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That stubborn stain on Modi's record

July 21, 2013 14:10 IST

His action after the Godhra train violence doesn’t support the picture of an effective and no-nonsense deliverer of good governance, says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

Narendra Modi’s much-touted administrative efficiency was not on display on February 27, 2002. The attack on the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra occurred between 8 am and 8.20 am; Modi said he learnt about it after almost an hour -- 9 am, to be precise. Even then, the CM did not react with the urgency the situation warranted. The first meeting of key officials and select ministers was called after another one and a half hours. Most ministers in Gujarat stay inside a well-guarded campus, in houses at a stone’s throw from each other.

Modi returned home late at night after visiting Godhra. He says he only then learnt that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had called for a Gujarat bandh the next day. He adds that he learnt the next morning “from newspaper reports” that the bandh had been supported by his Bharatiya Janata Party! By then, mayhem had begun. And, it was also the beginning of subversion of justice.

Beside delaying preventive action, the man who would over the next decade evolve as the chief executive officer of a corporatised Gujarat justified the spread of violence in an interview to a TV reporter: “Kriya-pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai. Hum chahte hain ki na kriya ho aur na pratikriya (A chain of action and reaction is being witnessed. I want that there be neither any action or reaction).”

Since the uproar was unprecedented, a commission of inquiry comprising a single retired Gujarat high court judge was appointed. This did not satisfy political adversaries, civil society and the riot victims. They wanted a multi-member body, with wider terms of reference. The demands were accepted in a piecemeal manner, more than two months after the incidents - first by appointing Justice G T Nanavati and then agreeing to probe violence till the end of March.

Eleven years later, the Nanavati-Mehta commission was recently given an extension for the 20th time, for another six months. It is five years since the first report on the Godhra carnage was given and the silence thereafter has contributed to fear of a judicial cover-up.

These apprehensions are compounded because the amended terms of references included a probe into the role of Modi and his ministers in the riots.

In the immediate aftermath of the violence, the focus was on specific cases of rioting and killing. Barring the districts of Jamnagar, Porbandar and Amreli in Saurashtra, and those of Valsad, Navsari and Dang in south Gujarat, every district in the state was affected. The post-Godhra carnage resulted in more than 1,000 deaths. The state government informed the National Human Rights Commission that 27,780 arrests were made, including those accused of committing crimes and those placed under preventive detention. Thus began one of the most complicated of legal mazes, in the course of which investigations were botched by the police, courts transferred cases to other states because impartiality in Gujarat was questioned, and victims and witnesses were coerced into changing testimonies, at times by inducement and on other occasions by the sheer force of state power.

And, instances of extra-judicial killings surfaced and these needed fresh legal intervention. Both types of cases continue to drag, at times given a justified push by the courts; however, justice for the victims remains elusive. Investigations have been reopened but the findings have raised more questions. It is ironical that criticism at the delays and attempts by courts to push the pace of the trials has often assisted Modi in consolidating support among his core constituency.

A few setbacks have taken away Modi’s moral sheen, even among supporters – conviction of ex-minister Maya Kodnani, for instance. However, the arm of law has reached nowhere near Modi.

Good governance must assuage feelings of hurt and the guilty must be punished. The Gujarat government has not facilitated the pursuit of truth and has erected hurdles in the path of its search by others. Efficient governments must not stop at providing justice but also should be compassionate. Modi’s edifice in Gujarat is built over the debris of jurisprudence; for him, politics is all-important. Good governance and talk of it is just a route to political power over bigger territories.

The writer is author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (Westland)

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay in New Delhi