To write a book that brings to light uncomfortable revelations for those at the highest echelons of power and then to go ahead and self-publish when established publishing houses turn shy takes enormous grit and determination. Rana Ayyub has these in plenty. Ayyub, a former journalist with Tehelka, is well known for her investigations into the series of staged encounter killings in Gujarat in the early 2000s, which led to the arrest of senior police officers and the then serving minister of home in Gujarat, current BJP president Amit Shah.
News of her forthcoming book have been circulating for some years, resulting in considerable anticipation. The actual publication is an event partly because it has happened at all, but also because it focuses attention once again on the human rights violations that took place in Gujarat under Narendra Modi’s leadership—the large-scale killings of Muslims in 2002, the murder of former minister Haren Pandya, a prominent critic of the Modi administration, the filing of false cases, arbitrary accusations of terrorism and the staging of encounters against Muslims—a far cry from the glowing development narrative that has gained traction in recent years.
Over the years, along with showcasing ‘development’ in Gujarat, the BJP has also mounted an energetic effort to combat the negative fallout on the human interest front through legal and other means. The combined effect of claims, counter-claims, protracted and sometimes confusing judicial processes, false assertions, exaggerations and shrill television debates have created a sense of fatigue in the public mind. A book, then, creates hopes both of clarity and certainty.
Interestingly, Ayyub’s method of probing for facts itself involved obfuscating the truth about her identity. In 2010, she embarked on an eight-month-long investigation as a film student from America seeking to make a film on Gujarat. Posing as a Kanpuri Kayastha girl, Maithili Tyagi, she met and secretly recorded conversations with a raft of senior state functionaries.
The procedure, as she describes it in her book The Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up, involves hardships ranging from practical matters such as finding accommodation to the logistics of surreptitious recording. There are hair-raising moments, such as one when she finds herself unexpectedly accompanying a policewoman to a cinema hall with the metal detector inches away from revealing the taping equipment hidden on her person.
The ethical questions raised by her methods are inescapable. One feels extremely uncomfortable as people warm to her, extend hospitality and begin to confide, unaware that they are being recorded. There are interesting disclosures, for example, a top bureaucrat’s claim of a liaison between the state and the Centre in 2002. Ayyub’s interviewees also name names (Narendra Modi, former Gujarat minister of state Gordhan Zadaphia and Amit Shah, who emerges as a key figure in the encounters story).
But there are limitations to what sting journalism can collect by way of evidence. And it could well be argued that these claims and admissions (recordings which Ayyub claims to be in possession of) do not add a great deal to what has been repeatedly alleged before; indeed, the endnotes, which include links to some of Ayyub’s own published articles, provide a somewhat more substantial reckoner to the events under discussion.
Former IPS officer D.G. Vanzara after his release from jail
The book’s value, then, is not in providing clinching evidence. Its importance lies elsewhere. It lies in uncovering and communicating the processes of subversion. Ayyub’s purported list of respondents is impressive and includes Ashok Narayan and K. Chakravarti, Gujarat home secretary and director-general of police in 2002 respectively; G.C. Raigar, head of Gujarat intelligence in 2002; Ahmedabad commissioner of police in 2002 P.C. Pande; and G.L. Singhal, head of the Gujarat anti-terrorist squad.
In the unsuspecting testimonies of these, among the most senior functionaries of the state, one finds the ways in which a law and order machinery is corrupted to act against the very people it should protect. Ayyub’s respondents describe verbal orders for deliberate misconduct (“In this era of mobile phones you don’t need to give orders on papers, you just need to call”) or orders given not directly but filtering down through political players to junior police inspectors. There is a late-night call to a ministerial bungalow, demands for arbitrary arrests, and for information on those inimical to the government.
Officers are punished or rewarded according to their willingness to carry out unlawful political orders. The recruitment of favourites is enabled by administrative juggling, demoting an officer, for instance. Casteism makes backward caste officers more sought out and more disposable and some express bitterness about having been used and discarded.
Not everybody behaves according to a script though. Some officers refuse to follow orders for malfeasance or insist on orders on paper; some express silent dissent. Conscience, in fact, is never absent and one hears people talk about the difficulties of compromising with their sense of duty. Indeed, a respondent makes the telling comment that when a senior officer “who has an understanding of the law compromises”, then it becomes even harder for the person to deal with his conscience. Families are also affected. One officer’s son, upset with bad press his father gets, commits suicide.
But, as another respondent says: “To do some damage you just need some bad fish”. And there are enough who succumb to blandishments, coming up with a variety of justifications. “System ke saath rehna hain to logon ko compromise karna padta hain,” says one. Kausar Bi was not married to Sohrabuddin, says another, referring to the much-discussed Sohrabuddin encounter, as if that could justify her extra-judicial killing.
For those who care about the integrity of institutions and systems of justice, this book is a wake-up call.
Last year, in Outlook’s 20th anniversary special issue dedicated to magazines, we listed ‘The 20 Greatest Magazine Stories’. Featuring work of such greats as Gay Talese, John Hersey, Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace, it also features Rana Ayy ub’s 2010 feature for Tehelka, So Why is Narendra Modi Protecting Amit Shah?