Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
Meeting with Narendra Modi
We had asked for separate meetings in Gandhinagar with the Chief Minister, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, the Information Minister, the Chief Secretary and the DG Police the better to serve focussed discussion. However, Mr Narendra Modi met us without his ministerial colleagues or the DGP but collectively in the presence of the Chief Secretary, the Home Secretary. a senior police official, the Revenue Secretary (who looks after relief and rehabilitation), the Director of Information and several others.
A large bust of Gandhiji is installed in front of the Sachivalaya and looks across the road at the adjacent Old Secretariat that houses various Government Directorates. The Old Secretariat is a protected area. Yet the Gujarat State Wakf Board, located just below the Directorate of Information, and the Gujarat Minorities Finance and Development Corporation housed in the Block opposite, both Government offices, were attacked and torched by a mob during office hours on February 28. Staff in all the Directorates ran for cover. The Old Secretariat was closed; later, curfew was imposed in Gandhinagar. No arrests had been made until April 2, the day of our visit. Records pertaining to dargahs, mosques, madrassas and kabristans were lost in the fire.
We told Mr Modi of our mission and asked for his assessment of the media’s role in the ongoing crisis in Gujarat. He was coy; it was too early for him to say anything about the media as CM, he said. But if Narendra Modi were asked that question, that would be a long story. Coaxed to say something more, he said the media, especially TV, was very powerful. None in the media had appealed for peace. Yes, maybe editorials had appeared, but ordinary people did not read editorials. He himself had gone on the air and repeatedly called for peace. (In his address over Doordarshan on February 28, Mr Modi referred to Godhra and went to state: “Gujarat shall not tolerate any such incident. The culprits will get full punishment for their sins. Not only this, we will set an example that nobody, not even in his dreams thinks of committing a heinous crime like this”. In a separate Doordarshan soundbyte he is reported as stating: “If raising issues relating to justice or injustice adds fuel to the fire, we will have to observe restraint and invoke peace”. Ambiguous words these. Annexure 4AA).
Responding to queries regarding various statements attributed to him by the media, Mr Modi denied citing Newton’s law. Nor had he spoken of “action-reaction”; he had wanted neither the action (at Godhra) nor the subsequent reaction. When we cited footage in Zee to the contrary (Annexure 4A), there was no reaction from Mr Modi The Chief Minister said he had merely only narrated the facts and justified nothing. He was pained by a “Diary” item about his “feasting” while Gujarat burned that the Times of India had carried the previous week. He had merely gone to his constituency in Rajkot to thank party workers after his recent by-election victory and had had a quick, Spartan meal before hurrying away to inspect some continuing earthquake relief works. The Indian Express too had had carried unkind references to him in its “Modi-Meter” column.
He had not said “normalcy” had been restored in 72 hours but only that the situation had been largely brought under control during that period, unlike on past occasions when rioting had continued for weeks. Firing had been ordered and a large number of arrests had been made. Scare stories in some papers, such as about returning Hajis and breast-cutting in Sandesh, had been officially denied but the contradictions had not been carried. This was because newspapers sought to sensationalise issues. Asked why the State did not prosecute offending newspapers under the law, Mr Modi said “we prefer to move on”.
The Chief Minister justified the presence of two Ministers in the Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad Police Control Rooms. This was standard practice in Gujarat, even during the earthquake last year; moreover, the control room was a convenient place from which to interact with the public. (Later we were to hear of reports of a Minister’s son sitting in the police control room in Godhra. When we queried this with official interlocutors, we were informed that no action could be taken unless an FIR was filed. None had dared do so).
He went on to deny reports of his comparing his term of office to a “one-day cricket match”. What he had said when he took office was that there were 12,000 hours to go before the next Assembly elections. Just as in a one-day cricket, achieving a given run-rate is critical, he had appealed for a better “work-rate” to fulfil the Government’s promises to the people. This remark had been twisted.
He said he had visited both Muslim and Hindu relief camps and had spoken to all camp organisers. He would not like to comment on the National Human Rights Commission’s report but the media had omitted many positive references made by the Commission about the Government’s performance. The NHRC had also called for a media code and self-policing under the terms of Article I9 (2) of the Constitution.
The Chief Minister had little to say about the killing of Ehsan Jafri and the attack on the two Justices of the Gujarat High Court, apart from pleading an inadequacy of forces to control large mobs roving across far flung areas of the city. He denied saying that “private firing” by Jafri had enraged the mob. Words had been put in his mouth as he had merely referred to a newspaper report that said this is what had happened. He also denied any pre-planned targeting of Muslim establishments and said that local people knew the who and the what of these things as they lived in the same community.
Mr Modi had no explanation for the widespread destruction of Muslim dargahs and shrines and how it was that in at least one case the rubble had been cleared and a tarred road built over the site. The Team pointed out that the usual complaint was that damaged rods and pavements were never repaired for months on end and that tarring a road is a major operation that calls for organisation, mechanical equipment and efforts beyondthe capability of stray hoodlums. The CM pleaded lack of knowledge but did say that he had ordered the removal of makeshift Hindu shrines and idols installed in some of them. He then went on to ask if it was helpful for TV to have shown a decapitated Hanuman idol at a desecrated Hindu shrine at Anjar in Kutch that very morning (April 2).
The CM defended the recent transfer of several police officials, including some who had dome commendable work in controlling riots. He felt these “long-pending promotions” would act as an “incentive”. He said there could be two views opinions on this count but agreed with the suggestion that perhaps promotions might have been announced but the actual movement of the officers deferred until after the law and order situation had stabilised.
He also accepted that he would have done well to call local editors for a frank briefing. This would have enabled him to explain the Government’s concerns and solicit their cooperation.
Mr Narendra Modi, like certain other official spokesmen in Delhi, also drew a comparison between media coverage of the Gujarat riots and the restrained and responsible role of the American media after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Towers in New York. Dead bodies were not shown on television or in press photographs. The fact is that on September 11 and for some days thereafter none other than firemen could approach, let alone enter, the WTC and very few bodies were recovered until much later. People were shown jumping off higher floors and clinging to windows. The two episodes are very different and there was no arson, rape, loot and rioting in New York of the kind witnessed in Gujarat.
Before we left, the conversation turned to how confidence and mutual trust might be restored. The Team said that commissions of inquiry in India had lost credibility because of delays and obstructions in their working and inaction on their findings. In the circumstances, the Gujarat Government could not do better than to enable the K.G.Shah Commission to complete its task expeditiously and thereafter take immediate action on its findings. Mr Modi thought this a good idea.
However, on visiting the shell of the burnt out carriage No. S-6 at Godhra station (with a Railway escort) on April 3, we were surprised to see this prime exhibit standing in the yard unguarded and stray people entering it at will. Anyone could remove or plant anything in the carriage, tampering with whatever evidence it has to offer with none being any the wiser. Furthermore, it was only on April 1 that Justice K. G. Shah, heading the one-man Commission of Inquiry, reportedly visited his office, having been provided with some staff and other wherewithal with which to commence his labour. Interviewed over TV he is reported to have said that his inquiry could quite take time. As of April 6, when the last of us left Gujarat, none seemed aware of any notification having been issued by or on behalf of the Commission calling on people to come forward with relevant evidence or announcing any programme of work or schedule of visits. (See Annexure 5 for K.G. Shah Commission’s terms of reference).