Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

A Murder Foretold

The riots tribunal admits Haren Pandya had deposed before it

A Murder Foretold A Murder Foretold

"My son's death was a planned, political must be reinvestigated."
—Vithal Pandya, father of the late Haren Pandya, former Gujarat revenue minister, to Outlook on November 7, 2007

Dead men tell many tales, particularly a man who had in his time claimed that he would be killed for speaking out. And indeed is murdered later. In a sense, Haren Pandya's taped interview with Outlook in August '02 proved prophetic. Last week, we released excerpts from the recording in which Pandya confirmed a meeting Narendra Modi had with some cabinet colleagues, senior police officials and bureaucrats on the night of February 27, '02, just after the Godhra train incident. At the meeting, he was said to have instructed them to "allow people to vent their anger and not come in the way of a Hindu backlash". While relating, Pandya had asked that his identity not be revealed, saying "I will be killed". He was assassinated six months later.

Pandya had reason to be nervous—rumour had been circulating that he was the minister who had deposed before the citizens' tribunal set up to look into the Gujarat riots which claimed at least 2,000 lives. After Outlook released the tape, more than four years after the minister's death, Justice Hosbet Suresh, retired judge of the Bombay High Court, confirms his identity: "The minister who deposed before us in the Concerned Citizens Tribunal was Haren Pandya, then a cabinet minister in the Modi government. Pandya told us two important things. One was about the meeting on February 27." The judge says Pandya said the seniormost police officials were told by Modi that they should expect a Hindu reaction. "They were also told they should do nothing to contain this reaction."

Justice Suresh says the tribunal went on to ask Pandya more details about Modi's role and also posed an all-important question: what would Pandya have done if he was home minister? "Pandya replied that I would have confined Godhra to Godhra itself. It was Modi who wanted to take Godhra to the rest of Gujarat," says the Justice. Pandya had testified before the tribunal just two months after the riots. His testimony was included in the tribunal's report although his identity had not been revealed.

On March 26, '03, Pandya was found dead in his car parked outside a public park in Ahmedabad. One Asghar Ali was arrested and a POTA court headed by Judge Sonia Gokani in an 800-page verdict delivered on June 25 this year sentenced him to life imprisonment till his natural death. Eight others also received life sentences. In all, there had been 12 accused in the case. At the time, Jagruti Pandya, the slain minister's wife, had questioned the CBI's case, even going to the extent of saying that "Haren was popular among Muslims, they would not have killed him". The irony is that today she prefers a "no comment". Her name is also among the panel of BJP candidates being considered for the Ellisbridge Vidhan Sabha seat once represented by her husband.

In spite of the convictions, many people in Gujarat continue to believe that Pandya was murdered at the express orders of his political rivals in the BJP. His father, Vithal Pandya, 80, in particular kept the campaign alive and never believed the naive version that "Muslims killed him". "If you proceed on erroneous assumptions and data, the conclusions are bound to be wrong...his case must be reinvestigated," he says.

Pandya Sr openly says that Modi subverted the CBI investigation, at a time when Gandhinagar MP and the BJP's 'Iron Man' L.K. Advani was the NDA Union home minister. He points out that the infamous ex-DIG, D.G. Vanzara, had acted as a sort of pointsman for the case. Till he landed behind bars for the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, Vanzara had been seen as Modi's encounter specialist. It's a sort of indictment that today, in Gujarat, all the political parties opposing Modi ask why there have been no encounters since Vanzara was arrested.

The father is not the only one who's questioned the official version of the Pandya murder. Members of the Hindutva parivar, the RSS, VHP and even his own BJP have turned against Modi. They now plan to highlight the fact that Pandya openly feared for his life. As a leading dissident VHP leader put it, "If this can happen to a BJP man, you can well imagine what can happen to others."

Suresh Mehta, former BJP chief minister and now a frontline strategist for the rebels, has even gone to the extent of suggesting that Modi himself instigated the Godhra incident in order to orchestrate a riot. He told Outlook he was aware that the CM had held several crucial meetings on February 27. "Though I was a cabinet minister in the government, I was not invited to participate in these meetings...perhaps because my views were well-known and I would not have condoned his plans. But news travels and we all heard from others what Modi had said to officials at the meetings," he says.

Arjun Modvadia, Congress legislature party leader, says he has gone on record to demand a reinvestigation of the Pandya case. It's clear now that Modi had turned against Pandya much before his death. The high-profile, articulate leader had even been denied a ticket for the 2002 elections. Perhaps Pandya would have been forgotten after that. But his murder has ended up making him a larger-than-life figure and a constant irritant for Modi. In communally polarised Gujarat, harping on the massacre of Muslims will not damage Modi. But the suggestion that he acted against a committed BJP leader has angered his own Hindu parivar, many of whom the Gujarat chief minister has already alienated by his arrogance.