That the upper echelons of the Indian establishment are filled with grand little men of feeble integrity or diminished competence—and sometimes even both qualifications—is one of the country’s best-kept official secrets.
Somewhere deep inside the innards of the system is a shortlist of our ‘Most Reliable Men’. These are names that can be counted upon to deliver via an inquiry commission or an investigative report exactly what the system needs whenever there is a call for justice that cannot be brushed aside with silence, denial, threats or force. On the rare occasion that a crucial job ends up in the hands of someone ‘unreliable’—Justice B.N. Srikrishna confounded the government by indicting politicians and police officers in his report on the 1992-93 Bombay riots—the establishment, which includes leaders from all parties, closes ranks to ensure the findings are never acted upon.
The very fact that our governments and courts regularly set up commissions of inquiry, task forces and special investigation teams itself testifies to the breakdown of governance on an almost routine basis. The fact that these commissions and investigation teams invariably fail to indict the guilty or even tell us the truth suggests something even more disturbing: that more often than not, the violence and lawlessness being probed are the product of players and processes deeply embedded in the system. Those in charge of the ‘fact-finding’ exercise know they cannot be exposed or sanctioned without jeopardising the edifice of a State that rests on pillars of impunity.
So a Justice M.S. Liberhan can take two decades investigating the demolition of the 1992 Babri Masjid only to produce a report of shabby and breathtaking pointlessless. Justice G.T. Nanavati has already spent more than 11 years running his commission of inquiry into the 2002 Gujarat riots and there is no end in sight to his noble exertions. Despite the fact that his terms of reference include probing the role, if any, that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi might have played, the learned judge has decided there is no need to question or cross-examine him before the commission. Several commissions have looked into the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs—including one by the same Nanavati who willingly took time off the 2002 probe in order to conduct and finish the 1984 one in double-quick time—but the politicians and policemen who allowed over 3,000 innocent people to be massacred are still beyond the reach of the law.
The Fiction of Fact-Finding is the first book-length analysis I have read that has attempted to subject this sinister modus operandi of the Indian State to detailed judicial forensics. Manoj Mitta, a respected journalist with the Times of India, has made ample use of his own legal background to tell a gripping tale of the manner in which the special investigation team (SIT), set up by the Supreme Court and headed by former CBI chief R.K. Raghavan, to probe the worst incidents of the 2002 Gujarat riots, chose the path of least resistance. Of course, the most celebrated—or controversial—of its findings has been the ‘clean chit’ it gave Modi when it concluded that there were no grounds to proceed against the chief minister. But its closure report contains other important findings or omissions that have a bearing on the role of the police and administration.
While it is tempting for Modi’s critics to simply dismiss the SIT report as biased or subjective or irrelevant, Mitta has gone down into the weeds, parsing the voluminous—and, it has to be said, shoddy, text—in order to understand its logic and reasoning. His findings are as shocking as they are distressing. Consider the manner in which Modi himself was interrogated by the SIT. The authenticated transcript reveals a static question-and-answer session in which the SIT’s interrogator runs through a list of questions, many of them excellent ones, without ever challenging Modi’s answers, asking a follow-up question or confronting him with evidence from documents and depositions in the SIT’s possession that contradict what the chief minister was saying.
On YouTube, viewers can see ample evidence of Modi’s inability to face up to simple questioning about his role in the violence. One minute into a scheduled interview with the famed Karan Thapar, the chief minister asks for a glass of water. Then he gets up and leaves. On another occasion, awkward questions by Rajdeep Sardesai are met with lengthy, awkward silence.
Compared to the slender pickings our journalists have managed, the SIT’s transcript represents the fullest and most detailed ‘interview’ Modi has given to date on his role during the Gujarat riots. But it is a wasted opportunity, as the manner of the questioning falls far short of what a half-way competent journalist would have managed, not to speak of a seasoned criminal investigator looking into a heinous crime on the basis of a mandate provided by the Supreme Court.
Mitta shows us how Modi is allowed to baldly deny having played any role in the incendiary decision to hand the bodies of the Godhra train fire victims to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—the very organisation that had called for a Gujarat-wide bandh and unleashed violence across the state on February 28, 2002. This despite documentary evidence that undermined his claim. Another poorly phrased question allowed Modi to conveniently bury the fact that he had called the Godhra incident an act of terrorism, an inflammatory characterisation his government was eventually forced to back away from in the absence of evidence. No attempt was made to properly interrogate Modi for his disturbing anti-Muslim hate speech in Becharaji in September 2002 during his ‘Gaurav Yatra’ when there were Gujarat government files showing that the home department, which he directly controlled, had tried to hide the incriminating transcript from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
The opening chapter on the Godhra incident also reveals the SIT’s incompetence, with its crack investigators recycling the Gujarat police’s version despite glaring inconsistencies. For example, not a single Hindu passenger on board coach S-6, Mitta reminds us, was willing to corroborate the police claim that members of the Muslim mob had entered their coach by cutting the connecting vestibule and pouring copious amounts of petrol on the floor.
Above all, Mitta convincingly demonstrates how Raghavan and the SIT simply failed to connect the dots between the horrific anti-Muslim violence and its aftermath, especially those which showed concerted efforts at a cover-up by Modi’s administration.
There are no heroes in this clinical dissection of the manner in which a compelling body of evidence on the violence was simply ignored or sidelined. The tale is a particularly cautionary one because the web of official complicity was laid bare by media reports and witness testimony virtually contemporaneously. Institutions like the NHRC and the Supreme Court knew the government of Gujarat could not be relied upon to deliver justice and set up the SIT in order to ensure the guilty would be punished. Sadly, neither the court nor its amicus curiae was able to properly monitor and audit the manner in which Raghavan and the SIT went about their business.
The SIT’s closure report has been accepted by the magistrate’s court but will be challenged in the superior courts. Mitta’s book tells us coldly and precisely why the report is a travesty.
(Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, New Delhi. His book on the riots, Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy, was published by Penguin in 2002.)