Undermining the SIT's 'clean chit'

BY AJAZ ASHRAF| IN Books | 17/02/2014
Why is the Indian media, including the group the author works for, not following up on some of the sensational disclosures made in this book,
asks AJAZ ASHRAF

The Fiction of Fact-Finding; Modi & Godhra
Manoj Mitta
Harper Collins
Pages: 261 / Rs 599

 

Once you complete reading Manoj Mitta’s breathtaking investigative book, The Fiction of Fact-Finding; Modi & Godhra, you are likely to wonder about the priorities of the Indian media, which never shies away from trumpeting its contributions to our vibrant democracy. It’s possible you’d ask why the charges of an elaborate cover-up that Mitta has levelled against the investigators of the 2002 Gujarat riots haven’t been reported in the national dailies, or why there haven’t been follow-up stories on some arguably sensational disclosures he has made in the book.

Indeed, The Fiction of Fact-Finding deserves more than a review on the books pages, not the least because it reveals clinically the convoluted process through which Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was declared to have not been culpable in the triggering of the grisly Gujarat riots. Modi is now the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the impending General Elections. To prove, as Mitta does in his book, that the fact-finding in the 2002 riots was barely more than fiction – and, therefore, a sham – is tantamount to expressing deep worries about Modi’s style of governance and, therefore, his suitability for the post he covets.

Yet, compare the silence of the Indian media (Outlook is the sole exception) on Mitta’s charges to the justifiable fury that Times Now anchor Arnab Goswami recently directed against the complicity of Congress leaders in the reprehensible anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Should not Goswami grill BJP leaders on the sheer vacuity, and hypocrisy, of their claims that Modi had been found not guilty of provoking the post-Godhra carnage by none less than the Supreme Court-monitored Special Investigation Team (SIT)? Should he not, in his hectoring voice, ask the man who chaired the SIT, RK Raghavan, to account for the twisted logic he and his team invoked to exonerate Modi?

These questions haven’t been asked even in the pages of The Times of India, where Mitta works as a senior editor, though his book can be mined for several stories. It is truly a case of the newspaper not knowing the value of the information its own journalist has unearthed. Or are we to presume there is a more complex reason than ignorance behind the TOI’s decision not to run any of the startling stories Mitta narrates in his seminal book?

The most captivating of these stories dates to May 1991, pertaining to the police officer who was the “overall in charge of security” at Sriperumbudur, near Chennai, where former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. This officer was none other than SIT boss RK Raghavan. Minutes before the LTTE suicide bomber Dhanu exploded herself, Raghavan was trailing Gandhi at a distance of 10 feet, but then, surprisingly, “turned around for a few moments”.

In his affidavit to the JS Verma Commission that probed the security lapses at Sriperumbudur, Raghavan said he had turned around to “rearrange the convoy for the return journey” of Gandhi. This was why Raghavan did not witness how Dhanu slipped into the sterile zone, reached a few feet from Gandhi and exploded herself. Nevertheless, in his affidavit Raghavan blamed Gandhi for the security lapse, citing a woman sub-inspector’s account to claim that he had beckoned a gaggle of people to come near him, ostensibly providing the opportunity to Dhanu to accomplish her mission. Adopting an unmistakable tone of incredulity, Mitta writes, “Dhanu could apparently pull off the assassination because of the unforeseen help she had received from her target (italics mine).”

The Fiction has put in the public domain for the first time the affidavit of Raghavan and that of other police officers who endorsed his “beckoning” theory, which the Verma Commission rejected, apart from other reasons, on the evidence of photographs taken by Haribabu, a member of the LTTE death squad who died in the blast. Two of his photos showed Dhanu being present in the sterile zone long before Gandhi arrived at the venue.

You’d have believed the security lapse at Sriperumbudur would have cost Raghavan his job, or at least indelibly blotted his career. Nothing of that sort happened. As Mitta explains, “Justice Verma disbelieved Raghavan’s testimony on the critical issue of how exactly Dhanu had accessed Rajiv Gandhi. Raghavan got away with it because the report (Verma’s), strangely enough, did not ascribe the beckoning theory to him, personally.” The late Justice Verma refused to speak to Mitta “about his opacity” in dealing with Raghavan’s theory.

Suffice it to say, the reprieve to Raghavan saw him eventually head the CBI under the Vajpayee government and then, years later, become the chairman of the SIT that the Supreme Court established to investigate the Gujarat riots. In narrating the back-story of Raghavan’s beckoning theory, till now gathering mould in files, Mitta is asking, in not so many words: Was it appropriate to appoint as SIT chairman a man who tried to save his own skin through a plainly absurd story in the past, particularly as the administration he was asked to probe was, to say the least, as guilty of dereliction of duty as he too had been?

