When two unidentified assailants pumped four bullets into former home minister Haren Pandya, it left all of Gujarat speechless and shocked. Not only because a young political career was snuffed out in so brutal a manner, but also because many feared that Pandya's murder would trigger yet another bloody phase, barely a year after the state has recovered from the carnage that accompanied Godhra. It has shattered the complacence that had set in after Narendra Modi won the Gujarat elections and fostered the feeling that peace was a surefire guarantee now that a 'tough' BJP government was in place. With Pandya's elimination, fear has returned to haunt the Gujaratis. It now lurks in the streets and bylanes of both new and old Ahmedabad.
Who masterminded Pandya's cold-blooded murder? There are no answers yet, only more questions. What is worrying most people is that if a leader of Pandya's stature could be bumped off with such ease in broad daylight, how safe does it make the others. It's a question that everyone—from Pandya's family, friends, BJP workers and MLAs to the common man—are asking.
For close to two hours, Pandya lay in his Maruti in a pool of blood without anyone noticing. The police were not even aware. In fact, one is not even sure whether Pandya was getting out of the car to go for a walk in the Law Gardens or had returned from his walk when he was shot. The official version is that Pandya had parked his car and was about to go for his walk when his killers struck. Says social activist and Congress MP Madhusudan Mistry, "The anxiety of the people is understandable. This incident has occurred in an upmarket area of the Gandhinagar Lok Sabha constituency of deputy prime minister L.K. Advani."
Pandya's father Vitthalbhai was inconsolable when Modi called on him, accompanied by nsg commandos. "What is the big deal in coming here with these gunmen? Why have you come here? We don't need any sympathy. Please go away. Don't even touch my son's body. You could not protect my son, how will you provide security to the five-crore people of Gujarat?", he asked. One of Pandya's three sisters even reminded Modi of his election promise when he had told the people of Gujarat to keep awake on polling day, and that he would stay awake for the next five years to ensure their safety. She then asked Modi pointedly, "What security did you provide for my brother? Were you awake?"
Pandya's nephew Mehul Pancholi gave a mouthful to Advani who came with Modi in tow. The fact that Advani broke down after seeing Pandya's body didn't deter him from asking the deputy PM, "Why don't you go to Kashmir without security?" Later, however, Advani, told reporters that the incident was a reflection of "the nexus between the underworld and terrorists".
The outrage in Pandya's house was echoed by the crowd of supporters and party workers outside. A group of angry women gheraoed Modi and raised slogans of "Narendra Modi hai, hai" while others freely pointed accusing fingers at him. The chief minister, who avoided facing the media, later, in a press statement, described the killing as tragic and the handiwork of "elements out to disturb the peace in Gujarat".
Close Modi associate and home minister Amit Shah, who had recently rushed to the press with allegations of a sex scandal against two Punjab ministers, also avoided the press. Like Modi, he too had to bear the ire of Pandya supporters at the V.S. Hospital where the slain leader was taken. Shah was pushed around, while law minister Ashok Bhatt was heckled. The general assertion was that the government had withdrawn security cover for Pandya for reasons of political vendetta that stemmed from the Modi-Pandya rivalry. The Congress went a step further when leader of the Opposition Amarsinh Chaudhary asserted in the assembly that it was a "political murder".
Chaudhary, in a hard-hitting press release, stated: "Haren Pandya was carrying his death warrant in his pocket ever since he had refused to vacate his seat for Narendra Modi." He also told reporters that "Pandya was accused of having deposed before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal about the chief minister holding a meeting on the evening of the Godhra train carnage in which he instructed senior officials to ensure that the police should not come in the way when Godhra was avenged the next day. This has not been proved, but in Gujarat, even an iota of suspicion is enough these days. This is nothing but dictatorship. Anyone challenging the authority faces adverse consequences."
Outlook had first reported the story of a minister deposing before senior retired judges of the tribunal about the secret Modi meeting (The Plot From the Devil's Lair, June 3, 2002). Though the story did not identify Pandya, it did provoke the state BJP leadership into issuing him a showcause notice. Pandya, in turn, gave a strong denial and, later, quit his ministerial post. But it only drove the wedge deeper in the Modi-Pandya relationship.
Differences between the two first surfaced when Pandya refused to vacate his Ellisbridge seat last year to enable Modi to contest a byelection after he replaced Keshubhai Patel as chief minister. Then came his alleged deposition before the tribunal. Modi retaliated by denying Pandya a ticket for the assembly elections. In fact, he made it a prestige issue: even the central BJP leadership had to succumb to his whims.
Pandya's supporters now see a possible link between his murder and the sudden discussion to appoint him to the BJP national executive. "We think it's too much of a coincidence that the announcement of Pandya's political rehabilitation was to be made on the very day he was bumped off," says a senior party functionary, reflecting the sentiment among scores of BJP workers.
But potent as the theory may sound, investigative officials feel it is too early to bracket Pandya's killing as politically motivated. They are exploring two other possibilities. Pandya, as home minister in the Patel government, had taken on the powerful cable TV mafia allegedly supported by former BJP minister and former TADA detenue Purshottam Solanki and his brother. He had fought tooth and nail to get the Solanki brothers punished, but had to ultimately give in because of political compulsions. Then, as minister of state for revenue in the previous Modi regime, he ruffled many feathers among the influential builders' lobby in the state when he launched a campaign to remove encroachments by powerful people on government land. He could also have angered smugglers and criminals when he bulldozed their illegal constructions in the coastal towns of Saurashtra. "Maybe someone from these lobbies wished to take revenge," says a police official.
It is, however, certainly not the first political murder that the state has seen in recent times. "This has exposed the Gujarat government and the vulnerability of the public. Similar attacks have occurred despite the government having had intelligence warnings about a churning among youth who have seen their near and dear ones getting killed in the riots last year," points out political analyst Achyut Yagnik.
The state government's version of the incident reinforces this feeling. Gujarat home secretary K. Nityanandan told the media, "The unfortunate murder of Pandya falls into a pattern of similar recent attacks on prominent persons (of the BJP and VHP) and exposes the existence of certain elements out to disturb the peace in the state."
In fact, on March 11, Jagdish Tiwari, the VHP general secretary in the communally sensitive Bapunagar area of Ahmedabad, was shot in the abdomen by two men at close range.Earlier, on December 2, VHP state joint general secretary Jaideep Patel was hit by a bullet under the left eye when two young men on a mobike fired at him in Naroda, Ahmedabad. Patel has been accused of leading the mobs during the post-Godhra killings. There was a similar attack on Niraj Jain, a VHP-BJP leader in Baroda who was fired at from close quarters in the crowded Nyay Mandir area. Before him, another BJP activist, Ganesh Agarwal, was shot in Ankleshwar town.
Nityanandan discerns a similar pattern in Pandya's killing. But he is quick to add that there was no threat perception as far as the former home minister was concerned. Which would perhaps help him explain why Patel has security cover and Jain has police posted at his house, but Pandya's security was withdrawn: "Pandya had no security for he was no longer a minister and there was no threat to him. He had not even asked for it." Never mind if it does not account for the fact that another former minister of state for home, VHP's Gordhan Zadaphia, has been given security cover.
As of now, nobody knows the truth behind Pandya's murder. Modi has ordered a cbi inquiry into the incident. But with no one having claimed responsibility yet, and no witnesses having come forward even 48 hours after the murder, it is a tough call.
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