A study of the masterminds behind the Godhra riots
In May this year, the people of India chose their Prime Minister. Over twelve years, several inquiry commissions — the Tewatia Committee (2010), the Nanavati Commission (2008), the Special Investigation Team (2011) under the Supreme Court — cleared Narendra Modi of all charges of having masterminded or, at least, encouraged the Godhra riots.
Still, his detractors — politicians and ideology-driven activists in India, the US and Europe — have continued to label him “merchant of death”, “butcher”, “Nazi”, “fascist”, “murderer”, etc. Let us examine the facts and see whether they can point to the riot’s real mastermind.
On 27 February 2002, when a coach of Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya went up in flames at Godhra railway station, a Congress member of the Godhra municipality, Haji Balal, led a mob and stopped the fire-fighting vehicle on its way to the station. The fire crew reported that “he had been visiting the fire station at night for the past few days on the pretext of watching films on television.” Haji Balal, a few days earlier, had the clutch plates of one of the main fire-fighting vehicles removed; in the second vehicle, the nut connecting the pipe to the water tank was spirited away.
Haji Balal who, according to locals, proudly proclaimed himself the “Bin Laden of Godhra”, is among eleven people convicted for criminal conspiracy and murder and sentenced to death by a special fast track court in the high-security Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad on 22 February 2011.
Other Congress members were also “booked for the carnage”. The attack on the pilgrims was carried out “according to what was planned earlier under the directions of [the late] Maulvi Umarji”, a religious leader of the Ghanchi Muslims of Godhra. “All the acts like procuring petrol, circulating false rumour, stopping the train and entering in coach S/6 were in pursuance of the object of the conspiracy,” concluded the Nanavati Report. “The conspiracy hatched by these persons further appears to be a part of a larger conspiracy to create terror and destabilise the Administration.”
“Destabilise the Administration”: Narendra Modi had assumed office as Gujarat Chief Minister on 7 October 2001, four months earlier. Incidentally, Maulvi Umarji got a ticket to campaign for the Congress in December 2002 state election in Gujarat.
In order to quickly gather a crowd of angry Muslims to the Godhra station and attack the train, so that no one would guess who was pouring petrol in the S6 and S7 coaches, rumours that a Ghanchi Muslim girl had been abducted by the Kar Sevaks were spread by the Jamiat-Ulema-E-Hind (JUH), a long-standing ally of the Congress.
From the start of the crisis, Narendra Modi appealed to the people to remain calm and exert self-control. On five occasions between 27 and 28 February, “CM addressed Media, Assembly and General public and everywhere the genesis and intention was one and the same, to punish the culprits responsible for the Godhra incident in an exemplary manner, so that it did not recur ever again.” He announced an ex-gratia payment of 200,000 rupees to the next of kin of those killed in the Godhra incident and ordered a high-level inquiry into the incident.
On 1st March, less than two days after the tragedy and while riots were raging, Modi requested the chief secretaries of neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan to send ten companies of armed police from each state to assist the government in “handling law and order situation”. As the sociologist and author Madhu Kishwar points out, all three states then had Congress governments, and all three turned down the request.
Let us recall that the BJP-led NDA alliance had been in power at the Centre since 1998, confirmed by fresh elections in 1999. A 15-million-rupee campaign by journalist-activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand, funded by the Congress Party and Communists to “politically isolate the BJP”, failed to convince the Indian people, who voted the BJP to power. And the crusaders had to swallow the obvious — that the streets of India remained peaceful during the NDA regime.
