Those familiar with the recent history of communal violence in India will have no trouble in placing Trilokpuri (Delhi, 1984) and Naroda Patiya (Ahmedabad, 2002) as uppermost and amongst the most brutal in the country’s poor record of protecting minorities.
In a highly polarised debate, the credentials of senior editor and The Times of India journalist Manoj Mitta to write “The Fiction of Fact-Finding — Modi and Godhra” are second to none.
In 2007, Mitta co-wrote “When a Tree Shook Delhi”, which the jacket of the current book says, was received as a “critically acclaimed book on fact-finding done by official agencies in the wake of the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage”.
“Out of the official death toll of 2,733 in the 1984 Delhi carnage, about 400 Sikhs were estimated to have been killed in and around Block 32 [Trilokpuri]...this was close to the death toll in Ahmedabad during the 2002 riots, which was pegged at 442,” Mitta writes.
Rather than seeing a break in approach between 1984 and 2002, Mitta sees continuity in official collusion, inaction and apathy in this book, which is unsparing of the police, judiciary and civil administration.
“With a death toll of ninety-six, Naroda Patiya saw the single largest massacre in 2002. While Trilokpuri is about 10 kilometres from the Delhi police commissioner’s office, Naroda Patiya is less than 5 kilometres from the office of the Ahmedabad police commissioner.”
Drawing a parallel between the late Union Minister H.K.L. Bhagat’s role in Trilokpuri and that of the convicted Mayaben Kodnani, who was a BJP legislator in 2002, the author says that Kodnani’s role in Naroda Patiya was “more visible” since she “visited the scene of offence”.
Though Mitta rightly focuses on 1984 and 2002 in his book, and terms the Congress as “opportunistically” communal and the BJP “ideologically” communal, one wishes his gaze had also travelled to Nellie (1983, Assam), where 2,191 people were hacked to death in a span of six hours in 14 villages on February 18, 1983.
My point in this is only to stretch the issue of impunity. Connivance is worse in acts of communal violence, but apathy on the part of those responsible for maintaining law and order leads to the same result – the death of innocents.
In the Naroda Patiya killings, Mitta is critical of the trial court letting off K.K. Mysorewala, inspector from the Naroda police station. “In effect, the judge [Jyotsna Yagnik] held that in the face of mob violence, a police officer could behave in a ‘most surprising and shocking manner’, not be ‘neutral’, not take ‘even elementary and routine steps’ and avoid doing ‘investigation altogether’ and yet, believe it or not, be without a trace of ‘malice or criminality’!”
Mitta believes that Yagnik’s verdict while setting a benchmark for political accountability by convicting former Minister Kodnani in a case of communal violence, “proved woefully inadequate when it came to police accountability”.
“The finding on the magnitude of private firing in Naroda Patiya showed that, like in the Trilokpuri violence of 1984, the police were in cahoots with the miscreants. The trial court held that Mysorewala’s claim to have ‘done lots of police firing’ was ‘extremely doubtful’.”
Mitta also refers to another parallel between the Delhi and Gujarat killings. “For much in the spirit of Rajiv Gandhi’s tree metaphor [in 1984], Modi came up with his own Newtonian twist. He tried to pass off the post-Godhra killings as a ‘chain of action and reaction’.”
The author, who devotes an entire chapter to Modi’s interrogation in the Ehsan Jafri case, takes the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) to task for not asking the “right questions” to him in March 2010.
“Whatever its legal infirmities, the SIT’s closure report on Jafri’s complaint has had far-reaching political implications. It served as a green signal for Modi’s transition to the national stage,” Mitta writes.
The author is unsparing of the Nanavati Commission, which gave its report on the Godhra train killings in 2008, six years after it was appointed. In 2008, the Commission said it had completed the “scrutiny of the material in respect of the post-Godhra events”. However, Mitta points out that the report is still to see the light of day.
Attacking the Commission for not calling Modi to be cross-examined, he says that the Misra Commission also conducted its inquiry into the 1984 carnage without questioning Rajiv Gandhi or any other senior Congress functionary.
“In contrast, three successive Chief Ministers of Maharashtra — Sudhakar Naik, Sharad Pawar and Manohar Joshi — were cross-examined before the Justice Srikrishna Commission, which probed the Bombay riots of 1992-93,” the book says. Even Gujarat Chief Minister Hitendra Desai faced a similar panel after the 1969 riots in the State.
Mitta has meticulously pieced together a compelling narrative comparing State responses both after 1984 and 2002. It shows, clearly, that in the absence of aggressive accountability for communal riots and violence, the culture of impunity can only grow.