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SIT chief's history made him unfit to lead probe: New book on 2002 riots

At a time when the ‘Modi for PM’ chants are at their shrillest a new book by a senior journalist has questioned the credibility of the investigation into the 2002 Gujarat riots by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) that exonerated the Gujarat chief minister of any role in the post-Godhra riots.

The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi & Godhra, a study of the Gujarat 2002 investigations, is written by Manoj Mitta who in 2007 co-authored a book on the anti-Sikh riots titled When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath.

In an email interview to Firstpost, Mitta spoke about his findings and why R K Raghavan, the SIT chief, was an unsuitable choice to head the investigation into the 2002 riots. Excerpts from the interview.

On February 27, the day S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express was set on fire in Godhra killing 58 people, what were the key political developments that aggravated an already volatile situation and ultimately allowed/aided the break out of communal riots in Gujarat?

When Godhra happened, Vajpayee and Advani found themselves on the defensive. For just the previous day, there were repeated disruptions in Parliament - and even an all-party meeting had to be convened by Vajpayee – over an escalation of the VHP’s Ayodhya campaign. So the statements made by Vajpayee and Advani on 27 February were in the nature of warnings to VHP for its provocative behaviour or an acknowledgement that the arson followed slogan-shouting by karsevaks returning from Ayodhya.

File photo of the 2002 Gujarar  riots. Reuters

File photo of the 2002 Gujarar riots. Reuters

From the Hindutva viewpoint, Modi’s genius lay in turning the tables on Muslims the same evening in the course of his visit to Godhra. Regardless of the evidence to the contrary, Modi declared that Godhra was nothing less than a terror conspiracy. That this was meant to aggravate an already volatile situation was evident, for instance, from the fact that the scene of the so-called terror crime, including coach S-6, was not visited by a forensic team for two whole months. Another aggravating factor on 27 February was a deviation from the norm of handing over dead bodies only to the next of kin. After Modi’s visit, the district administration issued an official letter handing over 54 dead bodies to VHP, although 19 of them were yet to be identified and VHP had by then called for a state-wide Bandh to protest Godhra. The post-Godhra killings erupted in the course of this Bandh.

In your book you state: “After the initial remarks against the VHP on the day of the Godhra incident, Vajpayee and Advani turned resolutely passive, at a time when their intervention could have reduced, if not averted, the violence against Muslims”. What led to this change in stance by the two leaders?

Once Modi changed the Godhra script, Vajpayee and Advani fell silent as their initial remarks against the VHP were out of sync with the terror twist. Although Parliament was in session, neither of the leaders made any statement on the Godhra or the post Godhra violence for the first few days, when the killings were at their peak. It took a while for them to fall in line with the narrative crafted by Modi and other hardliners in the Sangh Parivar.

In your book, the chapter on the SIT chief R K Raghavan is titled When the Investigator himself is Indicted. Why was Raghavan, a former CBI director, an unsuitable choice to head the SIT?

In this study on Gujarat 2002 investigations, I devoted a whole chapter to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991. Raghavan was among the three police officers to have been indicted by the Verma Commission for security lapses leading to the assassination. Suicide bomber Dhanu was found to have been waiting for the former Prime Minister in the sterile zone long before his arrival. But, as the officer in charge of security at the fateful Sriperumbudur meeting, Raghavan claimed in a sworn statement that Dhanu had gate-crashed into the sterile zone only after Rajiv’s arrival, that too because the VIP had himself beckoned to the people standing behind the police cordon.

The Verma Commission diluted the finding against Raghavan by glossing over his affidavit. This allowed the Vajpayee government to resurrect his career in 1999 by appointing him as CBI chief.

The resurrection in turn allowed the Supreme Court to choose Raghavan for this vital post-retirement assignment as SIT chief. Had his affidavit been expressly discussed by the Verma Commission, it is unlikely that Raghavan would have been elevated to the CBI post, much less so entrusted with the politically sensitive responsibility of Gujarat investigations. Thus, the shoddy probe into Rajiv’s murder unwittingly led to another shoddy probe, this time into Modi’s alleged complicity in the 2002 carnage.

