It’s an autumn of worries, it seems, for Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister and self-styled iron man. The scales of justice refuse to tilt to his advantage. First, a trial court sentenced 31 rioters for the massacre of Muslims by electrocution and fire in Sardarpura during the post-Godhra riots of 2002. Then, the Gujarat High Court accepted an SIT’s conclusion that Ishrat Jahan, Pranesh Pillai aka Javed Sheikh and two others (said to be Pakistanis, but whose identities were never established conclusively) were butchered in cold blood by so-called encounter specialists of Modi’s police. The court has ordered a fresh investigation of the whole affair. Is the sword of justice moving slowly but inexorably to puncture his 56-inch chest, vaunted with arrogance, stained though it is with the blood of innocents?
Modi’s shameful past is at last catching up with him. This time, the wheels of justice have turned differently from the Best Bakery trial of 2003, in which all 21 accused were acquitted as the eye-witnesses turned hostile. In the Sardarpura case, the Supreme Court ensured that witnesses were protected from intimidation, coercion or combinations thereof. It was the first post-Godhra riot case to be prosecuted by a Supreme Court-appointed SIT. The verdict was an indicator that after all, even if the myth of Modi’s invincibility, crafted by an assiduous industry, works with the SIT—of the 31 convicted in the Sardarpura case, the SIT had brought to book only two—the judiciary won’t buy it. It had also compromised its credibility by flip-flopping on Zakia Jafri’s allegation of the complicity of Modi and 61 other powerful people in the murder of her husband Ehsan, a former MP, and other Muslims of Gulberg Society by a riotous mob. This, however, has been challenged by amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran’s report to the Supreme Court that suspended police officer Sanjeev Bhatt’s allegation of Modi’s complicity in the post-Godhra riots be placed before the trial court and verified by cross-examining the officers present at the chief minister’s meeting of February 27, 2002, during which Modi is alleged to have directed police officers to allow mobs to vent their fury.
With the Sardarpura and the Ishrat cases going against him, Modi will now be worried about how things pan out in Zakia Jafri’s case in the trial court. Till now, it was projected that Modi’s writ ran unimpeded in Gujarat and even the judicial realm would fall under the spell he has orchestrated. But the courts haven’t been swept by that empty wind.
However, many in officialdom—especially in the police—lost their spine, awed perhaps by its hypnotic swell. The SIT investigating the Ishrat case found that as many as 21 police officers conspired to murder her and three others, and to describe them as Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists on a mission to assassinate Modi. As Conrad observed, cops and criminals are cabbages from the same basket, so, to the cynic, there’s nothing extraordinary about cops being trigger-happy when the loot is promotions and a brave name. But the willingness of Gujarat’s cops to kowtow to Modi’s bigoted ideology seems widespread. Even some central intelligence officers have been found to have provided fake inputs in the Ishrat case. Two of the 21 officers named in the case, D.G. Vanzara and Narendra Amin, are in custody in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, which has singed Modi’s political lieutenant Amit Shah.
Another worry for the would-be ‘Sardar’ is that many police officers are now speaking up about his cold-blooded regime. Earlier, it was only R.B. Sreekumar and Rahul Sharma who spoke out. Then came Sanjeev Bhatt. Now it’s the turn of Mohan Jha and Satish Verma, members of the R.R. Verma-led SIT which submitted a report to the Gujarat High Court in the Ishrat case. At one time, during election meetings, Modi would arch his eyebrows, invoke the name of ‘Miya Musharraf’, give out Lyngdoh’s name as ‘James Michael Lyngdoh’ in a slow and deliberate manner to turn local communal prejudices into votes. But election victories shouldn’t mitigate crimes if the wheels of justice turn on their true axis. Woefully for Modi and thankfully for India, the communal bogey he freely invoked—of late, he has abandoned it and drums the development tattoo—hasn’t affected many, like the police officers who have spoken out or the judges seeking to bring justice to Gujarat. Modi, a practitioner of expedient politics whose contempt for constitutional functioning is ill-disguised, must be having eerie visions of so many pseudo-secularists working against him from key institutional positions. Unfortunately for him, his party has to seek power across India, not just in Gujarat—and within the constitutional framework. So it cannot afford to project as a national leader a demagogue whose image of invincibility the judiciary has dented. For now, Modi might have to content himself with dancing with his uninclusive vision of ‘Garvi’ Gujarat.