Forget riots apology Modi saheb, tell us about Kodnani instead

If there are other potential interviewers in the queue after Madhu Kishwar, ETV, India TV and TV9 got their chance to serve us some rather tepid fare, please remember, the question to ask Narendra Modi is not 'why won't you apologise for the 2002 violence?' but this:

'How could you make Maya Kodnani a minister in 2007 when it was well-known that she had led the murderous mobs which killed dozens of innocent citizens in the Naroda-Patiya locality of Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002?'

Kodnani's name came up in witness testimony immediately after the massacre ended. The fact that she was eventually convicted 10 years later came as no surprise to anyone in Gujarat. Even if the evidence required for the chargesheet was only gathered by 2009 thanks to the Supreme Court-monitored SIT, the facts about her involvement ought to have been known to Modi in December 2002, when he gave her a ticket to fight from the Naroda constituency, and in 2007, when he brought her into his cabinet. If they were not, this shows, at best, that his administration lacked basic administrative and intelligence gathering skills. And if they were, he needs to explain why he chose someone for the job of Minister for Women and Child development whom he knew had blood on her hands.

The inclusion of Kodnani in the Modi cabinet should be questioned.

The inclusion of Kodnani in the Modi cabinet should be questioned.

To my mind, Rajiv Gandhi's Camelot was fatally compromised by the induction of HKL Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler as ministers in his government despite the credible allegations made by victims of the anti-Sikh pogrom in November 1984 that these Congress leaders were involved in the violence against them. To this day, the BJP denounces the Congress -- and rightly so, in my opinion -- whenever there is talk of even giving a ticket to Tytler (or Sajjan Kumar). In 2004, when Tytler was made a minister by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, senior BJP leaders like Arun Jaitley, LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj marched up to Rashtrapati Bhavan to demand his removal, as well as the ouster of other tainted ministers.

Given the principled stand of his party in 2004, why did Modi induct Maya Kodnani three years later when the charges against her were no less grave than those against Tytler?

Modi has also never been asked why his much-publicised and hyped televised appeal for calm on 28 February, 2002 failed to mention the Naroda-Patiya massacre which had started that morning and ended by the afternoon, or the Gulberg Society carnage -- in which even more people were killed than at Godhra.

Here is what Modi said by way of an appeal that day. I am using the translation helpfully provided by Ms Madhu Kishwar in her book, Modi, Muslims and Media (emphasis as supplied by her):

"The government of Gujarat is committed to the protection of all its citizens.  Those who take law into their hands and destroy the lives of innocent people have no place in a civilized society.  I share the grief of the people of Gujarat.  Those who take law into their hands and destroy the lives of innocent people have no place in a civilized society.  I share the grief of the people of Gujarat.  For any humanist such an incident [i.e. Godhra train carnage: SV]would cause indescribable grief.  But at the same time creating disturbances (ashanti) indiscipline and expressing outrage (akrosh) is not the solution. 

"Violating the law and venting your anger by indulging in riots cannot be tolerated in any civilized society.  I understand your feelings but I pray to you that the need of the hour is to maintain peace and self-restraint. We are determined to punish those who have committed this crime.  No one will escape their due punishment.  Won’t you help the Government in saving Gujarat?  Won’t you help us in maintaining peace and harmony?  The Government of Gujarat appeals to you for help, appeals to you for shanti (peace) andsanyam (restraint/self-discipline).

"In the midst of this akrosh (deep outrage) it is my humble request that in such a testing time Gujarat expects from you what it is best known for. There are numerous examples of how Gujarat has maintained peace and harmony during the most adverse of times. I want to remind you of this unique characteristic of Gujarat - of showing restraint and maintaining peace during adversities. Let us serve Gujarat by maintaining shanti and sanyam.Let us strengthen the arms of law.  Let us create an atmosphere that will ensure the most severe punishment for the perpetrators of this heinous crime..."

"I understand your anger and outrage, I understand your pain.  And yet in the self-interest of Gujarat, and to ensure that we don’t jeopardize the future of Gujarat, that Gujarat doesn’t get a blot on its face/ carry a stigma connected with these times  all the 5 crore Gujaratis need to keep calm and exercise self-restraint.

"I also want to express my gratitude to you that in the midst of so much anger, out of 18000 village of Gujarat, disturbances have broken out only in a handful of villages.

"By and large, there is any atmosphere of peace.  However, the incidents that have occurred in the cities of Gujarat are disturbing.  It is my request to you, tit for tat is not a solution. “Ver ver thi shamtu nathi (Hatred is never won over by hatred)."

Fine, stirring words, no doubt. But now let us see what he said about Godhra at the start of the same speech (here, the emphasis is provided by me):

"Yesterday in Godhra an inhuman tragedy struck.  More than 40 women and children were burnt to death.  18 men were also burnt alive.  In all 58 people were trapped inside a rail bogie and mercilessly massacred by cannibals.  Such a heinous crime will bring tears to the eyes of the most hard-hearted person.  This devilish and inhuman act committed in the land of Gujarat cannot be tolerated/justified in any civilized society.  This crime cannot be forgiven.  I want to assure the people of Gujarat that something like this will never be tolerated.  The culprits will be appropriately punished for the crime they have committed. Not only that, we will set an example so that in future no one will dare dream to commit such a heinous act."

Now consider this. In Godhra, 58 people were killed "yesterday" and Modi described the perpetrators as "cannibals" and said they would be punished and made an example of. Nobody can argue with that. But he says nothing about what he will do to the perpetrators of "tit for tat" riots, "ashanti" and "indiscipline". For the killers of Naroda-Patiya and Gulberg Society -- who committed their crime the very day he was speaking -- he  only issues an appeal for restraint, making no reference to these or other specific incidents.

Had Modi also called them cannibals and warned that they would not only be "appropriately punished for the crime they have committed" but that his government "will set an example so that in future no one will dare dream to commit such a heinous act" a very different message would have gone out. The fact that the Godhra train attack was a single incident but what the state was now witnessing was a series of retaliatory attacks made it all the more necessary for his appeal to have threatened the strictest punishment for anyone rioting. The closest Modi got to saying this was that riots "cannot be tolerated by any civilised society." But any talk of "punishment" was confined to "this crime", i.e. the Godhra carnage alone. Could that be why the rioters took no heed of his appeal?

In any case, it turns out the omission of any threat of punishment was not accidental. Yes, 170 people were killed in police firing but as the Hindustan Times's Ahmedabad reporter, Mahesh Langa, pithily summarised matters recently, the Gujarat government itself says the police killed more Muslims than Hindus. In May 2002, the HT's reporter, Vinay Menon cited confidential police figures which showed a similar skew. "The statistic substantiates the allegation," he wrote, "that not only did the local police not do anything to stop the mobs, they actually turned their guns on the helpless Muslim victims."

As for the large number of people arrested, most of them Hindu rioters (many of whom were affiliated in one way or the other to extremist Hindutva outfits), the Modi government's failure to credibly  prosecute them led to a series of speedy acquittals. If today, many of the criminals, including Ms Kodnani, have been convicted, this is all thanks to the Supreme Court which wisely concluded Narendra Modi could not be trusted to provide justice and handed charge of major cases to courts outside the state or an external SIT.

Manoj Mitta's excellent book, The Fiction of Fact-Findingprovides a lot more information about the manner in which the same SIT eventually came to draw the line at Modi's culpability. It emerges, sadly, that the CBI's questioning of Modi was as incompetent as the exertions of some of the journalists who have interviewed him recently.

(Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, New Delhi)