Unfinished agenda

03 November 2007
An undercover investigation has revealed that the massacre of 800 muslims in 2002 during riots in Gujarat was systematically planned and covered up by leading right-wing BJP politicians.
The Tehelka expose on the Gujarat carnage of 2002 is a wrenching, stomach-churning reminder of the events, individuals and institutions behind the worst episode of state-sponsored communal violence in independent India. It re-establishes what has been recorded by more than 20 independent citizens’ inquiries and by reports of the National Human Rights Commission, but it does so in a different manner — through the personal testimonies of 14 men who were centrally involved in planning and executing the violence. The fact that they express not an iota of remorse for their actions, but instead boast and brag about them — and often exaggerate their individual roles in acts of extreme violence — speaks of the extent to which Hindutva has dehumanised and morally corrupted its adherents. It also bears testimony to the deep communalisation and debasement of Gujarati society. Such individuals could not have survived and flourished as “normal” human beings and political leaders and lawyers in an environment that has not lost all its moral bearings and its sense of minimal decency and justice. The expose also points, alarmingly, to the present, in particular, the sordid state of prosecution of criminal cases and the continuing collusive role of the state machinery in covering up the gory events of 2002 and minimising the culpability of those responsible. This should be a matter of agonising distress for all of us citizens — regardless of ideological or political persuasion. The Gujarat carnage was a grave and serious crime against humanity. It offended all that is crucial and vital to democracy, the constitutional values of secularism and pluralism, and the rule of law and principle of neutrality of the state machinery as regards religious and ethnic identities. The very thought that India has failed for five and a half years to bring the pogrom’s culprits to book should make us want to hang our heads in shame. At any rate, to recapitulate the Tehelka revelations, they establish that the top leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) consciously decided to organise a massive no-holds-barred attack on Muslims all over the State in “retaliation” for the burning at Godhra of a coach of the Sabarmati Express carrying kar sevaks from Ayodhya — although there was no evidence that extremist Muslims had carried out that act. The Sangh Parivar’s plot included a strategy of shielding the would-be attackers through the help of senior police officers and prominent lawyers. Its leaders and cadre had manufactured, procured, stockpiled and distributed a range of weapons. Top BJP and VHP leaders, including Members of the Legislative Assembly, mobilised and led mobs through the streets of Ahmedabad and Baroda. The police did nothing to stop them. On the contrary, they egged them on, stood guard or participated in the violence themselves. The bloodthirsty mobs used arson as their principal means of attack, burning alive hundreds of Muslims and setting fire to their homes. Their frenzy was doubly charged by a communal consideration: cremation is supposed to be un-Islamic. Sexual violence played a critical role in the pogrom. The cover-up began even as the rioting was under way. Top leaders and senior police officers, made sure that the first information reports (FIR) filed on murder, rape and arson would be so vague and faulty as to ensure that nobody would be prosecuted. They organised shelters and sanctuaries for some of the mass killers. Some of them were not even arrested. Along with previous reports, the Tehelka disclosures pose a major challenge to the Indian state and its secular credentials. The Central government and the secular parties must respond to them in two ways: legally and politically. Legally, the Tehelka tapes are admissible as evidence on how the conspiracy to massacre Muslims was hatched in Gujarat, how it was executed, and on how the culprits committed the crimes they did. Various groups representing the victims are moving the Supreme Court asking that it summon the tapes. The government must fully back them and speed up the prosecution of the relevant cases. It must also analyse and use the fresh evidence contained in the expose against specific individuals, including Sangh Parivar leaders, policemen and other officials. Even more urgent is the task of reviving the judicial process in a number of cases where it has been suspended for the past four years. The Supreme Court under former Chief Justice V. N. Khare admitted petitions seeking the transfer of 14 such cases out of Gujarat. But only the Best Bakery trial has been moved to Maharashtra. Cases related to other grave incidents of violence and mass killings in Sardarpura, Gulberg Society, Naroda Patiya, Sabarkantha and Naroda Gaon are still on hold. The accused continue to roam free. These must be immediately transferred and tried rapidly if justice is to have any meaning. Yet another task is to rectify police records and use supplementary evidence which has been generated during the proceedings of the Shah-Nanavati Commission. Some valuable evidence has indeed emerged there, including records of all cellular phone calls in the critical period pertaining to the violence, which can pin down the role of specific individuals and reinforce the prosecution’s case against them. However, it is even more important to fight the perpetrators of the Gujarat pogrom politically by taking on the Sangh Parivar. This task is long overdue. The secular parties collectively failed the victims of Gujarat in 2002 when they did not get together and mobilise strong protests all over the State demanding that the Centre dismiss the Gujarat government under Article 356 — although it was beyond dispute that the functioning of the government was blatantly violative of the Constitution. Had all the top leaders of the secular parties gone on a hunger strike in the centre of Gandhinagar or Ahmedabad in pursuit of this one demand, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government would have very little choice. Some of its own constituents were rattled by the violence. In the 1970s, Morarji Desai forced Indira Gandhi to dismiss the Chimanbhai Patel government for far weaker reasons. The secular parties, in particular the Congress, yet again failed the cause of justice in 2004 when the newly installed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government did not take any initiative on Gujarat in spite of the fact that one reason for the victory of some of its major constituents was the public’s disgust with the BJP on account of the Gujarat violence and its ultra-sectarian and divisive communal agenda. Many anti-communal activists were utterly disappointed when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose not to mention Gujarat in his first addresses to the nation. He is yet to utter the ‘G’ word. This must change. The Congress must respond to the Tehelka disclosures more boldly and upfront. For the moment, the Congress seems hesitant to take on Narendra Modi out of fear that this would polarise the Gujarat situation and line up “Hindu sentiment” behind the BJP in the Assembly elections due in December. This timidity is based on devious reasoning and “short-termism” typical of the party and its advisers on Gujarat affairs. Five years ago, the same worthies had counselled Shankersinh Vaghela, formerly an RSS and BJP man himself, to adopt the “soft-Hindutva” line — and lost both the secular and Hindu communal votes. Narendra Modi today is extremely vulnerable. The Congress, jointly with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and other secular parties/groups, can put up a winnable fight against him by aiming to eliminate or reverse the narrow 3 percentage-point lead the BJP had in the last Lok Sabha elections (itself down from 10 percentage points in 2002). Narendra Modi faces hostility from his parivar. Not just the VHP and RSS but significant sections of the BJP oppose him. They comprise at least 11 MLAs and two MPs, including two former Chief Ministers, a State ex-Home Minister and a former Union Textiles Minister. Beneath the leadership-level changes lie major shifts in the BJP’s social support-base. Two large caste groups, the Kolis and Leuva Patils (Patidars), have moved away from it. The Kolis who belong to Other Backward Classes are among the State’s largest castes, comprised largely of small and marginal farmers and landless labourers. Traditionally Congress voters, the Kolis, gravitated towards the BJP in the mid-1990s and voted en masse for it in 2002. By the 2004 parliamentary elections, however, 55 per cent of their vote went back to the Congress. The prosperous Patidars dominate Gujarat’s agriculture, small and medium-scale industries, and diamond polishing. Their vote is decisive in one-third of all constituencies. They account for 37 of the BJP’s total of 127 MLAs; the party’s Koli MLAs number 15. Both groups are upset with Narendra Modi because of his extremely abrasive style, readiness to humiliate, refusal to share the loaves and fishes of office, and his government’s failure to allow the fruits of growth to trickle down.