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Why the Naroda-Patiya verdict is a big blow for Modi

September 07, 2012 17:05 IST

Narendra Modi will find it impossible to wash away the bloodstains from Independent India's worst State-sponsored pogrom. His image will remain sullied no matter how many Sadbhavna campaigns he organises, says Praful Bidwai.

Special judge Jyotsna Yagnik has struck a blow for the victims of the Gujarat anti-Muslim violence of 2002 by convicting 32 accused for the Naroda-Patiya massacre of 97 people. Prominent among them are MLA and former minister Maya Kodnani, and Babu Bajrangi, a Bajrang Dal thug who strutted about for 10 years boasting that he felt like 'Rana Pratap' while leading violent mobs.

Kodnani, long a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh poster-girl, and close to Chief Minister Narendra Modi, was the lynchpin in the premeditated killing of 35 innocent children, 32 women and 30 men, including a 20-day-old infant, who were targeted for no other reason than that they were Muslims.

A gynaecologist who knew the Patiya neighbourhood well, she helped identify the victims and directed the mobs which speared and burnt them to death. She fired from a pistol and distributed arms and kerosene to the rioters.

Seen in proper perspective, Kodnani's crime was no less than that of Ajmal Kasab, who with a fellow-terrorist, gunned down 58 people at the CST station in Mumbai. Not only was she responsible for killing more people. She was inspired by crass and pathological hatred. She knew that the victims were innocent and had no responsibility in the burning of a train coach in distant Godhra. Kasab too knew he was killing innocent people simply because they were Indians.

The awarding of 28 years' imprisonment to Kodnani -- 10 years for causing grievous hurt with dangerous weapons, followed by 18 years for murder, conspiracy and other charges --and of life terms to 31 others sends out a powerful message. The message is that such violence won't be rewarded even in Gujarat. Society will not condone the brand of politics represented by the butchers of Naroda-Patiya, based on rank prejudice and communal hatred.

The Indian judiciary is slow to deliver justice. But in the present case, it has shown a determination to enforce the rule of law, especially against important political figures -- despite the fact that Kodnani was 'tremendously favoured' by the police, who took 'all care, at the cost of the duty of the investigating agencies,' to shield her.

With the Naroda-Patiya verdict, as many as 117 persons stand convicted for the Gujarat pogrom, including the Sardarpura, Ode and Deepda Darwaza cases, each a horrifying story of barbaric violence against a minority and the State's refusal to protect its citizens. The convictions came about even though the police refused to file accurate FIRs or collect enough evidence. More convictions are likely to follow in other cases being tried in Maharashtra under the Supreme Court's orders.

This number is small in relation to the magnitude of the butchery in Gujarat, but it's still impressive given that there have been very few convictions in communal violence cases for the past 40 years, including the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, in which many more perished than in Gujarat, or the post-Babri demolition violence in Mumbai.

Although nobody has been punished for mass rape, the Naroda sentences do deliver a measure of justice to the victims. They also reaffirm secularism, and restore the citizen's faith in democracy and the State's will and ability to defend rights.

Unprecedented as these convictions are, they couldn't have come about without the intervention of the Supreme Court under the pressure of secular public opinion. This was crucial to taking the Gujarat violence out of the state's boundaries and acknowledging that it was a national, indeed a global, disgrace and a crime against humanity, which attracted widespread international condemnation, and deserved to be exemplarily punished.

That judicial intervention, including the appointment of a Special Investigation Team, became possible only because more than 40 inquiries by citizens' commissions and numerous other reports by civil society groups and eminent intellectuals documented the involvement of high state functionaries in instigating or permitting the violence -- to begin with, by provocatively parading the bodies of the Godhra victims through Ahmedabad and allowing the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to organise a bandh, with the clear intention of instigating anti-Muslim attacks.

Civil society activists indefatigably kept up pressure on the Indian State not to brush the pogrom under the carpet and let its perpetrators off the hook, as happened in countless past cases. Not least, activists from Teesta Setalvad's Citizens for Peace and Justice and public-interest lawyers like Mukul Sinha of the Jan Sangharsh Manch doggedly pursued various cases. Justice for the Gujarat victims, even if partial, represents a major civil society triumph.

