Could a Hindu Extremist Become India’s Next Prime Minister?
Ahmedabad—In a recent interview, Narendra Modi, the man likely to be India’s next prime minister, was asked by a news agency why he long avoided questions by journalists about his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Despite YouTube videos showing Modi refusing to answer questions on this topic, Modi insisted, “I was not silent…. I answered every top journalist in the country from 2002 to 2007, but noticed there was no exercise to understand the truth.”
In Manoj Mitta’s new book The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, published by Harper Collins India, Mitta argues that if there has been no real attempt to get to the truth of Modi’s actions during the riots, it’s because of the “cavalier” approach to justice. Through extensive documentation, Mitta shows that Modi might be on trial today, as opposed to campaigning for prime minister, if only he had been asked the right questions about his role in the riots.
Mitta is a senior journalist with the Times of India who specializes in human rights reporting. His first book, When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath, examined the investigation into the anti-Sikh pogrom in India’s capital of Delhi, when about 3,000 Sikhs were killed after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard. It was co-written with H.S. Phoolka, now a senior advocate with the Supreme Court, who fought for over a decade, to little avail, to get justice for the victims of the 1984 massacre. Mitta has said that his third book will examine India’s problem of caste violence.
In his latest book, Mitta focuses his attention on Modi. The timing could not be better. India’s elections began on April 7 and conclude on May 12, with results to be announced on May 16. Modi, who has been the chief minister of Gujarat since 2001 and is running under the banner of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has a 78 percent favorability rating, according to the Pew Research Center. His key opponents are Rahul Gandhi of the left-leaning Indian National Congress Party and Arvind Kejriwal of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party. Many of India’s 814 million voters view Modi as capable of rescuing India from the economic slump it has been in under the incumbent Congress party, which, with the Nehru-Gandhi family, has ruled India for most of its sixty-seven-year post-independence history. But a major cloud still hangs over Modi’s head: the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The violence was sparked after a train was set on fire in the Gujarat city of Godhra. Fifty-nine Hindus were killed, most of them known as kar sevaks, who were on their way back from Ayodhya, in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. The kar sevaks were helping to build a temple to the Hindu deity Lord Ram on the site of the religiously contested sixteenth-century Babri mosque, which was razed by tens of thousands of Hindus in 1992.
Retaliatory violence broke out in Gujarat soon after the Godhra arson, resulting in the death of over 1,200, most of them Muslims. Human Rights Watch said in its 2002 report, “The attacks against Muslims in Gujarat have been actively supported by state government officials and by the police.” Particularly gruesome was the scale of violence against women. “Among the women surviving in relief camps, are many who have suffered the most bestial forms of sexual violence—including rape, gang rape, mass rape, stripping, insertion of objects into their body, stripping, molestations. A majority of rape victims have been burnt alive,” a report by a collection of India-based NGOs said. In 2005, the US government denied Modi a visa, the first time in history Washington has blocked entry because of religious freedom violations.
Modi, who was born in Gujarat in 1950, has been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, since his childhood. The RSS was started in 1925 as a paramilitary Hindu nationalist group and today it runs around 45,000 camps where Hindus are trained in various physical activities ranging from yoga to even weapons training. In 1948, one of its members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated India’s nonviolent independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi. Modi remains an ardent follower of the RSS and a champion of Hindu nationalism, which argues that non-Hindus may live peacefully in India so long as they accept the superiority of Hindu culture. It is this belief that led a young Modi to join the senior BJP leader L.K. Advani, who became India’s deputy prime minister in 2002, on a procession across India to build support for the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.
For many, including the Indian sociologist Ashis Nandy, Modi’s proclivity toward ultra-religious nationalism has always been visible. Remarking in 2002 about his meeting with Modi in the early 1990s, Nandy wrote, “I had met a textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer.”
How, then, did Modi transform himself from a human rights pariah to being cleared by India’s legal system? Mitta begins by probing the Godhra train tragedy. Within hours after the attacks, dozens of Muslims were arrested, despite the fact that there was scant evidence of their involvement. That afternoon, the dead bodies from the Godhra incident were handed over to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an extremist Hindu nationalist group, and placed on display eighty miles away in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s most populous city, where Hindu-Muslim clashes erupted in 1969, 1985 and 1992. And that night, Modi called the arson a “terror attack,” before any investigation had begun.
P.C. Pande, then the Ahmedabad commissioner of police, was critical of the decision; he “feared serious repercussions because Ahmedabad was a communally sensitive city… like a tinderbox.” Mitta challenges the belief that Modi showed respect for the legal system and called for calm. If anything, the opposite was true, Mitta argues, suggesting that it may have been the Gujarat government’s decision to bring the bodies to Ahmedabad and place them on display.
One of the most shocking things Mitta reveals is that the forensic team that was assigned to examine the burnt train coach arrived only two months later, and the train coach had been left out in the open. Whether this was a case of incompetence or willful neglect, Mitta reminds us that the best way to memorialize the Hindus who died is to seek answers about their killing through a proper investigation. “The casualties in the Godhra arson deserved better fact-finding, especially under a government that derived so much political mileage from their tragedy,” Mitta writes.