In what way did the Verma Commission dilute the findings against Raghavan? And what was the implication of Justice Verma’s decision to let him off the hook?

Rather than quoting it from Raghavan’s affidavit, the Verma Commission attributed the beckoning theory entirely to a lawyer who had appeared for Tamil Nadu police officers. Thus a false claim made by Raghavan himself, to escape liability for the assassination that had taken place on his watch, was passed off by Verma as no more than an argument advanced by his lawyer. This allowed Verma to leave it to the Tamil Nadu government to determine departmentally the extent of Raghavan’s responsibility. In the event, the state government let off its senior police officer after going through the motions of obtaining his explanation. This impunity was despite the photographic evidence and eye-witness testimonies relied upon by the courts establishing that Dhanu, with her belt bomb bearing hundreds of metal pellets, had been waiting for Rajiv in the queue of women cleared by the police to be in the sterile zone. It is a commentary on our legal culture that it was left to me, a journalist, to bring out Raghavan’s tendentious affidavit blaming Rajiv Gandhi for his own murder.

Why do you say Raghavan’s career was ‘resurrected’ by the Vajpayee government - had the Rajiv Gandhi case adversely affected his career?

Yes, for some years following Rajiv’s murder, Raghavan’s career had been adversely affected despite his departmental exoneration. He was denied promotion and refused empanelment for any Central post. Superseding him, Raghavan’s juniors got the President’s medal for distinguished service ahead of him. His fortunes changed dramatically in January 1999 when the Vajpayee government picked him up for the plum posting of CBI director and conferred the President’s medal, in quick succession. As I explained in my book, this background could well be an underlying explanation for the proclivity betrayed by Raghavan in his latest avatar to cover up inconvenient truths about the Modi regime.

In your book, you state: “The dramatic growth in Modi’s clout over the decade since Godhra, in which he won three successive assembly elections for his party in Gujarat, was in no small measure due to the very nature of his response to that arson.” Why do you say that?

The first election he won for his party in 2002 was based essentially on his inflammatory response to Godhra. In the by-election held in Gujarat barely a week before the Godhra incident, BJP lost two out of three seats. And then in the election held for the entire Gujarat assembly in December 2002, BJP notched up its biggest ever tally of 127 out of 182 seats. This was without any development rhetoric, which came much later. Like the 1984 Lok Sabha election, the 2002 Gujarat assembly election was held very much under the shadow of communal violence. Indeed, Modi’s poll campaign was an amplification of his Gaurav Yatra message of a Muslim terror conspiracy and spontaneous Hindu backlash. The legend of the Hindu Hriday Samrat grew across the country for turning Godhra into an opportunity to unleash Hindutva with a virulence never seen before.

You speak of a ‘Gujarat model of justice’ that was at play ahead of Modi’s first electoral victory post Godhra. What is the ‘Gujarat model of justice’?

The Gujarat model that played out before the December 2002 election was not about development but about the flagrant subversion of BJP’s own slogan: “justice for all, appeasement of none”. In this unstated Gujarat model of justice, hundreds of cases were closed allegedly for want of evidence. Where charge sheets were filed, the prosecution pressed for a hurried trial even when the investigation was far from complete and the assailants named by witnesses were yet to be implicated. As a result, the judgments delivered within eight months of the carnage in three major cases resulted in the acquittal of all the accused persons. Clearly, Muslims were denied justice and Hindus appeased. The cases handled by the Gujarat police began to yield convictions only after the Supreme Court’s forceful intervention in the collapse of the Best Bakery case in June 2003. And the conviction rate dramatically improved after the Supreme Court had transferred the Best Bakery and Bilkis Bano cases out of Gujarat and entrusted nine other mass crimes to the special investigation team (SIT).

In the context of the SIT’s investigation into Zakia Jafri’s complaint, you state that “the blanket exoneration of Modi and his regime….betrayed a laboured attempt on the SIT’s part to exploit every loophole in law and downplay all the inconvenient evidence.” What was the most damaging ‘inconvenient’ evidence, with respect to the Gulberg Society case, that the SIT ignored in giving Modi a clean chit?

