Fear of Modi: Why Vanzara is part of collateral damage
The Modi factor has resulted in a change in the rules of the game where politicians tacitly backed policemen in fake encounters to deal with terror or crime.
The letter-bomb of jailed Gujarat police officer DG Vanzara, leaked yesterday (3 September) for political reasons, may or may not damage Narendra Modi’s chances of being named the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, but two things are clear: Modi’s enemies are leaving no stone unturned to ensure that he is packed off from the election arena; but with every such “exposure”, the credibility of the disclosure also drops.
Nobody has failed to notice that the leak of the Vanzara letter follows close on the heels of a public interest litigation (PIL) based on a sting operation which apparently shows BJP spokesperson Prakash Javdekar and others conspiring to help Amit Shah, former Gujarat Minister of State for Home, who has been charge-sheeted in the Tulsiram Prajapati encounter case. Since Vanzara’s letter of resignation also seeks to make Shah the villain of the piece, the linkage and timing of the two events are – to say the least – suspicious. Two days, two different pieces of news to indict the same person. Can that be just coincidence?
But Vanzara’s letter is important for what it signals: the breakdown of the tacit political consensus against too close a scrutiny of how men in uniform handle alleged terrorists. The significant point is that the consensus has broken only because the man at the centre of it all is Modi – and not anyone else. Leave Modi out, and it is highly unlikely that anyone would have gone after the politicians who may have implicitly supported any encounter, fake or otherwise. No Prime Minister or Chief Minister anywhere has paid a political price for encounters anywhere – though this has been the norm.
Vanzara’s letter alleges that the policy of “zero-tolerance” to terrorism was part of conscious Gujarat government policy. This, in itself, would not mean much except for the fact that Vanzara is facing charges of conducting fake encounters in four cases (Sohrabuddin, Tulsiram Prajapati, Ishrat Jehan, and Sadiq Jamal), and in two of them (Sohrabuddin and Tulsiram) Amit Shah is also being accused of involvement.
Vanzara’s broad accusation – that the state had at least winked at the idea of using encounters to get rid of “terrorists” – is not difficult to believe, since this has been the policy in all states and the centre so far. Whether it is militants in the north-east, Khalistani terrorists in Punjab, jihadi elements in Kashmir, or Naxals in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, all governments, without exception, have been following this broad policy of giving police officers leeway on how they eliminate extremists.
The logical thing to do if one wants to avoid extra-judicial killings is to expand the police force, free it from political control, and make it follow the law. Only then can we expect the police to take the easy way out through encounters.
KPS Gill is a national hero today because he did what was needed to break the back of Khalistani terrorism in Punjab. He was not doing anything different from what Vanzara claimed to be doing in Gujarat: dealing with Pakistan-inspired terrorists.
Indian Express Editor Shekhar Gupta makes the same point in connection with the Ishrat Jehan fake encounter case. He wrote a few months ago: “It (the Ishrat Jehan case) is not the first time ‘controlled killings’ have been carried out by our intelligence agencies and police. They have done so, on a much larger scale, in several parts of the country, and have been applauded and rewarded for these. So much so, that even when innocents have been targeted and killed, these have been overlooked as genuine errors and collateral damage…much of this has not only taken place under the watch of the Congress and several other secular parties, but many of the same organisations and personnel have been involved. So how do the encounter killings of hundreds of suspected/alleged Sikh terrorists in Punjab become justified, but some half dozen in Gujarat evoke such an outrage?”
In India, the anomaly is that while some men in uniform get legal protection for their acts, others don’t. The purpose of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is to specifically exempt the army from being held too accountable for human rights violations, including encounters, committed in the line of duty. That this Act may have been used to protect people from even charges of rape is another matter, but there is little doubt what the Act’s central purpose is.
There is little difference between what the army does in Kashmir or Manipur, and what the state police do with gangsters or terrorists in their regions. The main difference is that one act happens out of sight of mainstream media, the other doesn’t. A second difference is in how we treat the two kinds of killings: one gets significant legal protection under AFSPA, the other doesn’t.