They however found a fertile ground in the US, especially with the evangelical lobbies. On 1st April 2002 Teesta Setalvad created “Citizens for Justice and Peace” (CJP), an NGO “outsourced by the Congress to the job of attacking Modi”, as Madhu Kishwar put it. The activists approached the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a U.S. government-funded body, with known roots in the evangelical movement, whose “original intention was to protect Christians around the world … to review facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally — and to make policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and the Congress”. Testifying before the USCIRF, Teesta Setalvad alleged that the BJP had conducted:
successful pogroms and attacks against the countries religious minorities, … recent state-sponsored Genocide of the Muslim Community in Gujarat … Brutal destruction of life, through rape, quartering of bodies, urinating on them and incarcerating [sic] them so that there is no trace or evidence of their remains … desecrating over 270 religious and cultural shrines belonging to the community … through systematic planning and targeted action by armed militias ideologically driven by the vision of a supreme and exclusive Hindu rashtra (state). … Over 2,000 lost their lives, 500 are missing and 250-300 girls and women were gang-raped before being quartered, burned and killed.
This “testimony” from India is what fed countless self-styled human rights organizations and intellectuals in India and in the West. They drank in Setalvad’s words and regurgitated them as articles and “reports” with a plethora of gory details.
As regards the number of riot victims, invariably quoted in thousands, the then Police Commissioner P.C. Pande, in a statement to the Special Investigating Team, declared,
… it was incorrect to say that 1000 people lost their lives in Ahmedabad City during the riots of 2002, whereas the actual number of deaths between February 28th 2002 and April 30th 2002 was 442, of whom 113 were Hindus and 329 Muslims. … All offences committed were duly and properly registered including by sending police officers to relief camps and therefore, no important crime remained unregistered.
According to the Congress-led UPA government’s statement in Parliament on 11 May 2005, the final figures of those killed in the Godhra riots are 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus. In any case, the endlessly repeated figure of “2000 Muslim victims” has no basis in actual fact.
Facts cannot so easily be wished away. And they were nailed by the Nanavati Report and the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT), headed by former Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) chief R.K. Raghavan in response to a petition filed by Jakia Nasim, Ehsan Jafri’s widow, and Teesta Setalvad, which alleged criminal conspiracy by Narendra Modi’s government. Jakia Nasim’s testimony before the Nanavati Commission and Supreme Court in 2002 and 2003 was that “the mob would have lynched all of them but for the
timely action by the police”. Four years later, her praise turned into complaint — except that the poor lady was not even aware of what she complained or petitioned about: “She has no personal knowledge of the allegations mentioned in the affidavits filed by R.B. Sreekumar during the years 2002, 2004 and 2005 on his own”, said the SIT.
Let us explain: The SIT, appointed on 23 March 2008, investigated two retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officers, one of them being R.B. Sreekumar just mentioned, to whom we will shortly return. The second one, Sanjeev Bhatt, then Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence in the Gujarat government, claimed after years of silence that he was present at a law and order meeting convened
by the Chief Minister on 27 February night at his residence. At this meeting, which lasted 15-20 minutes, Sanjeev Bhatt claims that the Chief Minister said that “for too long the Gujarat police had been following the approach of balancing the action against Hindus and Muslims … that the situation warranted that the Muslims be taught a lesson, … it was imperative that Hindus
be allowed to vent out their anger….”
As it turned out, none of the officials present even remembered the presence of Sanjeev Bhatt. Interrogated independently later, they denied any such talk by the Chief Minister, who, they asserted, said instead that the Godhra flare-up was very unfortunate and should be handled with a firm hand. The discussions centred around maintenance of law and order in view of the call for a bandh on the next day and the availability of forces. Ahmedabad Police Commissioner P.C. Pandey categorically stated that no instructions to allow any freedom to law-breakers were given by the Chief Minister. According to Prakash S. Shah, then Additional Secretary (Law & Order), the Chief Minister instructed all the officers that “communal peace and harmony be maintained at all costs and all possible steps be taken to control the possible communal flare-up.”
