Ruling on 2002 Massacre Leaves Indians Wanting Justice: Choudhury

"God is great!" On the afternoon of Sept. 12, Narendra Modi, the energetic and controversial chief minister of the state of Gujarat and a prominent figure in the country's main opposition party, the BJP, posted this three-word message on his Twitter page, which has more than 350,000 followers.

Modi was responding to a fairly routine judgment, devoid of either validation or censure, by the Supreme Court of India. The case concerned an incident more than nine years past. During the gruesome communal violence that raged across Gujarat in 2002, while Modi was chief minister, a mob hacked and burned to death 69 residents of the Gulbarg Housing Society in Ahmadabad, including a former Congress Party lawmaker, Ehsan Jafri.

In 2006, Zakia Jafri, Ehsan Jafri's widow, sought to file a charge of criminal conspiracy against Modi and 61 others for the bloodbath, but the plea was dismissed by the Gujarat High Court. In 2009, however, the Supreme Court of India appointed a Special Investigative Team to conduct a probe, and earlier this year it appointed an amicus curiae (or "friend of the court") to corroborate the investigative team's findings and if necessary provide an alternate interpretation of the very complex evidence, much of it circumstantial. On Sept. 12, the Supreme Court, which isn't a trial court, declared that it would cease to monitor the case, and that both the investigative team's report and the findings of the amicus curiae would now be passed "to the court empowered to take cognisance of the offence alleged" -- that is, a trial court in Gujarat, which would decide whether there was enough evidence to file charges.

The implications of this judgment were very precisely and patiently explained by the amicus curiae, Raju Ramachandran, in two long interviews to the press ("Neither A Victory Nor An Exoneration"). But the decision was interpreted by Modi and the BJP as a victory. It was seen by many Indian citizens, including, in some reports, Zakia Jafri and the human-rights activists who supported her petition, as a setback, particularly since it was the very same Supreme Court that in 2003 had transferred numerous cases concerning the riots out of the Gujarat courts to counter the possibility of interference by the Modi government.

A cynical interpretation of the Twitter post by Modi, who is a frontrunner to be the BJP's candidate for prime minister in the national elections of 2014, might see his "God is great" as meaning "no damage done to me by the Supreme Court, and the case back home to Gujarat." Or, as a piece on the website asked, "Will a trial court in Gujarat ever prosecute Modi?" The contrasting legal and political implications of the judgment were succinctly interpreted in the Hindu by Vidya Subrahmaniam, who observed:

[...] Politically, the order is without any doubt a reprieve for Mr. Modi, who faces another Assembly election in 2012. By the time, the wheels of justice grind in Gujarat, the election would have been fought — and probably won. It is a fair bet that the BJP will use the September 12, 2011 order to the fullest in the campaign, projecting it as a “clean chit” to the Chief Minister.

...[But] legal opinion seems largely supportive of the petitioners' point of view. Had the trial of the 62 accused started in 2006 when Ms. Jafri first petitioned the Gujarat High Court, the trial court would have been much less constrained in deciding the case. Now it has to consider the contents of two voluminous investigative reports.

[..] For the petitioners in the case, it has been a long and hard journey from the Director-General of Police to the High Court, the Supreme Court and now the trial court. At each step hope has alternated with despair.

Elsewhere, the writer of the week's lead piece in The Organiser, the journal of the BJP's parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, mocked the efforts of the "secular brigade" to have Modi convicted. Aditya Pradhan argued in a piece called "Narendra Modi vindicated":

Why has the Supreme Court ruling on Narendra Modi got his detractors’ goat? Be it the Congress, the Gujarat-based human rights NGOs or the secular brigade, all the parties are demonstratively sulking. One, because the industry that was built around the campaign against Narendra Modi is slowly but surely coming crumbling down. [...] The BJP in an understatement called the Supreme Court ruling a victory for Modi. To start with, there is not a shred of evidence against the Chief Minister of Gujarat to make such grave charges credible. The secular brigade, which included some of the powerful media houses, set out to frame the Gujarat Chief Minister only because he does not wallow in secular balderdash.

But the Supreme Court judgment turned out to be just the prologue to a protracted piece of political theater engineered by Modi. The Gujarat chief minister is well aware of how polarizing a figure he is, and employs the Washington-based firm APCO as an image consultant. He has long been arraigned by sections of the press as well as much of the Indian intelligentsia for his sins of commission or omission during the riots, and for numerous crude remarks about Muslims thereafter. Yet he is at the same time a great favorite of the party faithful and an administrator who has taken Gujarat to great heights of prosperity, providing an efficient administration, high-class infrastructure, and a business-friendly environment -- things in short supply in Indian politics.

