Manoj Mitta’s first book When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath, co-authored with H.S. Phoolka, received critical acclaim when it was published seven years ago. Now, The Times of India senior editor who specialises in legal, human rights and public policy issues, has returned with The Fiction of Fact-finding: Modi and Godhra, a searing critique of the 2002 violence in Gujarat under Narendra Modi’s watch. His close, thorough examination of the voluminous material generated due to the Supreme Court’s monitoring of the probe reveals the gap between the findings that have been handed out as the SIT’s closure report filed in 2012 and what the evidence suggests. Indeed, as he forcefully argues, the anomalies of the SIT’s closure report point to far more than the relativism of the truth; they mock India’s commitment to its national motto: Satyameva Jayate (truth alone triumphs). Excerpts from an interview with Sundeep Dougal:
First, why another book on 2002 or Modi?
Though there have been books on 2002 and Modi, this is the first one focusing on the wealth of fact-finding material published in the last three years, following the Supreme Court’s intervention. The flurry of these SIT-related developments in fact changed the focus of a sequel I was doing to my 1984 book, which had come out in 2007. Originally, I was working on a more general book tracing the history and vagaries of fact-finding in India, from Jallianwala Bagh to the Gujarat carnage.
Your invocation of Jallianwala Bagh, and how even the colonial Brits instituted a time-bound committee of inquiry, is highly educative and movingly ironical, particularly the passages you quote from the transcript of the cross-examination of Gen Dyer by Sir Chimanlal Harilal Setalvad...
As you know, the Hunter Committee was not only made time-bound, but Gen Dyer was subjected to a rigorous cross-examination by all the eight members of the Hunter Committee -- three of who, including Setalvad, were Indian -- and that too in public. So it was not just Setalvad who grilled Dyer. The differences between the British and Indian members were not so much on facts as on interpretation. Such was the benchmark of fact-finding set on an episode that had robbed the Raj of all moral pretensions. In comparison, the fact-finding done by independent India on episodes like 1984 and 2002 has been so phoney, especially on the accountability of the leaders who presided over those massacres.
Yes, that brings us back to fact-finding. While the title of your book is very catchy, would you like to explain how there could be ‘fiction of fact-finding’ despite the Supreme Court’s monitoring of the SIT investigations?
From a close reading of the fact-finding material, the book establishes that critical pieces of evidence have fallen through the cracks, especially in the context of Zakia Jafri’s complaint accusing Modi of conspiracy in the post Godhra violence. Rather than linking the dots, the SIT betrayed a tendency to regard issues in isolation and downplay their significance. The Supreme Court allowed the SIT to ride roughshod over the reservations expressed by amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran. Worse, a lot of the fiction arose from the failure of the monitoring to look beyond the frame set by the SIT.
Do explain for our readers why you question the clean chit given to Modi.
Given that the SIT clean chit paved the way for Modi’s elevation as a prime ministerial candidate, it is all the more necessary to check the rigour in the process. The SIT investigation of Modi’s role has been largely limited to determining whether at a closed door meeting, he had directed police officers to allow Hindu rioters to give vent to their anger. The SIT glossed over aspects where the evidence was far more verifiable or irrefutable. From the details disclosed in the same SIT report, my book points out the incongruity of Modi’s claim about the very first post Godhra massacre in which former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri had been killed. Even as he had been apparently immersed in preventing attacks on Muslims, Modi was somehow unaware of the Gulberg Society massacre in Ahmedabad for as long as five hours. And this was despite the evidence of high-level police communications during the prolonged siege preceding the massacre. The SIT neither questioned Modi’s claim of ignorance nor examined the glaring contradiction between the rhetoric and the reality of his administration’s response. Similarly, in the context of the Godhra incident, the SIT betrayed a bias in distancing Modi from a shocking piece of evidence: the illegal letter handing over the custody of 54 bodies to a VHP leader, in the face of the Bandh called by that organization in an incendiary environment.
Would you like to tell our readers why you regard even the probe on the Godhra coach-burning as part of the fiction of fact-finding?
Of the nine cases referred to it, this was the one in which the SIT did not in the least deviate from the Gujarat police version. Though Modi had called it a terror crime within hours of the train arson, the trial court held that all the 28 Muslims arrested before the eruption of the post Godhra massacres had been falsely implicated. Further, all the nine VHP members cited as prosecution witnesses were rejected as unreliable. The investigation was so cavalier that the forensic team was called for the first time to the scene of the crime, including the burnt coach, only after it had been transgressed by the public for over two months. These were indications that the Modi regime was more interested in deriving political mileage from the Godhra tragedy than in tracing the real culprits.
As someone who also co-authored a book on 1984, what did you make of Rahul Gandhi's assertion that "the difference between Gujarat  and [Delhi] 1984 was that the Government of Gujarat was involved in the riots?” Do you agree?
No. In fact, the book controverts the claim made by the ruling dispensation in each instance that the violence was purely the result of a public anger. While Rajiv Gandhi likened the mass killings to the reverberations of the fall of a big tree, Modi tried to pass them off as a chain of action and reaction. The book challenges this recurring claim by comparing, for instance, the course of the violence in Trilokpuri, which saw the highest killings in 1984, with its 2002 counterpart, Naroda Patiya. The public anger was of course a common factor, which was escalated by ruling party leaders. Still, the public anger could not have translated into killings on such a large scale without the crucial ingredient of state complicity. This took different forms in different places. In Trilokpuri, the police rendered Sikhs vulnerable to mob violence by driving them out of a Gurdwara they had taken shelter in. In Naroda Patiya, the uniformed personnel drove Muslims away when they had sought shelter in a sprawling police campus. In both cases, victims legally testified that at the time of the killings, the police either looked the other way or aided the miscreants.
