In 2010, Rana Ayyub, then working for news magazine Tehelka , spent eight months undercover in Gujarat pretending to be Maithili Tyagi, a filmmaker. Ayyub conducted a sting operation and met with bureaucrats and senior police officers who had held key positions in the State between 2001 and 2010. Her book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up , contains previously unpublished transcripts from the sting operation that Tehelka withheld from publication. Ayyub offered tapes of these to various media and publishing houses, who, she states, refused to publish its contents. Till the writing of this review, the tapes themselves remain untested by forensic labs.
The transcripts presented in the book chronicle the violence that preceded the consolidation of power in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002, and the numerous encounter deaths that took place between 2002 and 2006. The book tries to pinpoint the role of the bureaucracy and the police who, it shows, through their complicity, tacit collusion, and silence, drove forward with lethal precision and ideological radicalisation the policies of lawlessness.
Rajan Priyadarshi, Director-General of the Anti-Terrorism Squad in Gujarat in 2007, is quoted as saying: “… Amit Shah, he never used to believe in human rights. He used to tell us that I don’t believe in these human rights commissions. And now look at this, the courts have given him bail too.” Priyadarshi’s comments and their implications raise serious questions about the nature of power, politics, corruption and the use of unconstitutional violence by the State. If these transcripts are validated, they could present serious legal and ethical repercussions about Shah’s use of the State police force as his personal assassination squad and the bureaucracy as his fief.
The cornerstones of democracy demand that the State, its leadership, bureaucracy, and police force, occupy no position greater than the law and the people it is obligated to serve. Writing the dissenting judgment in Olmstead v. the United States, Justice Brandeis stated what has come to embody the fundamental relationship between State and society and the consequences of the abuse of law for the ends of State ideology: “In a government of laws, the existence of the government will be imperilled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”
Ms. Ayyub’s book corroborates many of the findings from the 12 May 2010 SIT report ordered by the Supreme Court of India, but does not provide new evidence.
There are, however, two important questions the book raises that require further investigation, understanding, and analysis. First, Ayyub points to the use and co-optation of Dalit officers like Priyadarshi and others belonging to lower castes, such as D. Vanzara, Rajkumar Pandian, Amin, and Parmar, as agents of state violence and articulates the policy of “use and abandon”. In a candid moment, Priyadarshi is quoted as saying, “I mean a Dalit officer can be asked to commit cold-blooded murder because he (apparently) has no self-respect, no ideals. Upper castes in the Gujarat police are the ones in (everyone’s) good books.”
These insights, if explored from the perspective of the sociology of the state, can help us better understand how mechanisms of co-optation often turn members of marginalised communities, even when they become stakeholders in state power, into objects of their own subjugation.
Second, towards the end of the book, Maharashtra police officer Daya Nayak, the encounter specialist eulogised by Bollywood, tells Ayyub, “The biggest political murder in the country (…), had happened in Gujarat, that of Haren Pandya, Modi’s arch rival.” Pandya, former Home Minister of Gujarat, was murdered in 2003. All the accused in the case were acquitted by the Gujarat High Court eight years later, and the court concluded the CBI had “botched up and blinkered” its investigation.
Later in the chapter, Y.A. Shaikh, the first investigating officer in the Pandya murder, tells Ayyub, “You know this Haren Pandya case is like a volcano. Once the truth is out, Modi will go home. He will be jailed, not go home. He will be in prison.”
Soon after this conversation, the chapter ends abruptly raising more questions. After 13 years, there are still no answers and the pursuit of justice remains elusive for the Pandya family and the thousands who perished then.
Gujarat under Modi and his ally Shah has witnessed a terrible mutation in state and civil society. To characterise the violence in Gujarat as either the anarchy of the mob or the recurring outbursts of ancient hatreds is intellectually dishonest, and historically and analytically incorrect. Similarly, labelling police and bureaucratic complicity as a “few bad apples” is a gross refusal to acknowledge the regimes of impunity that have been cultivated by the State for its means and ends. Instead, we need to understand how such an elaborate system of control has been perfected and put in place.
We are in need of a narrator, an interlocutor, and a fearless voice that can articulate the transforming nature of society and state. It is precisely here that Ayyub’s book could have been the intervention; that answered and explained some of these questions. But Gujarat Files , as it is today, is an unfinished book, waiting for an editor who can rethink its narrative, challenge the structure, and strengthen its arguments. The transcripts by themselves are just unfinished conversations, waiting for context and analysis.
Suchitra Vijayan is a New York-based barrister, political analyst and writer. She is currently working on her first book on the making of India’s political borders.
Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up; Rana Ayyub, Rs. 295.