MONOBINA GUPTA reviews The Fiction of The Fact-finding: Modi and Godhra by Manoj Mitta, Harper Collins India, 2014
My most embarrassing moment during my recent Eastern UP trip was hearing RSS and BJP men sing praises of the media. “Aap log Modiji ka bahut madat kar rahen hain” (You all in media are really helping Modiji), they said warmly, throwing cheerful smiles all around. “Sometime ago, you were giving Arvind Kejriwal too much of coverage. Now you have brought the focus back on Modiji,” was the discomfiting refrain in these upbeat quarters.
I squirmed beneath my fake smile and grumbled to myself: this was a stiff penalty to pay for covering these fraught general elections. I would rather these men complain about why we in the media were still so troubled about Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots; why were we still persisting with our questioning the process of investigation, particularly the role of the Special Investigation Team (SIT), that led to Modi’s exoneration in the charge of complicity in the 2002 pogrom.
But that’s not how political discourse in the run up to the 2014 elections is shaping up. Skeptics holding the judiciary to be fallible are blasted for daring to express doubts about the ‘hallowed’ courts; those not rushing in to embrace Modi’s acquittal as manifestation of the truth and nothing but the truth are regularly shouted down on television talk shows. Dissidence is drowned out in the noisy din raised by Modi drum-beaters.Strenuous efforts are underway to pose his ‘acquittal’ as the final word on Modi’s innocence in the 2002 violence. The verdict, we are being told, has erased every disturbing question raised over the last 11 years. It has cleared the deck for Modi to now legitimately claim the high-powered chair he has set his sights on for so long. The time for questioning is over.
Is this the reason that Arnab Goswami of Times Now recently asked Rahul Gandhi whether he still held Modi guilty regardless of the court acquittal? Gandhi, of course, slipped up on the opportunity to come up with a fitting reply. Looking dazed, he floundered for an answer. The very same question is repeatedly and unfailingly lobbed at political analysts and Modi critics. Ironically, those who usually lament the decay and slide in India’s institutions – including the judiciary – are now reposing childlike trust in the acquittal verdict.
In such perilous times journalist Manoj Mitta’s hard-hitting, superbly documented book The Fiction of Fact Finding: Modi and Godhra is a timely arrival in the market. And it does exactly what we are being told not to do: question the processes of investigation resulting in Modi’s acquittal.
I will limit my discussion to chapter VI of the book titled: Shifting Bodies, Shifting Facts. The chapter goes into details of the chain of events that played out after the train burning incident in Godhra, setting off the orgy of violence. The killings and the lootings continued for over a month on Narendra Modi’s watch. The contents of this chapter clearly show that this was one moment when Modi’s supposedly efficient administration could and should have reined in passions, enforced law and order, and directed the police to deal with the rioters – the way Jyoti Basu did following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. But we all know how the events in Gujarat were channeled into a different and violent trajectory.
At the heart of this chapter is the question: Did Modi have a hand in organising reprisals against Muslims? Establishing that the prolonged cycle of violence received one of its major triggers from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-led procession of the charred bodies taken out of the train at Godhra and paraded through Ahmedabad, is not difficult.
Some central questions raised in this chapter are: who allowed Jaydeep Patel, then VHP joint secretary, to take custody of the bodies? Did the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi have any part in it? Or was it entirely the decision of local agencies as is being made out?
The official version goes like this: Mahendra Nalvaya, Godhra’s revenue officer, requested the VHP to take possession of the bodies. But why was such an unprecedented decision taken in the first place? Equally important – was this decision legally tenable? Mitta replies with a categorical No. It was “legally untenable, irrespective of the context in which it had come into existence.” The law doesn’t allow any person other than the legal heir or guardian of the deceased to take custody of bodies. “If there was any exceptional reason to depart from the norm, the letter should have disclosed it.”
“Worse, the administration showed such undue deference to the VHP at a time when it had already been mobilising kar sevaks around the country to defy the Supreme Court’s status quo order on Ayodhya and had just then posed a threat to the law and order with its bandh call,” writes Mitta.
Why did the Modi government allow such gross violation of well laid down norms – unless the BJP was already hand in glove with the VHP?
Interestingly, Nalvaya’s letter was discovered much later among other documents relating to the case. And it subsequently turned into a point of contention in the proceedings of the Nanavati Commission probing the Godhra and post-Godhra violence. Consider that barely a month earlier, the SIT had arrested Jaydeep Patel in post-Godhra massacre in Ahmedabad’s Naroda Gaam.
“Besides relying on witness statements, the SIT had arraigned Patel on the basis of a CD produced before the Commission in 2004 by the whistleblower officer, Rahul Sharma,” narrates Mitta. The data showed Patel making repeated calls on February 27 and 28 to police officers, ministers and even to the chief minister’s office.
The unravelling of facts around just this one incident shows that the questions raised about the fairness of the investigations, far from being settled, are further complicated by the innumerable discrepancies between the two investigative reports and multiple contrary evidences. Reading this one chapter alone leaves you with a bitter taste about the court acquittal, which was surely propelled by shoddy investigation and subjective distortion of facts. There are simply too many gaps and about-turns in the investigations to take their findings at face value.
