What can be said of civil society in Gujarat when its minister for women development and child welfare is convicted of rioting against women and children?
On Wednesday, for the first time in India, a sitting MLA was found to have instigated violence in the worst of the 2002 incidents. Twelve people testified to minister Maya Kodnani assisting and egging on the rioters in the Ahmedabad suburb of Naroda Patiya. A total of 96 Muslims were killed that night, 34 children including a newborn, 32 women and 30 men. Kodnani supplied the killers with kerosene and swords, according to testimony.
Judge Jyotsna Yagnik found 32 people guilty for the massacre. The fearsome Babu “Bajrangi”, the man accused of forcibly undoing marriages of Hindu girls to Muslim boys, has also been convicted in the case.
Kodnani, a Sindhi whose family migrated at Partition, was an MLA when she participated in the violence. Despite the grave allegations against her, Kodnani was made minister by Modi later. When she was charged-sheeted by an independent agency, she was dropped as minister but retained her seat as MLA. She is a qualified doctor, a gynaecologist, showing that higher education is no barrier to bigotry.
Though she denied being present at Naroda Patiya when the killings happened, Kodnani was proved to be there by her cellphone records. These had been gathered and submitted by an exceptional officer in the Gujarat police force. Shamefully, that officer, Rahul Sharma, from the elite Indian Police Service, is being tried by Modi’s government for misconduct. His crime was to have taken the initiative to get these phone records from the various cellphone companies and hand them over to independent investigators instead of the state. I think he did the right thing because under Modi (who was and remains the state’s home minister) investigations were so sloppy that the Supreme Court brought in an outside agency to take over. Kodnani’s conviction is because of that outside investigation team and not the work of Modi’s government.
The phone records Sharma collected showed both Kodnani and Bajrangi in areas where they claimed not to be. They also show that the then deputy home minister, Gordhan Zadhafiya, was in the police control room. He has been accused of directing the violence and ordering the police to go easy on the rioters, though he also denied being there.
Zadhafiya, who like Bajrangi is from the peasant Patel community, is today a rebel against Modi’s government. The cellphone records indicate that Narendra Modi’s office was in touch with the rioters. Officers in the CMO, as the office is called, who spoke to those now convicted of rioting include Tanmay Mehta, Sanjay Bhavsar and Anil Mukim. When I visited Modi’s office a couple of years ago I remember Bhavsar being there and also Mukim. The records also indicate that phone conversations happened from the chief minister’s residence.
Now that a judge has accepted the validity of this record (and when the detailed judgment is out we will know to what extent she has) the other connections it has hinted at will come into focus. Narendra Modi speaks often about the inability of the Congress to protect India’s citizens from terrorist violence, perhaps rightly. It is not easily that he will be able to explain away the truth that his own minister was responsible for the killing of Gujaratis. Modi’s record at protecting his citizens has been poor. Another of his deputy home ministers, Amit Shah, is today barred from entering Gujarat because of the charges he faces. Modi’s anti-terrorism force chief, DG Vanzara is in jail for murder, also the result of an independent investigation.
It is astonishing, given these failures, that Modi continues to keep the portfolio of the home ministry.
He has publicly attacked Teesta Setalvad, the Gujarati activist whose persistence has been crucial in bringing about all these convictions. But it is true that Gujaratis like me, who are still ashamed for our conduct of 10 years ago, are today proud of her and what she has achieved.