Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
The Story as told through Gujarat Government Press Notes
Even before leaving for Gujarat, we had requested the State Information Department for a set of relevant press notes and other official documents, statements and appeals that would enable us to understand the situation from the official perspective. We were provided a set hurriedly put together Press Notes in English. These are briefly analysed below. All citations are in the actual language used in the official releases.
The phraseology most often used for the Godhra incident was “inhuman genocide”, “inhuman carnage” or “massacre” while the subsequent riots were invariably described as “disturbances”, and occasionally as “violent disturbances/incidents”. The Chief Minister visited Godhra on the evening of February 27 itself and the Press Note issued thereafter described the torching of the Sabarmati Express as a “pre-planned inhuman collective violent act of terrorism”.
Several releases refer to the situation having been brought under control within 72 hours. An official release on March 5 carried twin headings: The State Government has taken stringent action to stem riots and violence: Narendra Modi; and “Chief Minister’s Appeal to Trade and Industry, Religion Heads and Intellectuals for the Revival and Restoration of Economic Activities has evoked Encouraging Response”. The occasion was a Citizens’ meet organised by the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry in response to an appeal by the CM “to revive and restore economic activity”. The release notes that “Modi said it was the duty of the state government to provide security to the citizens even by taking drastic actions. Referring to the keen interest shown by the people around the globe in the ‘Resurgent Gujarat’ after devastating earthquake, he said that entire world was looking at the progressive and fast developing Gujarat”.
After again referring to “the pre-planned collective terrorism against Gujarat”, Pakistan’s proxy war and its “clandestine role…behind the Godhra genocide”, “Modi asserted that at this critical juncture, interest of Gujarat was maintain peace and said that the Government had discharged its duty to stop violence”. Further, he said, “the elements wanting to perpetuate violence and destabilise Gujarat were disappointed. Making a reference to Shabana Azmi’s demand to file a case of mass murder against the Chief Minister, Modi said that he would not have any regret to be hanged at the Bhadra Fort if restoration of peace within three days was considered an offence”.
Another press release dated March 9 was headed “We will not surrender to the elements out to malign Gujarat says the Chief Minister”. The occasion was another address to “leading business men and the merchant community” under the auspices of the Maskati new Cloth Market Mahajan. He said Mahatma Gandhi had taught Gujarat to fight against injustice. Health Minister Ashok Bhatt who also spoke “was cheered when he said that the trading community hails the Chief Minister as ‘the Sardar opposed to terrorism’, because he restored peace to Ahmedabad in only 72 hours”. The press release concluded with the observation that “businessmen, traders and the owners of process houses were full of praise for the strong will power of the Chief Minister and described him as ‘Chhote Sardar’”.
A March 4 press release from Ahmedabad on the occasion of Mr L.K. Advani’s visit to Gujarat stated that “Home Minister L.K.Advani today said that the Godhra genocide had given a setback to the four year of peaceful Bharatiya Janata party Rule in Gujarat”. The comment was reflected in the heading.
There were a couple of press notes on community amity. A release dated March 2 quoted the Chief Minister as denying newspaper reports of people having been burnt alive in Pandarwada village in Panchmahal. We were later to learn that this was one of the worst instances of rural violence. (This has been documented by Communalism Combat, Mumbai and figures in its Report “Genocide, Gujarat 2002”, March-April issue, No. 77-78).
We were not given any releases issued by the Police Department or by the Ahmedabad Police. So we do not know to what extent, if any, they filled the gaping holes in the narrative offered by the Press Notes issued through the Information Department. It is quite possible that the latter file given to us was incomplete and consisted of no more than a representative sample. Be that as it may, the media and, through it, the people of Gujarat were not kept properly or fully informed through the official information channels. What was put out was a travesty of the horrific events that engulfed the State. Much of it was one-sided and self-serving, eulogising the Chief Minister and focussing on a particular section of the trading community while Gujarat burned.
The file of official Press Notes given to the Guild is at Annexure 6.
The Directorate of Information also gave us a file contained 11 clarifications issued by it in respect of certain statements and views attributed to the Chief Minister in various news reports, editorials and articles by columnists. The Chief Minister himself referred to certain of these comments when the Guild Team met him. The file of “Clarifications” is at Annexure 7.