It was in the June 3, 2002, issue that Outlook broke the story about the secret late-night meeting at Gujarat CM Narendra Modi’s bungalow in Gandhinagar on February 27. This was the night before the post-Godhra riots. The midnight meeting was attended by senior police officials who were instructed by the CM to allow Hindus and the VHP to vent their frustration at the torching of the Sabarmati Express. What followed the next few days was widespread attacks targeting the Muslim community. Outlook sourced this information from a minister in Modi’s cabinet who had made an in-camera deposition before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal headed by former SC judge V.R. Krishna Iyer.
How Outlook Exposed Modi’s Midnight Meet
|June 3, 2002 Our breaking news story on how Modi plotted the riots||November 12, 2007 Our story outing Haren Pandya as the source||November 19, 2007 The story on how Pandya’s fears came true|
The whistle-blower minister was Haren Pandya, who then held the revenue portfolio. He quit the cabinet over differences with Modi in August 2002. Before he quit, Pandya had spoken to Outlook, a conversation which we have on tape. In it, he reiterated what he had told the tribunal and confirmed that the February 27 meeting at the CM’s residence did take place. He also revealed that he feared for his life. Seven months later, on March 26, ’03, he was shot dead while out taking a morning walk. After his death, we identified Pandya as the minister and also quoted from his recorded conversation.
The first Outlook story led to the Gujarat government and Modi filing a case against the magazine in the Ahmedabad city civil court on June 23, ’02. The case is still pending in court.
Almost nine years on, last week dig Sanjay Bhatt revealed that he had testified that the 20-minute meeting did take place at Modi’s residence. Bhatt’s testimony to the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by former CBI director R.K. Raghavan would have been in the realm of unverified reports if not for his own affidavit to the SC on April 14 this year. Bhatt, who was deputy commissioner (intelligence) in the Gujarat police at the time of the riots, stated in his self-written affidavit that the SIT was ignoring the evidence he has presented, which included copies of cellphone records, documents and floppy disks that pointed to the complicity of the political leadership at the highest levels.
He notes that the chief minister insisted on bringing bodies of those killed in the Godhra incident to Ahmedabad despite police intelligence warning against such a move, and that Modi’s instructions at that crucial meeting reflected in the half-hearted approach of the police towards the rampaging mobs for the next few days. Further, Bhatt has stated that the SIT was reluctant to record this evidence against Modi and insisted that his testimony be limited to the Gulbarg Society massacre in which Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, among 68 others, were mercilessly killed.
Bhatt, presently dig of the State Reserve Police Force Training College, talks of the “larger conspiracy and official orchestration” behind the carnage in an affidavit that has shaken up Gujarat and the ruling BJP. He knows there may be “unpleasant consequences” and has repeatedly requested both the SIT as well as the Gujarat government to ensure his and his family’s safety and security. “I am not afraid but the past record of people who speak out is not very encouraging,” he told Outlook, at his Ahmedabad home. Without identifying anyone, he was referring to both—colleagues who were shunted out or sidetracked for speaking up, and politicians like the murdered Haren Pandya.
Meanwhile, the SIT claims that Bhatt’s assertion was not corroborated by any other officer present at the meeting. These included eight others—the CM, acting chief secretary S.K. Verma, additional secretary (home) Ashok Narayan, DGP K. Chakravarthi, Ahmedabad police commissioner P.C. Pande, home secretary K. Nityanandan, principal secretary P.K. Mishra and the CM’s secretary Anil Mukim. Modi, when questioned by the SIT about the meeting, listed the names of those present and then singled out Bhatt saying: “Bhatt, then deputy commissioner (intelligence), did not attend as this was a high-level meeting”. However, Modi agreed that Bhatt had attended other high-level meetings the following few days.
For years now, the Modi government and the BJP have sought to downplay the meeting and outrightly deny that the CM issued any ‘instructions’. Which makes Bhatt’s testimony/affidavit all the more significant. Incidentally, Bhatt’s driver has confirmed to the media that his boss was at the CM’s residence on the fateful day.
In an earlier report, the SIT had pointed out that the main allegation against Modi—that he wilfully instructed senior officers to “allow Hindus to vent their anger”—could not be corroborated because none of the other officers had testified about what had happened at that meeting. The SIT report notes that Bhatt had claimed, off the record, that Modi had indeed spoken those words. Off the record because the SIT in 2009 was only recording a statement in a case. But Bhatt stated as much in his deposition to the SIT under Section 161 of CrPC in March this year.
It is unclear what part, if any at all, of Bhatt’s statement and deposition has been included by the SIT in its latest report submitted to the apex court. Equally important is what the SIT did not do—connect the dots so that information given by Bhatt could be corroborated with available evidence. If Bhatt’s assertions are accepted, the needle of accusation points firmly at the top leadership in the BJP government. Given its track record, there are doubts if the SIT will go as far.
Bhatt is the latest to join the list of SIT doubters but there are others like former dgp R.B. Sreekumar who filed six affidavits with the Nanavati Commission and later appeared before the SIT to record a 48-page statement in July-Aug 2009. “I suffered because I told the truth to the commission while in service, those affidavits were also submitted to the SIT and I gave my statement,” says Sreekumar, “but there has been a systematic attempt to marginalise and neutralise what I told SIT officers.” Sreekumar says SIT chairman Raghavan has been acting as “an excellent defence lawyer for Modi, so it is unlikely to accord importance to any information that suggests Modi’s alleged complicity”.
The reluctance of other senior officers to come on record about Bhatt’s presence at the midnight meeting or Modi’s alleged instructions does not mean the SIT closes this very crucial strand of the probe. There is, as former officers point out, corroborative and circumstantial evidence if the SIT is serious about verifying Bhatt’s presence at the meeting.
The SIT, say sources, has information that would ordinarily call for further investigation. Consider what it knows:
- There are no less than 12 communiques, a few marked ‘Most Urgent’, from the state intelligence on mob build-up and possible violence between February 27 noon and February 28.
- In Ahmedabad, curfew was not imposed until noon at some places and till 2 pm at others on February 28 though mob build-up had started the previous night. Despite curfew orders, mobs gathered and were not dispersed.
- Control room records and log books stand testimony to the build-up at Gulbarg Society which later saw a massacre. But the police did not act.
- The then additional chief secretary (home) Ashok Narayan has admitted to the Nanavati Commission that the funeral procession of those killed in the Godhra train fire was organised on the instruction of higher authorities.
Staffed with police officers from the Gujarat cadre itself, and unwilling to probe deeper into acts of omissions and commissions by both senior police officers and key ministers, there are now serious questions about the direction of the SIT itself. Whether there is a need for a more thorough probe (than what the SIT has conducted so far) is a decision that rests with the three-judge bench of the SC and Raju Ramachandran, former additional solicitor general of India, the amicus curiae in the case.