As for Sanjeev Bhatt’s testimony, the SIT called fax messages produced by him “not genuine”, “forged document, fabricated subsequently by someone with a vested interest.” “This conduct of Shri Sanjiv [sic] Bhatt in arranging, prompting and controlling the witness [a witness produced by him] to corroborate his statement is highly suspicious and undesirable.” And from the location of his mobile phone, his claim of being present at the said meeting at the Chief Minister’s residence proved to be false. “Shri Sanjiv Bhatt is a tainted witness and therefore, cannot be relied upon keeping in view his background in the police department as he was involved in criminal cases of serious nature and departmental inquiries are also in progress against him.” Cases against him included inflicting torture in custody leading to death, abduction, extortion and unprovoked firing, killings and planting narcotics with a view to blackmail. SIT head R.K. Raghavan concluded that Bhatt had lied and brought in tutored witnesses to falsely implicate Modi. The Gujarat Vigilance Commission recommended his suspension twice (on 15-07-2002 and 19-10-2006) for professional misconduct, but each time he managed to evade prosecution.
A last brush stroke on Sanjeev Bhatt’s erratic comportment is given by senior lawyer Ram Jethmalani in a Sunday Guardian article. The man “handed over charge and his official computer, leaving all his emails in an unprotected mode for all to read”… The state government forwarded the material to the SIT for investigations, and thanks to this irresponsible gesture, authorities harvested details of his “hobnobbing with the Opposition Congress party in a thoroughly illegal and almost seditious manner to concoct evidence against the Chief Minister and the state of Gujarat”. To this end Bhatt was in constant touch with top Congress party leaders, from whom he received not only guidance, but “packages” and “materials”, as per his own statement.
Activist Teesta Setalvad built a successful career on the Godhra issue and on demonizing Narendra Modi, for which she has been covered with national and international awards. Let us mention just a few:
• In August 2002, the Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana [Communal Harmony] Award instituted by the Congress (I), jointly with Harsh Mander (former IAS officer and NAC board member), “for their outstanding contribution towards communal harmony and national integration”.
• In 2003, the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award (jointly with Ibn Abdur Rehman, a Pakistani “peace and human-rights advocate and veteran communist from Pakistan”).
• In 2006, the Nani Palkhivala Award. In her acceptance speech, Setalvad was all praise for an IPS officer to whom she dedicates her award, someone “who stood mighty in the face of a murderous and vindictive Gujarat administration.”
» This is a postscript to The Godhra Riots: Sifting Fact from Fiction, by the same author
» Read the second part of this article, the ISRO Spy Scandal story, on Scribd here
» Nicole Elfi is a French author who lives in Auroville. This article © Nicole Elfi, 2014
Notes & References
- From Commission of Inquiry Report of Justice G.T. Nanavati & Justice A.H. Mehta (henceforth “Nanavati Report”), p. 175: 229. The report is available on the website of the Gujarat government: http://home.gujarat.gov.in/homedepartment/downloads/godharaincident.pdf (accessed May 2014).
- From Justice Tewatia Committee Report, short for Gujarat Riots: The True Story; Facts Speak for Themselves – Godhra and After, A Field Study by Justice D. S. Tewatia, Dr. J.C. Batra, Dr. Krishan Singh Arya, Shri Jawahar Lal Kaul, Prof. B.K. Kuthiala. Council for International Affairs and Human Rights, Governing Body for the Term 2001-03. See “Staff of the Fire Brigade”. Online at: www.gujaratriots.com/index.php/2010/04/justice-tewatia-committee-report/ (retrieved June 2014). Also Nanavati Report, p. 86, 88, 89: 128, 130-131.
- Dasgupta, M. 2011. “11 get death in Godhra train burning case”, online at: www.thehindu.com/news/national/11-get-death-in-godhra-train-burning-case/article1500325.ece (retrieved July 2014).
- Among them, President of the District Congress Committee, Farooq Malla and Congress activist of Godhra Municipality, Abdul Rehman Dhatia. Tewatia Report, “Fifty-Eight Pilgrims Roasted Alive”.
- Nanavati Report, p. 159-160: 214; p. 175.
- Gujarat’s minister of state for home Amit Shah’s interview by Sheela Bhatt, 27.02.2003, online at: www.rediff.com/news/2003/feb/27inter.htm (retrieved June 2014).
- Nanavati Report, p. 175: 229.