Readers would be struck by a whole chapter on Rajiv Gandhi assassination in a book on Gujarat 2002. Could you please explain for the benefit of our readers?
When the Supreme Court chose former CBI director R K Raghavan as SIT chief, it was known that he had been indicted by the Verma Commission for the security lapses leading to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. It was also known that his career had been resurrected in 1999 by the Vajpayee government. My book reveals a closely guarded secret which could have prevented Raghavan from becoming CBI director, let alone SIT chief. The secret is his affidavit before the Verma Commission alleging that ‘human bomb’ Dhanu had gate-crashed into the sterile zone as Rajiv Gandhi himself had beckoned her. This self-serving claim of Raghavan is contrary to the evidence accepted by the commission and courts that Dhanu was waiting in a queue in the sterile zone well before Rajiv Gandhi’s arrival. Yet, the commission kept his affidavit under wraps and thereby diluted the finding against him. This irony puts in perspective the SIT’s exoneration of all the 63 persons cited in Jafri’s complaint, including Modi.
What exactly are you suggesting here?
That Raghavan was unsuitable for this task of immense responsibility because of unresolved questions about his lapses at Sriperumbudur, which changed the course of India’s history. That the Supreme Court still entrusted him with Gujarat investigations was a commentary on India’s legal culture. That the fiction of fact-finding was by no means confined to 2002 or even 1984. That in different ways Raghavan ended up playing a vital role in the fates of the central figures of the 1984 and 2002 carnages. That his rejection of Ramachandran’s proposal to charge a couple of senior police officers with criminal negligence in 2002 might be related to the fact that Raghavan himself had been subjected to no more than departmental proceedings after his indictment.
In the 1984 cases, we saw attempts to tarnish the co-author of your 1984 book, H S Phoolka. In the Gujarat 2002 case, your Author's Note explains the circumstances behind the SIT's "attempt to malign” you, as it named you as one of the people who had "strategized" with controversial police officer Sanjiv Bhatt. What really happened?
The news of Bhatt’s testimony before the SIT had come out in 2011. It was then natural for me, as a human rights journalist, to get in touch with the officer claiming to have inside knowledge of Modi’s complicity in the 2002 violence. On the basis of email hacking, the SIT made out that when Bhatt had sent me a draft of the affidavit before filing it in the Supreme Court, I had advised him “to incorporate a few more paragraphs drafted by” me. But the email it had annexed of mine by way of evidence showed that I had drafted only one sentence. Even that was merely to explain that he was approaching the Supreme Court because of his loss of faith in the SIT. By passing off that one sentence as a few paragraphs drafted by me, the SIT gave me a firsthand experience of its disregard for the sanctity of facts. Yes, it is similar to the wild allegations made against my friend Phoolka by Congress leader Jagdish Tytler, in a bid to derail the campaign for justice in the 1984 cases. Except that it is worse when a Supreme Court-mandated body stoops to smear tactics.
Do you find Bhatt’s claims credible, despite the SIT accusing him of forging evidence?
In retrospect, I feel Bhatt's allegation against Modi received disproportionate attention, thanks to the diverging views on it from Raghavan and Ramachandran. My book though has a passing reference to it because I discovered more telling evidence buried in the SIT report. Ramachandran said that Bhatt’s testimony was enough to put Modi on trial, where witnesses would have been subjected to cross-examination. Whether Modi gave any illegal instruction to police officers or not, there can be no dispute about this contradiction overlooked in the SIT report: how could Modi have been unaware of the Gulberg Society massacre till the night of February 28 although he had held a series of meetings with police officers through the day? Had it not been engaged in a cover-up, the SIT would have pinned down Modi to find out what he was hiding by claiming such ignorance. The book comes up with compelling reasons why the SIT should have filed a charge sheet rather than a closure report.
Without waiting for its report, you have suggested that the Nanavati Commission is engaging in fact-fudging. While it does seem like a farce, could you be accused of prejudging it?
No, the symptoms of fact-fudging are evident from the pattern of behaviour displayed by the Nanavati Commission over the last 12 years. The most glaring symptom is its refusal to summon Modi although the allegations against him are expressly part of its mandate. Such unwillingness in the face of the law does not inspire any confidence in the protracted inquiry. After all, for the 1984 carnage, the Misra Commission too exonerated Rajiv Gandhi without examining him.
Since you have looked closely at how fact-finding is thwarted at various stages, particularly in 1984 and 2002, what lessons do you think we have learnt, or should learn, from them as journalists, activists, lawyers and other institutions?
Each of us may draw different lessons from these experiences. One of my own takeaways is that India has an appallingly poor documentation culture, which in turn allows fact-finding to be reduced to a farce over and over again. We, the people of India, have to be more vigilant and less reverential to authorities. Whatever the status, nobody's word should be taken at face value. The greater the stakes, the more their evidence should be subjected to scrutiny.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print