Raghavan apart, two of the three Gujarat police officers who comprised the SIT had to be replaced because of serious questions arising about their character and neutrality. The third original member, Ashish Bhatia, Mitta says, “survived the purge although probably deserved as much to replaced.” Reason: victims had filed affidavits in the Supreme Court accusing Bhatia of colluding with the accused in the Gulberg Society and Naroda cases. Their affidavits weren’t likely to have been the working of persecuted minds, for the SIT’s special public prosecutor in the Gulberg Society, RK Shah, quit citing specific instances when the investigators delayed supplying him the “material that could have helped him bring the best evidence out of each of the prosecution witnesses.” All of this was part of the elaborate smokescreen the SIT created to conceal Modi’s controversial role in the 2002 riots.

A defining aspect of this smokescreen was the farcical interrogation of Modi, whom the investigators summoned in response to the complaint filed in the Supreme Court by Zakia Jafri, the widow of former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who had been brutally killed in the post-Godhra carnage. Zakia had accused Modi and 62 others of conspiring to foment the 2002 mayhem. Instead of subjecting Modi to a severe test, the SIT posed questions to him that enabled him to frame ambiguous replies, which weren’t even challenged.

Thus, for instance, when Modi claimed he had described the Godhra incident involving the burning of a train coach on February 27 as only a pre-planned conspiracy, the SIT didn’t confront him with the official press release which quoted him saying that it was a “preplanned inhuman collective violent act of terrorism”. His characterization of Godhra as an act of terror, as is well known, fanned passions. Again, Modi told the SIT that he came to know of the massacre at the Gulberg Society, in which Ehsan Jafri perished, five hours after its occurrence. However, Mitta shows Modi’s claim to have been highly improbable given that the state’s top police brass, in its own bumbling or half-hearted ways, was engaged in fire-fighting in the Gulberg Society for much of that tragic afternoon. Really, how could they have not communicated to the chief minister the macabre death-dance being enacted in the city?

With the precision of a surgeon, Mitta analyses the investigative steps the SIT took to expose the intent of its members: it was as if they had decided beforehand on the innocence of Modi. He points to the glaring procedural flaws in the SIT’s investigations, its sleight of hand in not probing Modi beyond asking him pre-scripted questions, its tendentious interpretation of the recommendation of amicus curiae in Jafri’s complaint, Raju Ramachandran, that “further investigations” ought to be conducted into the role of the chief minister.

Mitta notes, “Ramachandran’s observations should have impelled the SIT to issue fresh summons to Modi… In reality, the SIT balked at calling Modi afresh…” Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the SIT’s final report to a magisterial court in Ahmedabad exonerated Modi, and the magistrate dismissed Jafri’s complaint. “The moral of the story is clear,” writes Mitta sardonically. “When the right questions are not put, there will be neither the right evidence nor the right conclusions.”

At times, the SIT had the right or adequate evidence to nail Modi’s alleged culpability in the 2002 riots, yet it refused to draw the right conclusions. In a damning chapter, Shifting Bodies, Shifting Facts, Mitta demonstrates how the SIT strained itself to ensure Modi wasn’t linked to the contentious decision to hand over the bodies burnt in the Godhra train fire to Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Jaydeep Patel, and bring them to Ahmedabad for cremation. Unfortunately for the SIT, this decision had been recorded in a letter issued by the mamlatdar (revenue officer) of Godhra to Patel. The question to ask was: could a junior officer have given the custody of dead bodies to a non-government person without instructions from a person high in the administrative hierarchy?

No, thought Raju Ramachandran. The SIT thought otherwise, prompting Mitta to note, “Its insistence that the mamlatdar alone was culpable for the blatantly illegality of his letter hung tenuously on assertions that stretched credulity or were contradicted by its own evidence. The SIT’s exoneration of Modi owed much to its reluctance to link the dots and get the big picture of Gujarat as it stood on the eve of the post-Godhra carnage…”

The Fiction doesn’t just scrutinize the SIT’s motivated probes. It puts the microscope on the wilfully flawed investigations of the Gujarat police, the tracking of steps that led the Supreme Court to monitor the Gujarat cases, the alleged partiality of the Nanavati Commission that the Modi government appointed to inquire into the 2002 mayhem, the remarkable differences in the Commission’s approach now to what it had adopted in its probe of the 1984 riots, and even judicial verdicts delivered in some cases.

Thus, for instance, the dubious investigative style of the Gujarat police is highlighted by the fact that 25 of the 28 Muslims arrested (three died before the judgement) on the first two days of the Gujarat incident were acquitted as the “police witnesses were found to have falsified the circumstances in which they had been arrested.” It seems the investigation was certainly prejudiced by “Modi’s hasty declaration on the first day that the Godhra incident was a terror attack.”

To say Mitta has written a fine book would be an understatement, for his is a searing indictment of the ‘model of justice’ Modi has built in Gujarat, a scathing commentary on India’s liberal democracy. He shames all those, including journalists, who repose abiding faith in the due process of law, through a creative demolition of the legal edifice which provided the clean chit to Modi and, before him, to the powerful people complicit in the 1984 riots. Might we, including The Times of India Group, not redeem ourselves by pursuing the leads of The Fiction to portray the sordid reality of our times? Without such a depiction, the reality of India, of which the impunity the powerful enjoy is an aspect, can never ever be altered.

The author is a Delhi-based journalist, and can be reached at ashrafajaz3@gmail.com

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