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Crime And Management

A cynical Modi government appals the NHRC chief and he rejects its first 'all's-well' report, forcing it to issue a second

Crime And Management
Crime And Management
When the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) team, headed by its chairman, Justice J.S. Verma, arrived in Ahmedabad on the evening of March 19, it had already been deluged by phone calls, and sos and fax messages from the people of Gujarat seeking its immediate intervention. The NHRC's special rapporteur and a former DGP, P.G.J. Nampoothiri, had also prepared a report detailing the mayhem which rocked the state.

But the team wasn't quite prepared for what it encountered. A member of the team, which visited relief camps and riot-torn hamlets, pointed out the horrific fact of "the communal riot (having) been planned weeks in advance...and Godhra was the occasion and not the cause". According to him, the Commission has information that the VHP had sourced voters' lists and documents from the Registrar of Companies to identify Muslims as also establishments in which more than 50 per cent of equity was held by members of the minority community. "The riots on this scale could not have been planned in a day. It would have taken weeks. What followed was systematic and pinpointed targeting."

Those who toured Gujarat with Verma's team say that what outraged the NHRC chairman most was the fact that even judges were "insecure and threatened". This the Commission sees as clinching evidence of law and order having collapsed and the state machinery having, at times, openly connived with the mobs. In fact, the team's first meeting in Ahmedabad was with past and present judges. Says a team-member: "The stories we heard revealed the extent to which the system turned a blind eye."

What anguished Verma most was the plight of sitting high court judge M.H. Kadri—he was forced to move out of his house along with his 85-year-old bed-ridden mother to a relative's residence. Even the then chief justice of Gujarat, D. Dharamadhikari (he is currently a Supreme Court judge), was forced to act, calling up Justice Kadri in the middle of the night, offering him a place in his bungalow. Another heart-rending case was that of Justice Akbar N. Divecha, a former high court judge. His house in Kazima locality was razed and this confirmed the NHRC's fears that "nobody, irrespective of position, was spared". Ironically, Divecha was in the government's good books and had friends in the RSS and the VHP, but that didn't help.

Following this meeting, the team toured the Shah Alam refugee camp, housing close to 9,000 Muslim families. The blood-curdling tales continued. The NHRC team listened to shocking accounts of young children doused with kerosene, rape, murder and relentless pillage. To its dismay, the Commission found that not a single senior officer, except for the collector, was present. No minister or senior government official had visited the camp. The NHRC concluded: "Sanitation was poor, space inadequate and there is every possibility of gastroenteritis breaking out if precautions are not taken."

The refugee camp at Kankaria, comprising a sparse population of displaced Hindu families, however, revealed a disturbing contrast. Information gathered by the NHRC team showed that those staying in the camp had no complaints and were being looked after well. Realising that all was fine, the team did not stay there for long. As it was leaving, the team faced a "hostile local press" which wanted to know why the NHRC chose to spend more time in Shah Alam camp than in Kankaria.

During informal conversations with senior bureaucrats in Gujarat, the Commission learnt that the state administration had been given "clear instructions" to leave the rioters alone. In fact, the Commission has taken note of the telling slogans that were raised by the rioters: "Andar ki baat hai, police hamare saath hai (It's all between us, the police is with us)."

The unmistakable pattern, of mobs methodically damaging Muslim-owned restaurants with Hindu names, especially in Ahmedabad, was another finding of the NHRC team. "Besides ethnic cleansing, there was clear evidence of economic cleansing," pointed out a team member. While interacting with riot victims, the team found that mobs didn't damage property owned by Hindus or injure them in localities with mixed populations. Proof of the hate campaign was seen in leaflets distributed widely, urging "true Hindus" not to frequent hotels and garages belonging to Muslims. This inflammatory leaflet is with the NHRC.

It was while examining this selective targeting that the team chanced upon a Sikh businessman who was threatened by VHP activists. He was warned that his garage would be destroyed since he employed many Muslims. He told the Commission that he had little option but to assure the VHP that the 'ethnic' balance would be rectified. His garage was spared.

Highly-placed sources in Ahmedabad told Outlook that Nampoothiri's initial report placed before Verma was in itself shocking. Here are some of his findings:

  • Mobs which indulged in looting were drawn from distant localities so that identification of individuals became difficult.

  • Small shops and commercial establishments were isolated for attack.

  • The size of rampaging mobs was unprecedented, comprising anywhere between 5,000 to 10,000 people.

  • Gas cylinders were used to blow up establishments and mechanical devices used for cutting electrical connections.

It was not without reason that Verma lashed out against the Gujarat government. He even threatened to pass a severe order if it didn't furnish a comprehensive report. Despite two notices (March 3 and March 6) issued by the Commission, asking for a detailed response on the steps taken to prevent the escalation of violence and police inaction, there was no response from Gandhinagar. The state chief secretary, G. Subba Rao, explained the delay by saying that "the state machinery is fully preoccupied with controlling the law and order situation".

A Gujarat bureaucrat said Subba Rao's preliminary report, submitted to the NHRC on March 8, clearly stated that the situation was under control and the police had crushed the violence. However, Verma, on his return from Gujarat, hit out at the Modi government for its failure to restore normalcy, three weeks after the riots broke out following the Godhra carnage on February 27. He also rejected the preliminary report and sought a more credible explanation.

Subba Rao's 'all's-well' report (Case No:1150/6/2001/2002) suggests that security in Gujarat was so tight that incidents of violence weren't possible and that the state machinery and the police had done its best.

In his conclusion, Rao adds: "Strict and effective measures taken by the government have brought the situation under control and near normalcy has been restored." However, he doesn't answer the allegations levelled against the state government.

Before Verma concluded his Gujarat visit, Modi called on him. It was a one-on-one meeting which lasted for one-and-a-half hours. The NHRC chief sought an assurance that school examinations would be postponed, given the all-round tension, and that the VHP's threatened asthi yatra wouldn't take place. He also urged the CM to ask his ministers to visit refugee camps. Modi heard him out and said that Verma was "like his father and he would heed his advice".

Verma's whiplash late last week has eventually prompted the state government to send a final report on March 27. The Commission's specific queries regarding the perpetrators of the crimes, the provisions under which they were booked and the efforts to ensure security are being studied."After studying their report, we'll come out with our findings," said an NHRC official.

It is not lost on the Commission that had the bureaucrats and the police in Gujarat carried out their basic duties, the violence would not have spiralled. In response to ias officer Harsh Mander's observations on why there was a dereliction of duty in Gujarat and why the riots were not quelled, the Commission has appointed a committee to list out the responsibilities of officials in a riot-like situation. This, to prevent another Gujarat from happening.

Murali Krishnan and Ajith Pillai

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