- Nanavati Report, pp 40-41: 51-52, p. 49: 68; pp. 158-159: 213.
- Special Investigation Team (SIT) Report, p. 241. The Supreme Court handed over all records pertaining to 2002 riots to SIT on 20.01.2010; SIT submitted its final report on Modi’s role in 2002 Gujarat riots, on 25.04.2011.
- SIT p. 21.
- Kishwar, M.P. 2013. “Modinama 7, When Congress State Governments Snubbed Modi’s Request for Additional Police Force”, online at: manushi.in/articles.php?articleId=1704 (retrieved May 2014).
- Wikipedia, Communalism Combat: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communalism_Combat . “In a 1999 interview, Javed Anand said that before the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, his monthly magazine Communalism Combat (published by Sabrang Communications since August 1993) requested and received funds from the Congress Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India and ten individuals to run advertisements attacking the Sangh Parivar and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)”.
- See Elst, K. & Rao, R.N. 2002. Gujarat after Godhra: Real Violence, Selective Outrage, Har-Anand, Delhi.
- See Balakrishna, S. 2014. “Narendra Modi’s visa denial still an unhealed wound” online at: indiafacts.co.in/narendra-modis-visa-denial-still-an-unhealed-wound/? (retrieved May 2014).
- Kishwar, M.P. 2013. “Modinama” 13, “RB Shreekumar: Hero No. 2 of Secular Brigade” – Part I, online at: manushi.in/articles.php?articleId=1730 (retrieved May 2014).
- The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Commission_on_International_Religious_Freedom (retrieved May 2014).
- Teesta Setalvad’s testimony to the USCIRF, online at: http://web.archive.org/web/20070713194116/www.uscirf.gov/events/hearings/2002/june/0 6102002_setalvaTestimony.html (retrieved June 2014)
- SIT pp. 92-93.
- See “Gujarat Riots: the true story”, online at: www.gujaratriots.com/index.php/2008/05/myth-1-2000-muslims-were-killed-in-the-gujarat-riots/ (retrieved July 2014). Narendra Modi’s interview for Seedhi Baat/Aaj Tak, in India Today, 04.11.2002, online at: www.indiatoday.com/itoday/20021104/conf.shtml#co (retrieved July 2014).
- About Ehsan Jafri see Elfi, N. 2013. “The Godhra Riots: Sifting Facts from Fiction”, online at: scribd.com/doc/174541552/The-Godhra-Riots-Sifting-Fact-from-Fiction-Nicole-Elfi .
- SIT pp. 16, 18-19.
- SIT p. 16.
- SIT pp. 22-25.
- SIT pp. 25-27, 34, 522.
- SIT pp. 523-530.
- SIT p. 41.
- SIT p. 241.
- SIT pp. 540-41. Also Dasgupta, M. 2012. “SIT rejects amicus curiae’s observations against Modi”, online at: thehindu.com/news/national/article3401728.ece (retrieved June 2014).
- SIT pp. 48-51. Kishwar, M.P. 2013. “Modinama 6, Heroes of the Secular Brigade: A Glimpse into the Doings and Misdoings of Sanjiv Bhatt”, online at: http://manushi.in/articles.php?articleId=1703&ptype=campaigns (retrieved July 2014).
- Jethmalani, R. 2011. “UPA, media have a brazen mission to demonize Modi”, online at: sunday-guardian.com/analysis/upa-media-have-a-brazen-mission-to-demonize-modi (retrieved July 2014). Also Kishwar 2013: 6, op. cit.
- The National Advisory Council (2004-2014) was a body set up by the first UPA government to advise the Prime Minister of India. Sonia Gandhi served as its Chairperson from its inception to its end.
- Nuremberg International Human Rights Award, online at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuremberg_International_Human_Rights_Award
- Teesta Setalvad “Nani A Palkhivala Award 2006 Acceptance Speech”, online at: www.countercurrents.org/comm-setalvad100207.htm (retrieved June 2014).
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