Seizing the opportunity to draw out his moment of triumph by employing the preferred gambit of the political season -- the fast, with its message of self-purification and protest against injustice -- Modi declared that he would forgo nourishment for three days between Sept. 17 and 19 to promote the spirit of sadbhavana, or goodwill and amity.

There was also a U.S. angle to this good feeling: the release on Sept. 1 of a report on India by the U.S. Congressional Research Service. The report said of Modi -- to whom the U.S. denied a visa in 2005 for his involvement in "severe violations of religious freedom" -- "Controversial Chief Minister Narendra Modi has streamlined economic processes, removing red tape and curtailing corruption in ways that have made the state a key driver of national economic growth.”

In an "open letter" addressed to the Indian people, the chief minister edged a few steps further forward in his reinvention -- designed, many believe, with an eye on the national elections of 2014 -- from a hectoring, chest-beating Hindu nationalist to a sage statesman focused on economic development and social cohesion. Common to both these avatars, though, is Modi's rhetorical tactic of blurring the boundaries between his own self and the state that he governs. Modi's letter, which read as if composed by a benign dictator, not the head of a democratically elected government consisting of many arms and actors, declared:

For the past ten years, it has become fashionable to defame me and the State of Gujarat. These elements who could not tolerate any positive development of Gujarat have not left any stone unturned to defame Gujarat. It is difficult to say whether this campaign of defamation will stop even after the judgment of the Supreme Court. But one thing is certain that the credibility of those who have been spreading lies and defaming Gujarat has come to its lowest ebb. The people of this country will not trust such elements anymore.

After 2002, Gujarat has not spared any effort to march towards peace, harmony and progress even amidst false propaganda, lies, conspiracies and allegations.

[...] I humbly submit before you that, as part of this responsibility to strengthen social harmony and brotherhood, I am thinking of starting a movement of “Sadbhavana Mission.”

And in another letter, published on the inaugural day of the fast, Modi wrote, "During my fast, I will continue to pray to the Almighty to give me strength so that I do not develop or retain any ill-feeling or bitterness towards those who defamed Gujarat or me by making false allegations." Under the apparent saintliness and moral generosity of the sentiment was the dangerously megalomaniac sound of "those who defamed Gujarat or me," as if the state and the head of state were one indivisible entity.

The fast supplied, profitably for Modi and the BJP, three days of newspaper headlines and television eyeballs, and perfervid political speculation in every living-room in the country. Held at the swiftly requisitioned convention center of Gujarat University, it was a curious mix of a modern political convention -- with a media center, plenty of visiting dignitaries from the BJP and civil society, and massive police deployment -- and a medieval political darbar, with a potentate sitting all day long on a stage, in apparent contact with his people, while speakers sang his praises.

What Modi was known to be good at and what Modi wanted to be seen as being good at were grafted together. The chief minister lectured the country about the Gujarat example of good governance and economic progress: "It is often said that India does not dream big and that is the root cause of all our problems [...] The country needs to dream like Gujarat."

Meanwhile, a procession of groups representing the different faiths and creeds of India approached him on the stage to pay their respects and make for a reassuring pan-Indian panorama. The sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan observed in an essay about the fast:

The crowds are representational. They represent ethnic power, religious power and the purifying power of uninformed school children. Within the first hour, a parade emerges of turbanised Sikhs, three huge battalions of Bohra Muslims walking with dignity. The Sants [Hindu godmen] follow, more confident of their power, dressed in various shades from dull turmeric to deep saffron. [...] The effect is like a magnified Noah’s ark, instead of a two of each species, we have a few thousand of each category.

The trouble with the show is that it is too organised. This is not a crowd, it is a tableau and he is the director. He is in charge and in immaculate control of himself. One quickly realises logistics is the microcosm of Modi’s dream of power. Here is a man who arranges crowds like a Republic day tableau.

This grand display of authority and legitimacy stoked a number of little rebellions. Sanjiv Bhatt, a suspended Gujarat-cadre officer of the Indian Police Service, who earlier this year had alleged that Modi had directed top police officers to go soft on Hindu rioters in 2002, produced a sarcastic "open letter" to Modi. A protest march by victims of the riots and activists in the Naroda-Patiya area of Ahmadabad, one of the areas worst hit by the riots, ended in almost 60 people being arrested by the police.

The last word on the event might be granted to the chief minister himself, who on the final evening of the fast posted on Twitter: "With harmony & goodwill all around, 3 days flew so fast."

Over the next year or two, it will be the work of a trial court in Gujarat to decide whether Modi's past actions are consistent with the harmony and goodwill he now projects so intently.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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