Nine years later, thirty-one Muslims were convicted in 2011 of a “pre-planned conspiracy” to attack the train. But what of the sixty-three Muslims who were acquitted, including the alleged mastermind? Mitta writes, “These false arrests were a measure of the prejudice likely to have been caused to the investigation by Modi’s hasty declaration on the first day that the Godhra incident was a terror attack.”
The bulk of Mitta’s book, however, focuses on the violence that followed the train arson. On February 28, 2002, a day after the train fire, a mob gathered in the affluent Muslim neighborhood of Gulbarg in Ahmedabad where Ehsan Jafri, a member of India’s Parliament, lived along with other Muslim families. Jafri made frantic calls for help to the police commissioner and to the chief minister’s office, but no one responded. When the mob surrounded his home, Jafri fired a gun in hopes of dispelling it. In 2007, the Indian investigative magazine Tehelka reported the testimony of one of Jafri’s assailants: “Five or six people held [Jafri], then someone struck him with a sword… chopped off his hand, then his legs… then everything else… after cutting him to pieces, they put him on the wood they’d piled and set it on fire… burnt him alive.” Jafri was 73.
Several years later, India’s Supreme Court appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by R.K. Raghavan, the former head of India’s Central Bureau of Investigation. Mitta brings Raghavan’s impartiality into question. Not only was he indicted for the security lapses that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, a Congress party leader, in 1991, but Raghavan’s career was resuscitated in 1999 by Modi’s party, the BJP.
The SIT questioned Modi in 2010, asking him seventy-one questions, including about the Jafri case. Modi claims he did not know about the incident until five hours later, though he admitted that as chief minister of Gujarat, he was in constant contact with his police officers, who were monitoring that day’s events. Police officers have also come forward and claimed that Modi instructed them to “let Hindus vent their anger,” although the veracity of this has been contested.
Nonetheless, Modi’s claim to not have known about the killing does not square with his infamously autocratic style of rule and his tendency to know every detail about Gujarat’s events. In this election, Modi has boasted that as chief minister, he is one of the most efficient and attentive leaders, but these are two qualities Modi did not show on the day of Jafri’s killing.
Unfortunately, the SIT’s questioning of Modi was of little help in discovering the truth: “At no point did AK Malhotra [a member of the investigating team of the SIT] make the slightest effort to pin Modi down on any gaps and contradictions in his testimony,” Mitta writes. Furthermore, Mitta believes that “had the SIT not balked at asking questions on issues of far greater consequence, Modi would have most likely been facing a trial.”
Modi, however, has emerged unscathed, while others have been convicted in the Gujarat riots cases, including Maya Kodnani, who led a mob in Gujarat at the bloodiest incident during the violence, the Naroda Patiya massacre, where ninety-seven Muslims were killed. Kodnani was BJP legislator at the time and in 2007, Modi promoted her to Minister for Women and Children Development, despite pending charges against her for inciting the worst violence during the 2002 riots. (She was convicted and sentenced to twenty-eight years in jail in 2012.)
But assessing Modi’s guilt is not the purpose of Mitta’s book, and Mitta deserves credit for his restraint. At times the book is dense and bogged down with technical details, which can be daunting for a non-specialist audience. I do also wish Mitta had zoomed out a bit more to examine broader issues, such as the culture of impunity that is so widespread in India as well as the role of the Indian bureaucracy in religious riots. That said, given how emotionally charged these elections are, Mitta deserves credit for not making any bold proclamations about Modi, and he deserves praise for his lack of rhetorical bombast, something rare in these discussions.
Coming in the middle of these elections, Mitta’s book is also an important corrective to the way Modi speaks about the 2002 riots today. In a recent interview, Modi said, “I have taken it [moral responsibility for any person killed in Gujarat] since day one.” This past December, Modi claimed he was “shaken to the core by the riots.”
The reality is quite different, Mitta reminds us. On the day of the Godhra train attack, Modi traveled eighty miles to visit Godhra but did not initially visit any of the relief camps in Ahmedabad, an hour away from his residence. A few months after the violence, Modi was dismissive of those camps, where tens of thousands of displaced Muslims lived for as long as ten months. “Do we go and run relief camps? Should we open child-producing centers?” Modi said.
These stories are well known, at least in India, but it is the lesser-told stories that make his book stand out. For example, on February 28, 2002, the Gujarati newspaper Sandesh ran a headline that said, “Avenge Blood with Blood.” On March 1 Sandesh featured a story that, as Mitta writes, “taunted Hindus for [their] absence of reprisals.”
The Editors Guild of India, one of the nation’s most respected journalist associations, condemned the paper, along with another Gujarati publication, as a “notable offender” of media freedom. Modi saw the coverage differently, and on March 18, 2002, Modi wrote to Sandesh praising its coverage. “I am happy to note that your newspaper exercised restraint during the communal disturbances.” While India’s English print and TV journalists were sharply critical of Modi during the riots, the vernacular press contributed to the anti-Muslim fear in Gujarat—and earned Modi’s compliments in the process.