Mitta writes that Jan Sangharsh Manch (JSM), an NGO, persuaded the Nanavati Commission to issue a notice to Nalvaya, the revenue officer, who issued the controversial letter to Patel. On September 5, 2009, Nalvaya confirmed that the dead bodies had been handed over to Patel but he had no explanation to offer for going ahead with this extraordinarily ill-timed, inflammatory decision.
In the Fiction of Fact-Finding, we come back over and over to the core question: who endorsed such an irresponsible decision? Was Modi himself involved in taking the decision? Should the bodies have been handed over to the VHP, that too after the organisation had summoned a bandh the following day?These questions – tiresome as they may appear to some – especially when Modi seems to be inching towards the country’s prime ministerial post, need to be raised. Mitta’s inferences are not subjective but drawn from a meticulous study of the documents that are in the public domain. Serious questions about the BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant till today hang fire.
“The Nanavati Commission as well as the SIT, headed by the former CBI director R K Raghavan, did deal with each of the three questions. Although both refrained from drawing any adverse inference about Modi’s conduct, their reasons were altogether different as they diverged on two of the three questions,” writes Mitta. First, the two investigating agencies disagreed on the vital question of Modi’s involvement. Second they also differed on the judiciousness of handing the bodies over to the VHP. According to Mitta, the “sheer subjectivity” of the fact-finding by the two agencies led to such differences especially on critical issues like the one we are at present discussing.
The Nanavati Commission rejected the JSM’s plea to summon Modi and laid the responsibility for handing the dead bodies squarely at the door of local agencies. “The Commission would have us believe that though Modi happened to be in Godhra, none of the major decisions, such as sending the bodies to Ahmedabad, and asking the VHP to take their custody, had been taken with his knowledge or consent,” says Mitta.
Modi is known to govern like an autocrat – a man who likes to be at the heart of all decision making. The argument of his leaving such a critical decision to local agencies, especially at such a sensitive time, is nothing short of ludicrous.
That’s not all. Here is just one example of many such discrepancies marking the Nanavati Commission and SIT reports. Contradicting the commission, the SIT’s findings based on Modi’s and others testimonies (of those who were present at the meeting at the Godhra collectorate) confirmed the presence of the chief minister at that important meeting.
Did Patel and Modi meet in Godhra on their separate visits to Godhra in the wake of the train burning? Supreme Court appointed amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran recommended, while giving his opinion on the SIT report, that the SIT should find the identity of ‘somebody very high’ who directed the revenue officer to issue the letter handing over the dead bodies to Patel. “The SIT, however, did nothing of the sort,” writes Mitta. “In its final report, it (SIT) slipped in a bald assertion denying that Patel had met Modi in Godhra.” First, it denied Modi meeting Jaydeep Patel who was present in Godhra that day. Then it went on to state that Patel had been present at the collectorate but not at the meeting.
Besides, the SIT also ignored the testimony of Deepak Swaroop – the seniormost police officer – who was present at that crucial meeting. Mitta writes: “As chief of the Vadodara range encompassing Godhra, Swaroop revealed that Modi had been ‘heckled by the Hindu mob in the railway yard’, he ‘escorted’ the CM safely to the Collectorate, where he met the Hindu leader and (the) media apart from (holding) discussions with the administration and police officers.”
It would appear that both the investigative agencies were deliberately ignoring depositions and facts that put a question mark over Modi’s absence of complicity in triggering and failing to control the violence.
The Nanavati Commission also chose to ignore then Ahmedabad police commissioner P C Pande’s key disclosure that the police were apprehensive about the bodies being brought to Ahmedabad. That they could do nothing because the decision was taken at the “highest political level.” Mitta quotes Pande: “I have no idea why the bodies were brought that night to Ahmedabad… I feared serious repercussions because Ahmedabad was a communally sensitive city and was in fact like a tinderbox.”
“Luckily for Modi, the SIT viewed his decision on the dead bodies in isolation, limiting itself to checking whether they had been brought to Ahmedabad, as alleged by Jafri, in order to parade them. The SIT relied on the word of a senior police officer, R J Sawani, to deny that the riots had been instigated by a massive procession in which ten of the charred bodies had been taken from a locality near Naroda called Ramol to the Hatkeshwar crematorium. It had no qualms about taking Sawani’s testimony at face value despite the evidence of frequent phone calls between him and Patel on 27 and 28 February. Indeed, in this charade of fact-finding, the SIT avoided putting the right questions to the right people,” writes Mitta.
Mitta’s riveting account shows how terribly flawed the investigative processes were. How the entire effort seemed to have been focussed in making the lower level officials take the fall and shield Modi. Manoj Mitta’s book reminds us once again that court acquittals are not always the last word and questioning them – especially in the face of such huge contrary evidence – is only the right thing to do. And before the BJP and their allies accuse Mitta of whitewashing the 1984 riots and being a Congress agent, they should check out his previous book which took the Congress to task for its role in that episode of violence.