Gulberg Society, a Muslim pocket in Ahmedabad, saw the first post Godhra massacre anywhere in Gujarat on February 28. The most inconvenient evidence ignored by the SIT in this context was Modi’s claim to have been unaware of the massacre for as long as five hours after it had all been over. Look at the failure of the SIT to tie up the three strands of evidence recorded by it. First, it recorded a flurry of communications between police officers as the prolonged siege at Gulberg Society escalated around 3 pm into the massacre which was found to have ended by 3.45 pm. Second, Modi was lauded for holding a series of meetings with police officers through the day to check the violence as it unfolded. Third, the SIT recorded Modi’s testimony claiming to have heard about the Gulberg Society massacre only at a meeting held in his house at 8.30 pm. The SIT exonerated Modi without addressing his incongruous claim that he had been unaware of the Gulberg Society massacre even as he had been in touch with the police brass.

How would you describe Modi, the man BJP has chosen to be its prime ministerial candidate?

Since Modi was declared as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate only after he had received the SIT clean chit, we should all verify its rigor even if it has since been upheld by a magistrate in a pre-trial decision. The contradiction between its evidence and findings is glaring, for instance, in the Gulberg Society context. From the viewpoint of law, the five-hour lag claimed by him in coming to know of the massacre is indicative of his involvement in conspiracy. From the viewpoint of governance, it undermines his claim to being a decisive and impartial administrator. He might have feigned ignorance not only because, as chief minister and home minister, he had failed to intervene but also because he had made no reference to it in his address to Doordarshan recorded over two hours after the massacre had been over.

This is your second book on communal riots. The first, When a tree Shook India –The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath documented the investigation into anti-Sikh riots. Were there glaring similarities between the two in how the respective governments handled the riots and the aftermath?

The big similarity is that both governments attributed the massacres to public anger. But a close examination of the fact-finding material shows that public anger in itself could not have translated into such large-scale killings. There were two more ingredients, as borne out by officially recorded witness testimonies. The mobs could go so far only because they had political backing and the police had as a result either looked the other way or facilitated the violence.

What were the key differences between 1984 and 2002?

One obvious difference is that the scale of the killings was greater in 1984, the violence more one-sided and the cover-up more intractable. Thanks to the evolution of judicial activism and the creation of watchdog bodies like the NHRC, a lot more details about the violence in 2002 have come to be recorded and the conviction rate for the Gujarat massacres is much higher.

To what factors do you attribute this ‘fiction of fact-finding’?

The fiction of fact-finding is by no means confined to Gujarat 2002 or to the specific allegation of Modi’s complicity. This fiction is a recurring, systemic problem, leading to impunity for a range of crimes, including communal violence. The higher the stakes, the more the process of fact-finding is likely to wilt under pressure. For all the expectations raised by it, the probe ordered by the Supreme Court in 2009 on Zakia Jafri’s complaint against the Modi regime made little dent in India’s record of impunity. This was due to factors such as the faulty composition of the SIT, the failure to put right questions to persons in authority and the haphazard monitoring by the Supreme Court.

What led you to write this book? What was the most disturbing revelation/discovery for you in course of researching for this book?

After the 2007 book on the Delhi carnage, I originally signed up with HarperCollins to do a sequel tracing the vagaries of fact-finding, from Jallianwala Bagh to the Gujarat riots. My focus shifted to this Gujarat-centric book because of the wealth of fact-finding material published in the last three years, as a result of the Supreme Court’s intervention. The research led to a whole lot of discoveries contradicting the exoneration of the Modi regime. It’s hard for me to pick any one of them as the most disturbing. But if I have to do so, I would choose the revelation on the unanswered questions about Raghavan’s security lapses in Rajiv Gandhi’s murder. His resurrection despite such questions put in perspective the bias betrayed by the Raghavan-led SIT to exonerate Modi in the face of its own evidence.