News Analysis - The many twists and turns of February 27, 2002

The cast of characters changes from one SIT version to another. And so do the stories they have to tell

May 11, 2012 11:42 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 04:27 am IST - NEW DELHI:

Late in the night on February 27, 2002, top bureaucrats and police officials of the Gujarat government gathered for a meeting called by Narendra Modi at his Gandhinagar home. In a horrible carnage at Godhra that morning, a mob had burnt alive 59 kar sevaks travelling aboard the Sabarmati Express.

What was discussed at the meeting and who attended it? The answers would depend on which document you want to believe: the 2012 closure report of the Special Investigation Team that probed Zakia Jafri's complaint against Chief Minister Modi and 61 others; the 2010 preliminary report of the SIT in the same case; or the 2004 depositions made by some of the dramatis personae before the G.T Nanavati-K.G. Shah Commission.

According to the SIT's closure report, besides Mr. Modi, eight officers attended the meeting. Among them were Anil Mukim, Secretary to the Chief Minister, and Prakash Shah, Additional Secretary (Law and Order). The SIT's preliminary report recorded the presence of seven officers, including Mr. Mukim, but curiously noted that Mr. Mukim himself said he had not attended the meeting. The preliminary report did not at all name Mr. Shah as a participant. Yet he not only crops up in the closure report but makes several assertions about what transpired at the meeting. (The SIT says his deposition was recorded in 2009-2010).

The closure report is also emphatic about who was not present at the meeting: IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt. Indeed, seven of the eight participating officers, barring the acting Chief Secretary, Swarna Kanta Verma, who said she had never met him, are “categorical” in the closure report that Mr. Bhatt, then with the State Intelligence, had not attended the meeting. Mr. Modi, who chaired the meeting, would also tell the SIT — of his own accord, without being asked the question — that Mr. Bhatt did not attend it. Says the closure report: “Seven senior administrative and police officers …have categorically stated that Shri Sanjiv Bhatt was not present in the meeting.”

With Mr. Bhatt being so decisively declared “absent,” no credence, of course, could be given to his statement that at the meeting, Mr. Modi had advocated allowing Hindus to vent their anger against Muslims. In the closure report, each of the officers present is absolutely certain that Mr. Modi gave no such instructions.

Yet in the SIT's preliminary report, the officers were far less certain. Ms. Varma did not mention Mr. Bhatt. And she was also hazy on Mr. Modi's alleged anti-Muslim instructions, saying she did not “recollect as to whether the CM instructed the police officers that the police should not come in the way of the Hindu backlash…” In the closure report, she asserts that Mr. Modi made no such remarks.

Ashok Narayan, Additional Chief Secretary (Home), said he could not recollect if Mr. Bhatt attended the meeting. He remembered Mr. Modi saying that people were outraged by the “heinous incident of Godhra and therefore effective steps must be taken to control communal riots.” But Mr. Narayan was unsure if Mr. Modi had uttered “any other words.” In the closure report, he specifically denies that Mr. Modi gave any illegal instructions.

K. Chakravarthi, Director-General of Police, said in the preliminary report: “As per his recollection, Shri Bhatt did not attend the meeting.” In the closure report, he is positive that Mr. Bhatt did not attend the meeting.

P.K. Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, denied that Mr. Modi gave any illegal instructions, but could not “recollect as to whether Shri Sanjiv Bhatt attended the meeting.” In the closure report, he “categorically” affirms that Mr. Bhatt was not at the meeting.

K. Nityanandan, Secretary (Home), denied Mr. Modi had passed any illegal order but was unable to say whether Ministers were present at the meeting. He said nothing about Mr. Bhatt. In the closure report, he is absolutely sure that Mr. Bhatt had not been present at the meeting.

The preliminary report said Mr. Mukim had denied attending the meeting. The closure report quotes him as accepting he attended the meeting but denying both Mr. Bhatt's presence and Mr. Modi's alleged illegal instructions. Mr. Shah, whose presence was not indicated in the preliminary report, says in the closure report that Mr. Bhatt did not attend the meeting; nor did Mr. Modi give any illegal instructions!