No less important was the role played by conscientious policemen such as Rahul Sharma (who prepared a CD containing a log of mobile-phone calls made by prominent people such as Kodnani) and Sanjiv Bhatt, and by public-spirited bureaucrats. Notable among these was former Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh, who postponed the assembly elections in Gujarat against Modi's bidding and highlighted the breakdown of constitutional order in the state.

However, the SIT, led by former Central Bureau of Investigation director RK Raghavan, was a disappointment. It produced a reasonable preliminary report indicting numerous state functionaries, including senior police officers. It dismissed Modi's "action-reaction" rationalisation of the post-Godhra violence and accused him of "a measure of thoughtlessness and irresponsibility" in his "implied justification" of the pogrom.

But the SIT's final report let the functionaries off the hook and declared on dubious grounds that there was no evidence to prosecute Modi and 61 others, as demanded by Zakia Jafri. So blatant was its implicit endorsement of the "action-reaction" proposition that the Supreme Court had to appoint senior lawyer Raju Ramachandran as amicus curiae (friend of the court) to independently evaluate the evidence.

Ramachandran found strong prima facie evidence that Modi instructed his officers to allow the "revenge killings", and that Ahmedabad joint police commissioner MK Tandon and deputy commissioner PB Gondia played a partisan role during the violence.

The SIT played yet more mischief in the Naroda-Patiya case by not submitting, in defiance of Judge Yagnik's orders, a full report on the role of politicians and policemen in the violence. Now, the telephone log, which was selectively used to establish Kodnani's presence in Naroda-Patiya, also clearly implicated other high functionaries, including the then junior home minister Gordhan Zadaphia and personnel in the chief minister's office.

The log records four phone calls between Kodnani and the CMO on February 28 and March 1, lasting between 75 seconds and 179 seconds in duration. There were two calls between her and Zadaphia too. She was in touch with several police officers, including Tandon and Naroda inspectors KK Mysorewala and VS Gohil. The SIT ignored this evidence.

Logically, all such evidence must be assiduously collected and used in a criminal trial to punish state functionaries entrusted with the responsibility of protecting fundamental rights, in particular the most basic right to life. Sinha is planning to move the Gujarat high court to do just this, by trying to get Zadaphia, CMO functionaries and police officers arraigned as accused.

The case could get uncomfortably close to Narendra Modi -- just when the Gujarat assembly elections are barely 100 days away, and he faces opposition from within the Sangh Parivar and the powerful Patel community because of his autocratic behaviour, and refreshingly, from the Congress, which is reportedly becoming combative at least on election promises.

One thing is clear. The Naroda-Patiya judgment is a big blow to Modi, not merely because his close associate Kodnani, whom he appointed as his minister for women and child welfare after the pogrom, has been found guilty of mass murder. More important, the verdict is a political game-changer. It will strengthen the demand for accountability and justice for communal violence and empower secularists and Gujarat's beaten, humiliated and disenfranchised Muslims.

Modi will find it impossible to wash away the bloodstains from Independent India's worst State-sponsored pogrom. His image will remain sullied no matter how many Sadbhavna campaigns he organises and how many contrived interviews he grants to people like Shahid Siddiqui in which he declares his love for Muslims and says that he too should be punished if found guilty.

In 2002, India failed to punish Modi politically for the pogrom. The National Democratic Alliance government refused to impose President's rule on Gujarat despite a manifest breakdown of constitutional order. The opposition didn't run a sustained campaign demanding his dismissal. He was twice returned to power in a communally polarised situation.

Big Business, on whom he showered favours, lionised him as an ideal development-minded chief minister. Many others urged the public to let bygones be bygones. But 10 years on, the ghosts of 2002 have returned to haunt Modi. He remains a deeply divisive and singularly nasty figure, who faces opposition from within the parivar and Bharatiya Janata Party allies like the Janata Dal-United. One can only hope that the opposition scuttles Modi's bid to play a major role in national politics.

Praful Bidwai