002.

To complicate the plot further, both the reports are peppered with internal inconsistencies, which do no justice to the rigour of their exertions.

Firstpost had pointed to the infirmities in the amicus curiae’s report here. Likewise, even the SIT report (which you can read here) doesn’t always present an internally coherent summation of its findings.

Did Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi actually tell his senior administrators and police officials at a meeting at his residence on 27 February 2002 to allow Hindus to “vent their anger” to secure retribution for the Godhra carnage?

The SIT has dismissed the testimony of IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, who claimed to have been present at that meeting where, he alleges, Modi did utter those words. The SIT cites others who were present at the meeting to demolish Bhatt’s claim. Yet, it records that even if Modi did say what he is alleged to have said, it was no offence since it was only said within the "four walls of a room".

That an investigation agency headed by so distinguished an officer as Raghavan would discount the administrative ramifications of such a statement (if it was made) coming from the head of the State government and the effect that it would have on law-enforcement authorities beggars belief.

Likewise, the SIT's observations on the Gulberg Society massacre, in which former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri was killed by a mob, too point to internal inconsistencies that do no justice to the rigour of its investigations.

Indicatively, in its background note to the complaint filed by Jafri's widow Zakia Jafri, the SIT noted that Jafri opened fire "in self-defence" against the mob that had gathered at the Gulberg Society. Recalling the gruesome events of 28 February 2002 the SIT's background note said:

"On the day of the bandh, i.e. 28.02.2002, a huge mob comprising about 20,000 Hindus gathered, armed with deadly arm weapons, in furtherance of their common intention and indulged in attack on the properties, shops and houses of Muslims as well as a madrasa/mosque of Gulberg society located in Meghaninagar, Ahmedabad city, resulting in the death of 39 Muslims, including Ahesan Jafri, ex-MP, injuries to 15 Muslims and 31 Muslims went missing. Late Ahesan Jafri fired from his private, licensed weapon in self defence causing injuries to 15 persons in the mob. One of the victims of the said private firing succumbed to injuries later.”

Yet, the SIT also claims elsewhere that "in case late Ahesan Jafri, ex-MP, fired at the mob, this could be an immediate provocation to the mob, which had assembled there to take revenge of Godhra incident from the Muslims.” In other words, as this report notes, within the space of a few pages, what the SIT saw as self-defence in one context, had become a provocation.

How does one even begin to reconcile these "multiple realities" -given the many internal inconsistencies, first within the SIT report and the amicus curiae's report, and second, between those two reports?

Add to this mess the fact that some of the petitioners the case have in the past been accused of "tutoring witnesses" and  journalists who were reporting on the riots were also helping draft the affidavit of one of the key players (Sanjiv Bhatt) - and "multiple realities"  distort the truth in ways that are impossible to reconcile.

No one looking for a closure - one way or another - is served by such distortions.