The first part of our extended interview with the civil rights activist and journalist, who has been a key part of the struggle for justice and reparations for survivors of the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002.
Ahmedabad, 2002 / AFP via Livemint
To begin with the special court’s verdict, in June, on the Gulberg Society massacre. Could you outline the consequences of the judgement, and of the conspiracy angle not being upheld?
This was one of a spate of judgements related to Gujarat 2002; the last in a long line of judgements. What happened in Gujarat related to some 300 incidents all over the state. Gulberg was the second-worst in terms of the loss of life, with 69 deaths. So it is an incredible argument for the court not to accept that there was a conspiracy – we will challenge this in an appeal. We believe one of the reasons the court refrained from accepting it is that the SIT – the Special Investigative Team appointed by the Supreme Court – did not press it very hard.
Linked to this is the Zakia Jafri case, pending in the high court, where the issues of command responsibility and wider political, administrative culpability for the crimes of 2002 are to be adjudicated on. So, while arguing the Zakia Jafri case we already had the Naroda Patiya judgement behind us, relating to the worst incident in Gujarat – according to us 124 people were massacred, and the chargesheet says 96 were killed. There, not only was the conspiracy claim upheld but the sting operation by Tehelka, Operation Kalank, was also held to be corroborative evidence, and a wider conspiracy – a wider political conspiracy – was mentioned.
If the argument that there was a conspiracy had been upheld in the Gulberg Society case as well, it would have made the Zakia Jafri case that much easier for us to prosecute – to insist on a chargesheet, etc. We believe this is of a piece with the designs of the prosecuting agency, not to allow that chargesheet to be filed.
Is the pending Zakia Jafri case the only avenue for pushing this kind of administrative or command responsibility?
It is the only case. Before it, nobody has ever made a case for the administrative or culpable responsibility of police officers, administrators and politicians including the chief minister. We’ve had one rejection at the magistrate level, the protest petition that was rejected; the appeal against this in in the high court is pending.
What about the role of the central government at the time: for instance there were a number of letters exchanged between President Narayanan and Prime Minister Vajpayee. Have court proceedings shed any light on this aspect?
No, the judicial proceedings have taken no note of it, because they have dealt with individual cases, not the overall case. Only the Zakia Jafri case deals with that. Attempts to release the Narayanan–Vajpayee correspondence in the public domain through the right to information have been denied. Nevertheless, there are some documents in the public domain which are quite indicting, for instance Vajpayee’s letter to Narendra Modi in that period. It was even released by former National Human Rights Commission chairperson and former Chief Justice J.S. Verma. There are also K. R. Narayanan’s statements about Gujarat, reported by the press, about his sense of helplessness during the pogrom because the central government was not responsive to what he was saying.
We also have, in the Zakia Jafri case, correspondence between the Union Home Ministry and the Home Ministry of Gujarat, which are official documents. Not all of these documents are in the public domain – though some are – and those annexed to our petition show that from February 10, 2002, right up to August 2002, the state government was actually misleading the central government on figures related to the number of casualties, amount of damage, destruction, etc.
Nearly 15 years have passed since the pogrom. What support have survivors received from the administration, in terms of compensating their losses, or ensuring those who were displaced could return or be rehabilitated? Many of the camps are still open, and in a miserable condition.
Yes, that’s quite well known; it’s reported every year in the newspapers when the anniversary approaches. It is becoming less and less important after Modi became prime minister. You have, even now, about 18 or 19 transit camps which have been around for close to 15 years. These were supposed to be temporary accommodations, till you were rehabilitated by the government. The “iconic” camp is the one near Bombay Hotel, just outside Ahmedabad, near the area’s largest rubbish dump, where all the toxic waste of Ahmedabad city is dumped. This camp – called Citizen Nagar, ironically – is less than a kilometre from the waste dump. It would be impossible for people like us to stand there for even a few minutes, the stench is so bad. The camp’s water source also runs very close by the toxic waste dump, and we have repeatedly had to take this issue up also, actually showing that kidney ailments and so on were afflicting younger people. A 13- or 15-year-old boy died there around 2007, simply from drinking the water, but it’s as if the survivors don’t exist anymore in the public imagination or public memory.