By focusing on Modi’s response and the subsequent investigation into his actions, Mitta is able to raise a larger question: why does the Indian legal system so often exonerate its political leaders? Mitta offers one explanation. “When it came to the high and mighty, the system betrayed a deep-seated inhibition to take the evidence to its logical conclusion. This is a commentary on how little the Indian legal culture has evolved where it really matters,” Mitta writes.
In 2012, on the tenth anniversary of the riots, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch said: “Modi has acted against whistleblowers while making no effort to prosecute those responsible for the anti-Muslim violence. Where justice has been delivered in Gujarat, it has been in spite of the state government, not because of it.” Indeed, when the Gujarat government pursued cases relating to the 2002 riots, it resulted in a paltry 5 percent conviction rate, but when the Supreme Court examined these cases, the rate was 39 percent.
The Gujarat government is not alone in being lackadaisical in its commitment to human rights. Across India, too often the legal system privileges the politically connected, the majority communities, the high castes and males. Gender violence is rampant in India, for example, because there is little political will to tackle the culprits. Addressing this topic, Harvard Law School’s Jacqueline Bhabha said, “Reducing impunity is imperative: more effective arrests, more police accountability, speedier trials, consistent and appropriate sentencing policies, adequate criminal justice resources so that gender justice is not only delivered, but seen to be delivered.”
Another problem is that the accused are too often favored. “The rates of judicial attrition continue to be high. The criminal justice system is not victim friendly and focuses on the rights of the accused alone,” said Indira Jaising, Additional Solicitor General of the Supreme Court of India, speaking on gender-based violence.
This is one of the strengths of Mitta’s book. He reminds us that even if there were irrefutable evidence of Modi’s guilt, the history of the Indian justice system shows that it seldom pursues those at the top.
* * *
In this election, Modi has tried to convince voters that he was pained by the riots, unaware of the riots, helpless in the face of the riots. It is a useful campaign strategy, as Modi wants to convince voters he is capable of leading a country as diverse as India. But Tanveer Jafri, whose father Ehsan Jafri was killed, is not convinced. “When there was a bomb blast at Modi’s rally in Bihar, he went to comfort the victims. But Modi has never once reached out to my family. Instead he has tried to blame us,” Jafri said.
This is a tactic commonly used by Modi: to stigmatize the complainant. As he told his biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, “There is one conspiratorial group which keeps this emotional hurt business alive by digging up the wounds. When that group stops their work, the wounds will automatically get healed.” But as Mitta reminds us, society can only reach closure when it confronts—rather than denies—its problems.
Modi would rather the critics remain silent. It is through our acquiescence, he believes, that India will advance. This may be the biggest tragedy. Many in India are no longer able to find the space to question Modi. Journalists have reported that they are under pressure to mute their criticism of him. Publishers are fearful too: a biography of Modi by French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot, one of the world’s leading experts on Hindu nationalism, has been delayed because many are weary of releasing anything critical on Modi at this time.
For the Indian-born novelist Salman Rushdie, a Modi victory would be to “risk everything that is beautiful about a free society.” In a speech delivered on April 28 at the Pen World Voices Festival, Rushdie observed, “A disturbingly high percentage of the Indian electorate wants a strong man leader, is willing to turn a blind eye to his past misdeeds, even if those include genocide, believes that dissenting intellectuals should be put in their place, critical journalists should be muzzled, and artists should behave themselves.”
Indeed, here in Gujarat, the victims of the 2002 riots are all but silent. On the morning of February 28, Justice Akbar Divecha, a Muslim, saw a Hindu mob gathered outside his house in Ahmedabad. He called Modi’s right-hand man at the time, Ashok Bhatt, for help, but Bhatt said he could not do anything. Divecha and his wife managed to escape to the all-Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad known as Juhapura. A few hours later, his house was burned down. “Even the car the government provided me was attacked,” Divecha said. “My wife lost it. I don’t think she has still accepted that this could happen.”
One of Modi’s defenses is that the Gujarat government was not aware of the violence that day. Divecha sees it otherwise. “The [Gujarat] government was responding all day to my calls. They were just not acting,” he said. He wrote a chilling letter of complaint to the Gujarat government and thought that as a retired high court justice they would sympathize with him. No such compassion was shown. His house burned down, they told him, because he should not have left his home.
This has been a tendency of all Indian political parties and indeed of Modi’s government: the fingers always point outward. Tragedies happen because the victim did or did not do something. Jafri was blamed for staying home and firing a gun; Divecha was blamed for leaving his home.
Today Divecha lives a few blocks from my apartment in Juhapura, where around 400,000 live with with limited government provided schools, roads, and sewage lines. All throughout Divecha’s house are chains hanging from the ceiling that he uses to stabilize himself when he stands, one above his chair, another above his breakfast table, another by the door. He is 80 years old and when we met, he sat in front of a coffee table full of medication.
“I am tired,” he said. “I served India all my life. Is this any way to treat a high court justice?”
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