In the absence of such protection, state governments (and the centre) have had a tacit policy of looking the other way when the police get into extra-judicial action. The political sanction, if any, always comes with this unstated condition: the state will protect the people directly involved in encounters, whether fake or real, either by looking the other way, or by not actively supporting the prosecution. On the obverse side, in case anyone gets caught for reasons that the state can do nothing about (like intervention by the Supreme Court, for example), the politicians will still have plausible deniability.
Consider the recent convictions in the “fake encounter” case of Ram Narayan Gupta, supposedly an agent of absconding gangster Chhota Rajan. A Mumbai sessions court in July convicted 13 cops for the fake encounter, but did we see any politician being implicated? None. It is difficult to believe that politicians did not know anything about something involving such a large group of policemen, especially when the police are under direct political control, and the politician-police nexus is strong everywhere.
In the past, the message to the police from politicians has always been this: do what you have to do to control crime or terrorism, we will give you political cover; but if you get caught, you are on your own.
Vanzara’s rant against Amit Shah is probably driven by the one-sidedness of this compact. The police want protection when they get caught, but this is what they are not getting. So when activists want Shah or Modi to resign on the basis of Vanzara’s letter, they are on the wrong track. Vanzara’s letter actually shows that the state is not messing around with his protection.
Talking about the fate of several policemen who are in jail for fake encounter cases, Vanzara writes: “I, being the senior-most officer and being one among them in the jail, have been making ceaseless efforts on behalf of all of them, to persuade this government to be of some use and assistance to me and my officers which, I am sorry to state, had not been fruitfully paid attention to. Verbal consolations given by this government, time and again, had been proved to be invariably hollow and deliberately misleading.”
At another point, he rails against the unfairness of it all and rants: “With the passage of time, I realised that this government was not only not interested in protecting us but it also has been clandestinely making all efforts to keep me and my officers in jail so as to save its own skin from CBI, on one hand, and gain political benefits on the other.”
It is not clear how keeping police officers in jail helps Amit Shah or Modi, because it should then be easier for the CBI and the courts to get some of them to give evidence against the state government. If Modi wanted to control what Vanzara and others had to offer, they should be keener to get them out on bail and fix things directly.
Later on, Vanzara effectively goes into another rant that looks like an indirect accusation against the court. “Inspite of all such acts of betrayal and treachery, I was gradually reconciling myself with this government, when a Skylab in the form of Supreme Court order of transfer of Sohrabuddin trial to Mumbai fell on us from New Delhi, which was beyond wildest of my imaginations. With all regards for Hon'ble Supreme Court of India, I sincerely believe and state that but for the legal and political intrigues, machinations and manoeuvrings of Shri Amitbhai Shah, the trial of the Sohrabuddin encounter case, followed by that of the Tulsiram encounter case, would not have gone out of the state of Gujarat. It goes without saying that the cruel act of transferring the case out of the state has increased the agony of the jailed police officers, on one hand, and multiplied the hardships of their family members on the other.”
There is no doubting the hardships faced by families when trials involving their kith and kin are geographically moved to another state, but what should concern us here is the implicit allegation that Shah got the court to get the trial shifted out of Gujarat so that he would be allowed back into the state to campaign for the assembly elections – where he won handsomely.
This is something the Supreme Court needs to take note of, not Shah. Vanzara’s allegation seems to be the result of seeing too many conspiracies behind his misfortune, when it is apparent that all most anti-Modi activists welcomed this decision of the court, including Teesta Setalvad.
The larger point, though, is important. Vanzara says that when it comes to encounters, “the government and police officers are sailing in the same boat and have to swim or sink together.”
He’s right on this. But he is the collateral damage resulting from the Modi factor, and the fear it engenders in his rivals. This fear is prompting tectonic changes in the old rules of conduct between politicians and men in uniform, never mind if it impacts intelligence gathering and public security.
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