What exactly happened on the night of February 27 in chief minister Narendra Modi's bungalow in Gandhinagar? All along there have been rumours of a late-evening meeting called by Modi on the day of the Godhra carnage in which he instructed senior police officials to allow "people to vent their frustration" over the torching of two coaches of the Sabarmati Express during the VHP bandh the following day.
These rumours have now been confirmed. Information with Outlook shows that a senior minister from his own cabinet has blown the whistle on Modi. Last week, the minister deposed before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice Krishna Iyer. The nine-member tribunal comprising former judges and other eminent citizens was in Gujarat to record evidence on who or what may have caused the Gujarat carnage.
Former Bombay High Court judge Justice Hosbet Suresh, who is on the Concerned Citizens panel and who also heard the deposition, confirms that the minister did depose before him. He told Outlook: "Yes, a senior minister appeared before us for 35 to 40 minutes and talked to us about a few things that led to the Gujarat carnage. Among other things, the minister spoke about the meeting Modi called on the night of February 27." The minister spoke to the tribunal on the condition that it would not name him in its final report. Another member of the panel has also confirmed the minister's deposition.
The minister told Outlook that in his deposition, he revealed that on the night of February 27, Modi summoned DGP K. Chakravarthy, commissioner of police, Ahmedabad, P.C. Pande, chief secretary G. Subarao, home secretary Ashok Narayan, secretary to the home department K. Nityanand (a serving police officer of IG rank on deputation) and DGP (IB) G.S. Raigar. Also present were officers from the CM's office: P.K. Mishra, Anil Mukhim and A.K. Sharma. The minister also told Outlook that the meeting was held at the CM's bungalow.
The minister told the tribunal that in the two-hour meeting, Modi made it clear there would be justice for Godhra the next day, during the VHP-called bandh. He ordered that the police should not come in the way of "the Hindu backlash". At one point in this briefing, according to the minister's statement to the tribunal, DGP Chakravarthy vehemently protested. But he was harshly told by Modi to shut up and obey. Commissioner Pande, says the minister, would later show remorse in private but at that meeting didn't have the guts to object.
According to the deposition, it was a typical Modi meeting: more orders than discussion. By the end of it, the CM ensured that his top officials—especially the police—would stay out of the way of Sangh parivar men. The word was passed on to the mobs.
(According to a top IB official, on the morning of February 28, VHP and Bajrang Dal activists first visited some parts of Ahmedabad and created minor trouble just to check if the police did in fact look the other way. Once Modi's word was confirmed, the carnage began.)
The minister further told the tribunal that two cabinet ministers were present in the police control room on February 28. They took over the control room and personally supervised the proceedings. (The names of the ministers, Ashok Bhatt and I.K. Jadeja, have very often been taken by police sources but till date there is no FIR registered against them, nor has any police official who was present in the control room then ever confirmed this allegation).
The minister went on to tell the tribunal that Modi was convinced that since he started the riots, he would be able to control the violence within a day or two. But the scale of the violence and the media backlash caught him by surprise. The more shocking aspect of the minister's testimony, says a tribunal member, was: "Scores could have been settled in Godhra itself.Perhaps 100 people may have died there on the whole and that may have been the end of it. But Modi brought the riots to Ahmedabad. He took the riots to rest of the state."
The riots were not born out of any ideology, according to the minister. It had a simple political background. The minister told Outlook, "Modi was never a politician. He was a pracharak, a pracharak whose days were numbered because unlike others of his status, he was a man who liked the good life. He lived like a king. Not many liked him. Then one day, we were shocked by the BJP's defeat in the panchayat elections. And when the BJP lost the Sabarmati assembly seat and Sabarkanta parliamentary seat, we knew we would lose the general elections."
That's when Modi stepped in. According to the minister, Modi told the BJP high command that after all, he was more presentable than Keshubai Patel and he swore that in the next elections he would bring the BJP back to power. The minister added that when five and a half months into the job Modi realised his charm wasn't working, he decided religious polarisation was the only way to survive. As triggers go, Godhra was a strong one. But anything could have served as a trigger. There was talk of making an issue of a cow slaughter video the party had got but that plan was shelved.
Politics was also why the minister decided to squeal. As he himself told Outlook, it was the victimisation of party workers by Modi that upset him the most. Said the minister: "After taking all the credit for Hindu awareness in the state, when pressure mounted on him to cool down, he started balancing the sheet by arresting party workers."
A 70-year-old BJP leader in Kalol taluka has been arrested on rape charges. As many as 3,369 people have been arrested so far, many of them grassroots party workers who are asking their bosses why they are being picked up. In all, 893 FIRs have been filed. One (crime number 195/2002) names VHP leader Jaideep Patel. BJP MLA Dr Maya Kodanani has been named along with other lower-level party workers in FIR 197/2002. Police inspector Rawat, who had terrorised inmates of the Dhariyakhan Gummat refugee camp and was the right hand man of civil supplies minister Bharat Barot, has been suspended, an event nobody would have believed in the pre-K.P.S. Gill era.
Discontent is mounting within Modi's cabinet. Revenue minister Haren Pandya had this to say to Outlook: "No party is just one man. History points that out. We had a meeting recently of top BJP leaders. Modi was not invited but there was a huge crowd. There was not a mention of Modi by the speakers but it was still a very successful BJP meet."
In fact, no one expected the minister to turn up before the tribunal. It is not a constitutional body and it is not binding on anybody it summons to appear before it. But the minister walked into a building called Prashant in Ahmedabad, which houses a human rights organisation. Justices Suresh and P.B. Sawant, senior advocate K.G. Kannabiran and retired police officer K.S. Subramanian were present.
When the tribunal releases its findings in mid-August, there will be many things to make a man who is today called Chhota Sardar feel very small. But as Justice Suresh says, "Our report will only give the public the right to information. They'll know what really happened. But that doesn't mean the guilty will be punished." History agrees.
Manu Joseph In Ahmedabad With S. Anand
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