A strong perceptional bias against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has prevailed once again with some sections of the media showing a thoroughly deficient understanding of Indian law and its nuances, and the role of the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigative Team (SIT) in probing the Gujarat riots.
In concluding that no offence under Indian criminal law can be made out against Modi, SIT observed how various statements attributed to the Gujarat Chief Minister, both alleged and otherwise, have been taken out of context to support baseless accusations. Almost ironically, Modi now has company. The team that grilled him for nine hours is the latest victim of misconstruction and selective quoting.
The SIT’s role: First, let’s recall that SIT was investigating allegations contained in the criminal complaint filed by Ms Zakia Jafri against Modi and others. Its scope of inquiry was not to study administrative lapses, “moral responsibility” or political decision-making.
After investigating all allegations, the SIT was to provide its findings and opine whether any criminal offences can be made out against any accused after which the courts (and not the SIT nor Amicus Curiae) could take the final decision. If there is any skepticism on why SIT went into several matters not usual in a criminal proceeding, one may refer to the nature of allegations raised in Ms Jafri’s complaint itself.
Given that the Amicus Curiae has also disregarded allegations by IPS officer RB Sreekumar and the late Haren Pandya, Sanjeev Bhatt’s allegations and his credibility as a witness comprise a major portion of the SIT closure report.
Did the SIT have to examine the credibility of Bhatt at length? The answer is an obvious yes.
As the investigating and prosecuting entity, the SIT has to take a call on whether, based on its findings, the judiciary’s valuable time can be engaged. As pointed out earlier, Sanjeev Bhatt, as a witness, would be impeached under Indian laws (primarily Section 153 of the Indian Evidence Act) in little time. The SIT, unlike everyone else, does not have the luxury of relying on seriously doubtful evidence, including fabricated documents, put forth by a witness lacking credibility.
“Action-reaction”: The US invasion of Iraq under the notion of ‘pre-emptive self-defence’ was severely criticised. Initially, however, the US believed it had the right to invade Iraq under international law. A few Iraqi civilians got provoked by it and killed US soldiers. The commonality in both the “action” of the US and the “reaction” of Iraqis is a subjective thought process guiding their actions, whether legal or otherwise, justified or unjustified.
Therefore, if one states the bland fact that “the US invasion of Iraq led to provocation of civilians”, does it mean a justification of either act? Does it mean that an act done in self-defence cannot subjectively provoke anyone, even if wrongly?
What Modi allegedly said – allegedly, because Zee News has not been able to provide the SIT a CD of the full interview – and what the SIT referred to was a bland statement of fact. Both neither attempted to justify the late Ehsan Jafri’s subjective assessment of the need for self-defence (“action”) nor the frenzy of the provoked mob (“reaction”).
This is evidenced by the fact that Modi repeatedly pleaded to the public to remain calm and maintain peace while assuring that the government (not the public) will take strict action against those responsible for the Godhra incident. The Zee News interviewer, Sudhir Chaudhary, has also stated that Modi wanted “neither action nor reaction”. Further, Modi also publicly stated that those who acted in anger and retaliation after the Godhra incident – the rioters – shall not be spared.
If this is not convincing, the author strongly suggests reading pages 428 to 450 of the SIT closure report which elaborates what the government machinery did under Modi’s directions. One can always see the government’s handling of the unimaginable catastrophe as a glass half-full or half-empty. In Modi’s case, most media outlets have seen the glass itself with coloured lenses, grabbing each little window of opportunity to distort facts or report half-truths at the cost of sound and objective reportage.
“Four walls”: SIT’s legal conclusions on a hypothetical situation, assuming that Modi did say “let Hindus vent their anger”, have been picked up by the media without attempting to understand the specific IPC offences referred to. The SIT was responding to Amicus Curiae’s opinion that offences can still be made out under Sections 153A(1)(a) & (b), 153B(1)(c), 166 and 505(2) IPC (despite the fact that there are three materially distinct versions of Modi’s utterances floating around).
For sections 153A, 153B and 505, it is necessary that such words are uttered in a sufficiently public manner so as to cause disharmony, ill-will or hatred between different groups. This is where SIT figuratively used the much-criticised “statement uttered in the four walls” phrase to explain the higher threshold of these IPC offences.
As for Section 166, the SIT opined that no directions can be quoted from law for Modi to disobey them. Modi repeatedly appealing for calm and giving directions to control riots (pages 428 to 450) contradicts any conclusion of disobedience of the law.
It must be pointed out that this discussion is academic in nature since the SIT has not found any credible evidence to show that Modi had uttered those words.
Judgments on the administrative and political handling of the post-Godhra situation by the Modi government, as Shashi Shekhar points out have to be made in the voters’ courts. How Modi will fare at the national level, if chosen by the BJP as its prime ministerial candidate, remains to be seen.
For the moment, the concept of justice for many has confined itself to nailing one man under any possible theory. The next stop for Bhatt, as explained earlier is the National Commission for Minorities where he has been allowed to carry out his personal agenda in what is a simple private complaint which, incidentally, is also sub-judice.