The 2002 Gujarat riots did not happen because Narendra Modi authorised the killing of Muslims that cold February. The longer we dwell on his direct role — for which evidence is thin — the longer his “clean chit” will be used to wipe out two other crimes. The first of those is the role BJP politicians, Sangh Parivar members and police officials played in the killing of more than a thousand Muslims early that year.
For this there is evidence. The other crime is the follow up. It is a scandal that the conviction rate in the riot cases pursued by the Modi state government is just 5 per cent. In contrast, in those trials where the Supreme Court outsourced investigation, prosecution and witness protection away from the Gujarat state government, I estimate the conviction rate to be 39 per cent. This is nearly eight times better than the Gujarat government. These are crimes no clean chit should erase. How then is it happening?
Let’s begin with Modi’s individual guilt. He is accused of ordering his top officials, in a meeting on February 27, 2002, to stand by while Hindus vented their anger against Muslims for the death of Hindus at the Godhra train station that morning. There is little evidence for this. The only man who claims he heard this is suspended police officer Sanjiv Bhatt. This is a man who woke up nine years later to accuse Modi, whose wife ran on a Congress ticket against Modi. And this is a man whose lone testimony has been contested by the several officers who were actually at the meeting that evening.
The other “evidence” against Modi — call records but no real conversations, private testimonies to retired judges — do not a legal case make. The Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team was correct to say this, the magistrate right to agree. Modi’s personal criminal responsibility for the 2002 riots is no worse than Rajiv Gandhi’s for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Sudhakarrao Naik’s for the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, and every chief minister’s for riots that have happened under his watch. Let’s end that campaign once and for all.
The campaign that needs to go on is against the thugs who turned on their neighbours, the ministers who led the mobs, the Sangh Parivar members who turned up with petrol cans, and the police who did little to stanch the bleeding. Some of them have been convicted by the courts, more roam free. Unlike the case against Modi, there is easy evidence here. Most murders and rapes were done in full public view, by people the witnesses knew well. In Mehsana district, I spoke to Munsafkhan Pathan, a towering former policeman who witnessed the killings of other Muslims in his village by a Hindu mob.
I asked him where the culprits lived. He got up from his chair in his walled compound, pointed to the corrugated rooftops visible beyond, “There”, he said, “some live there, some I still see every day. They have not been jailed.” The local BJP politicians had incited the village Hindus, he told me, confident that they could act with immunity.
That confidence was not misplaced. Twelve years hence, the low conviction rates in the murders — crimes in public view with hundreds of witnesses — are a scandal. I asked a senior Gujarat police officer for statistics, but was told “we don’t keep separate records of riot cases” — despite clear Supreme Court guidelines to do so. Legal researcher Pritarani Jha and others at the NGO, Centre for Equity Studies, have had better luck. Based on copious RTI applications to individual police stations, they estimate that the actual conviction rate in Gujarat government-handled riot cases is a pathetic 5 per cent.
In contrast, in the few cases where investigation, prosecution and witness protection was taken away from the Gujarat government by the Supreme Court (that is, the SIT-monitored and Maharashtra-moved trials), I estimate that the conviction rate is 39 per cent, based on official statistics given to me by the SIT. The famous convicts you’ve heard of — minister Maya Kodnani, thug Babu Bajrangi — have not been convicted by the Gujarat government, but by a special legal process designed to keep the Narendra Modi government out of every stage of the trial. That’s the real scandal of Gujarat: a party whose members killed, whose government allowed it, and whose police and prosecutors are now asleep at the wheel.
Yet, in one stroke, the blots from these crimes are being wiped off by the “clean chit” given to Narendra Modi. The point is not whether Modi gave an illegal order to orchestrate mass murder. The point is that his party, his government, his supporters acted as if on orders. The point is that his 56-inch chest proved incapable of halting the mobs, seems incapable of ensuring criminal justice to those who suffered. By reducing this complex narrative to a single illegal order, by making Narendra Modi the face of the Gujarat riots, his innocence has now led to the innocence of all. Who is to blame for this?
The first is the Congress party. Playing politics, it refused to question a culture that prevents Muslims from buying houses in middle class Ahmedabad, a local bureaucracy that sees Muslims as trouble, and an RSS and VHP machinery that exploits this social consensus for political ends. For crying out loud, the current leader of the Congress in Gujarat, Shankarsinh Vaghela, helped create the RSS network in Gujarat (as did then pal Narendra Modi).
Instead of breaking the social and political networks that allowed the Gujarat riots, the Congress has chosen the soft option of going after Modi. It cannily uses the spectre of Modi to haunt minorities into voting for it. That Modi plays along — Muslim-baiting to get the Hindu vote — ensures a jugalbandi in which both the Congress and Modi are happy to paint the chai-wallah’s son as the face of those riots. As Nazir Khan Pathan, a witness to the killing of 97 Muslims in Naroda Patiya, told me: “[Both the] BJP and Congress scare us. One to get Hindu votes, the other to get our votes.”
The second, unwitting culprits are some of the same NGOs and civil society groups who have so doggedly fought for the Gujarat victims. I spoke to members of the four main NGO groups who have been fighting the legal battle on behalf of the victims. All wanted to remain anonymous to avoid antagonising those they work with (for an activism that promotes transparency, their culture of silence is quite loud). But they were privately critical about how their struggle has been hijacked to stop Modi from becoming prime minister. A repeat figure for censure was Teesta Setalvad. One lawyer said Setalvad’s relentless bid to “get Modi” was at the cost of drafting carefully researched legal petitions.
Another derided the quality of the Zakia Jaffrey petition (against Modi) as being rushed. Not all were critical; the victims at Naroda Patiya, for instance, praised the effort put in by Setalvad. But this “get Modi at all costs” strategy has ended up obscuring those who actually murdered, raped and burned with impunity.
That impunity comes from a state and society in consensus that Muslims are not part of the “mainstream air”, an innocuous phrase that sounded ominous when told to me in Gujarati by Asif Khan Pathan, a school director in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura. This is the consensus that led the rioters that February to pillage, that have allowed many culprits to still roam free. The “get Modi” strategy misses this in favour of a narrow quest to stop one man from becoming prime minister. They must now live with the futility of that quest.
Modi has been cleared by the SIT and the courts — as he should have. And since Modi was made the heart of the Gujarat riots story, all those responsible for that tragedy share his “clean chit”. In their sloppily argued, partisan bid to pin a larger tragedy on one man, the Congress party and some NGOs have unwittingly made the Gujarat riots seem less horrific than they actually were.
The writer is a lawyer and PhD candidate at Princeton University. Part of his research deals with the Supreme Court intervention into the 2002 Gujarat riots investigation