The media has a lot to do with it, this collective amnesia, because we saw a complete shift in the “national” media – I prefer to call it the commercial media. On television and even in newspapers, you find that around the time of Modi’s second electoral victory as chief minister, in 2007, that’s when he was hyped up worldwide. It was a public relations agency, paid $25,000 a month – this was documented by Christophe Jaffrelot. Nobody asked the question, where did this money come from, who was paying? The whole idea was to have an image makeover, from a man who presided over a massacre to a man who is urbane and promotes development, a mover and shaker. And the nation bought it. People bought it, and the media had a big role to play.
Coming to the question of compensation: in terms of monetary compensation for loss of life there was a decent package. You had the Sikh riots principle – obtained after 20 years’ struggle – actually applied to Gujarat when the first UPA government came to power. It was one of the positive things UPA I did, that the 1.5 lakhs the state government very reluctantly gave to the post-Godhra victims— Remember, when Modi first declared a compensation package he announced a larger amount for the families of Godhra victims and less for those of the post-Godhra victims, claiming that the former were victims of terror and the latter did not face mob terror. There was a national outrage, after which he equalised the amounts.
We are talking about a person with an entrenched discriminatory mindset. Not only him but his government too. Former Food and Civil Supplies Minister Bharat Barot, who was also caught rioting and extorting from minorities’ shops – there is an FIR against him – actually returned 119 crores out of the 150 crore package given by the Vajpayee government at the time, saying they didn’t need it.
So this was the attitude of the state government as regards reparation and compensation. Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) filed a petition against that as well, and in the detailed affidavit we filed in the high court we reasoned why compensation should at least be commensurate with what the Sikh victims of 1984 got, thanks to Justice Dhingra’s judgement. The figure came to about Rs 5 lakh, and on the basis of our affidavit filed in the high court the central government increased the package.
Relatively speaking, in terms of loss of life the compensation wasn’t bad, but where survivors have really lost out is in housing compensation. They got hardly Rs 5000, 10,000, maximum 40 to 50,000, when the damage was 2-3 lakhs. We computed this for the CJP petition, and there was complete, adamant refusal from the state to accept it. It was the same with small businesses. The bigger ones are insured, so they get the money, but the tiny, middle ones really suffer – they were never compensated.
Finally, survivors of rape. A women’s group has said that there were 300-400 instances of mass rape of girls and women. The Gujarat government has admitted – there are FIRs for these – that 199 women were victims of gender violence. So even if you go by government figures you don’t have rape compensation paid at all, which is now the norm for higher courts in the country. I believe it’s a marker of the lack of acknowledgment of the gravity of the tragedy that took place. Gujarat is just one more marker of that.
Isn’t there also the problem of compensation and reparation being looked at only as a monetary affair? What about structural support for the survivors, from the courts and elsewhere?
99% of the victims of gender violence were killed afterwards. So there are hardly 6 or 7 women who survived that violence, who need the kind of structural support you’re talking about, which is of course also important. But I don’t think one should underestimate monetary support either: nowhere in the civilised world does this happen, and it’s important to talk about the economic losses suffered. The human tragedy was so great that people tend to say, Let’s not talk about money. But money helps survivors get back on their feet. For people who are daily wage earners, the money matters. If you’ve lost so many working days’ living wages, that should be used in computing compensation.
Psychological disorders, people find ways to cope with, but it’s the structured injustices already existing in society, in terms of economics, that need looking at. A person who is middle or upper middle class will find it a lot easier to be up and about, because they’ll be supported in a million ways. We as a society tend to speak for the survivors when we say compensation is not important. I don’t think we should underestimate monetary or economic support at all.