The SIT's closure report also records that that there was unanimity among participants on what Mr. Modi said at the meeting, and how they reacted to it. Mr. Modi was firm about maintaining peace in the Godhra aftermath. He said people were outraged by the Godhra burning and it was important, therefore, that every possible step, including making preventive arrests, was taken to foreclose the possibility of communal riots. The Chief Minister said arrangements had been made to transport the bodies of kar sevaks fom Godhra to the Sola Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad by road. Not one person present objected to this decision. The meeting also discussed law and order arrangements in view of the bandh call given by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for February 28, 2002. Again, there was no dissenting voice.

Mr. Bhatt had claimed in his deposition to the SIT that at the meeting, Police Commissioner Pande had strongly objected to the transportation of bodies, saying this could lead to communal riots. Mr. Bhatt said Mr. Pande was supported on this by DGP Chakravarthi. The SIT's closure report dismisses Mr. Bhatt's claim as “an imaginary account.” It says that in his deposition, Mr. Pande “strongly” denied that he had raised any objection. Mr. Chakravarthy too said he had made no intervention.

Mr. Pande's deposition to the Nanavati-Shah commission, however, shows the man in an entirely different light. The super-confident top cop in the SIT's narrative comes across in the Nanavati-Shah Commission's records as deeply distressed — both by what he had been forced to do and the lack of official support for dealing with the anti-Muslim pogrom. On the transportation of bodies, he says: “When I know that 58 bodies were being brought to Ahmedabad … I had a feeling looking to the communal situation of Ahmedabad that it is sensitive and like ‘tinder box,' and therefore in prevailing circumstances, if these dead bodies are brought to Ahmedabad, then possibly it will create serious impacts..” Further, “after knowing the fact that these dead bodies were being brought or were brought to Ahmedabad, to say that what was my duty? I leave this matter to the Commission.”

According to the SIT's closure report, officers attending the February 27, 2002 meeting agreed that Mr. Modi wanted tough steps taken, including making preventive arrests, to prevent a communal flare-up. Yet only two years later, this is what Mr. Pande tells the Nanavati-Shah Commission: “Even though VHP had given a call for bandh, police had not kept any watch over leaders of VHP because it was not possible to do so. It was not happened that on 27/2/2002 any of the workers were arrested for preventive arrest…” Mr. Pande goes on to say: “If communal riots are on a large scale and are of nature of unbelievable then success cannot be obtained by police action. Over and above police actions, it is necessary to have co-operation of the government, political parties and local leaders.”

The SIT's closure report presents a picture of unity among those who attended the February 27, 2002 meeting. Yet in trying too hard to establish that Mr. Bhatt did not attend the meeting, the SIT misses noticing crucial contradictions in the testimonies it recorded. A critical point relating to the meeting was the absence of an officer from the State intelligence. In his testimony to the SIT, DIG Chakravarthi argues that Mr. Bhatt was too junior to attend the Chief Minister's meeting, and he would have surely invited the IB chief, G.C. Raiger, if he had not been on leave that day. Mr. Raiger says he was on leave but returned on the evening of February 27, 2002 and immediately called up Mr. Chakravarthi and asked if he wanted him to reach Gandhinagar. Mr. Chakravarthi told him to resume work the next day, on February 28, 2002. This knowing an emergency meeting had been called by Mr. Modi. Surely one of the two men is not speaking the truth.

Mr. Chakravarthi did not even call the State Intelligence officer dealing with communal and political situations. Like Mr. Raiger, P.B. Upadhyay, the then Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence (Communal and politics), was on leave, but he too hastily returned on the evening of February 27, 2002. He reported for work and yet was not called. This is surely strange, considering Godhra was acknowledged as an intelligence failure and the meeting would have benefited from a briefing by the man in the know. There is only one explanation for this. The man in the know was Mr. Bhatt. Because as the SIT admits, Mr. Bhatt was standing in for Mr. Upadhyay and had sent many wireless messages through the day on the Godhra developments as well as on the communal situation in Ahmedabad. It made perfect sense for him to go to the meeting and pass on his intelligence inputs.

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