Much of what we have discussed with reference to Gujarat has recurred in many riots in independent India: economic dispossession, dishousing people, destroying businesses, and the action-reaction narrative, touted by then Chief Minister Modi soon after the pogrom. Could you comment on this, and on the conclusions reached by the various commissions of inquiry into Godhra and after?
When we brought out a special issue of Communalism Combat in March-April 2002, we very consciously used the word genocide. Look at the UN Convention on Genocide: what happened in Gujarat matches every metric and criterion described in it. Genocide doesn’t necessarily depend on the number of deaths. It doesn’t have to be a Rwanda-like figure of 8 lakhs or 12 lakhs. From day one we were talking about an approximate figure of 2000-2500 casualties. Now that we have a list of FIRs, the names of all the missing and the dead, we have a list of 1,956 – at least.
The fact is, not only were lives lost and brutalised in a highly targeted manner, but gender violence was also used to target girls and women of the community, because they are held up as symbols of the community’s honour. Also, there was cultural and religious desecration – 217 mosques and dargahs were destroyed – and there was economic destruction of a high order. There are 7 or 8 criteria to be fulfilled when you use the term “crimes against humanity”, and a few more if it is to be termed genocide. This is not to say there haven’t been genocidal killings during spates of communal violence before Gujarat 2002 – but this was full-blown, so to speak, because you had the entirety of state and non-state actors acting in tandem to make it happen.
There is no doubt whatsoever in our minds what this was. More and more evidence came out – something unique about Gujarat was that for the first time you had very brave, upright police officers, serving at the time, who through their official depositions to the [Nanavati-Shah, later Nanavati-Mehta] Commission made available material on which we could build our cases. So it was not just the human rights narrative, or the activists’ narrative relying on press reports or fact-findings, but also affidavits and documents provided by serving officers, who were of course subsequently victimised by the administration. For instance it was Rahul Sharma’s affidavit, where he made cellphone call data records for 5 lakh calls available publicly, that enabled all of us to sit and put together the call records.
The first call Modi made after he received a fax from District Magistrate Jayanti Ravi telling him about Godhra was not to DGP Chakravarti, nor to Commissioner Pandey, but to Jaideep Patel, general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad – which is not a normal thing for a chief minister to do. Then, Jaideep Patel is dispatched to Godhra, post mortems are conducted in the open, sentiments are allowed to run riot, and a whole buildup is facilitated by the government. It was an engineered sentiment. Given the history of communal violence in this country, if you have an incident like Godhra happen, you will have 2-3 bouts of communal violence here and there, because that’s the way communal narratives, rumours, sentiments work. You would have had bouts of “retaliatory” violence. But 300 incidents in 19 districts of the state, perfectly orchestrated? That’s unlikely to have been spontaneous.
Coming to your other point, about inquiry commissions, there has been only one official commission of inquiry, the Nanavati Commission. The funny thing about it is, for the third assembly election Modi won, he managed to persuade the judges sitting on the commission to release a “partial report”, which is unheard of. So Nanavati-Shah released a “Godhra report”, calling it an ISI conspiracy. The post-Godhra Nanavati report is still under wraps. We don’t have it. It has been tabled in the state assembly, but has not been made public. And that’s a real question mark, as to why it hasn’t been made public.
If you’re talking about the Concerned Citizens Tribunal report, which was headed by Justice Krishna, Justice Sawant, Justice Suresh, and of which I was also a convenor, it came to the very clear finding that what happened in Gujarat post Godhra was a pogrom, a state-sponsored genocide, and that Narendra Modi was the architect of that genocide. Those are the words of that report.
To be continued.
See here for an account of Narendra Modi’s deposition to the Special Investigation Team, and this excerpt from Rakesh Sharma’s documentary Final Solution (2004) detailing the attack on the Gulberg Society in Ahmedabad.
Gulberg Society / Indian Express