The law is finally catching up in Gujarat (Comment)

February 14th, 2009 - 1:41 pm ICT by IANS  

Narendra ModiSeven years after the Gujarat riots, the sins of omission and commission of the Narendra Modi government are beginning to catch up with it.

So far, only a deputy superintendent of police, K.G. Erda, has been arrested in connection with his role during the outbreak while the Special Investigating Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court has declared a minister, Maya Kodnani, a proclaimed offender.

These are small steps in the context of the magnitude of the tragedy during which about 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. But the signals they are sending out are of considerable importance.

For a start, the arrest of the police officer is a message to bureaucrats all over the country that blind obedience to their political masters is not always a safe option. At some point in the future, they will have to answer personally for their deeds.

It has always been suspected that one reason why the carnage continued for nearly two months was that the police did not do enough to check the rampaging saffron mobs.

As much was admitted by “a highly placed source” before an unofficial tribunal. The source, who was later identified as Haren Pandya, a minister, reportedly said that senior police officials were directed to “do nothing to contain this (Hindu) reaction” to the Godhra tragedy. Pandya was subsequently killed.

A senior police officer, R.B. Sreekumar, has also been quoted on the Internet as saying that the Modi government issued “unconstitutional directives” to the police. For his refusal to toe the government’s line, Sreekumar’s promotion was held up.

Now that at least one police officer has been arrested for his “lapses” during the disturbances and the names of several others, including the director-general, P.C. Pande, are said to be on the SIT’s list, it is a warning which cannot be ignored by officialdom.

The same goes for the minister who has sought anticipatory bail, as has a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) functionary, who is said to be absconding. So is a police inspector, V.S. Gohil. Along with the officials, the political class will learn from this episode what a failure to be true to one’s oath entails.

As the SIT continues with its probe, the chief minister may realise that a controversial past cannot be easily buried. If more and more revelations come to light about the conduct of officials and ministers, which is now being reconstructed via their cell phone records, Modi is likely to find that his hitherto successful attempt to divert attention from the riots to development may not be long-lasting.

But it isn’t only the bureaucracy and the politicians who will be at the receiving end of the SIT’s findings. The failure of the judiciary at the local level will also be highlighted. As it is, the Supreme Court has drawn attention to the virtual collapse of the legal process following the riots.

The apex court had noted in one of its verdicts that “we do not think it necessary to highlight all the infirmities in the high court judgement (on the Best Bakery case) lest nothing credible would remain. We are satisfied that in the background of the nature of additional evidence sought to be adduced and the perfunctory manner of trial conducted on the basis of tainted investigation, a retrial is a must to save the justice delivery system”.

Such retrials were not only ordered in the Best Bakery and Bilkis Banu cases but they had to be held outside Gujarat, which, in itself, is a stinging indictment of the state’s administrative and legal systems.

The Supreme Court’s intervention followed the realisation that the victims of murder, rape and arson during the riots could expect no justice in Gujarat. More than 4,000 of cases relating to the outbreak were closed by the police either for lack of evidence or because the culprits could not be traced or because the cases fell through as the witnesses turned hostile, evidently on being threatened by the criminals, while the police failed to provide any protection.

Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court had said that “the modern day Neros were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected”.

Amnesty International, too, pointed out that “the same police force that was accused of colluding with the attackers was put in charge of investigations into the massacres, undermining the process of delivery of justice to the victims”.

If the guilty are not punished, a tragedy of the kind which took place in Gujarat can undermine popular faith in the democratic system, forcing a few misguided people to take to extra-constitutional means for the redressal of their grievances. The people of India should be thankful that the Supreme Court stepped in to salvage the situation at the behest of the National Human Rights Commission.

But, apart from the judicial intervention, it is a sad reflection on the calibre of the Indian Police Service (IPS) and other wings of the state’s official machinery including the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) that they allowed Gujarat to be in the grip of lawless elements for nearly two months and that, except for Sreekumar, not a single official stood up against what were patently unlawful orders from the top.

(14.2.2009-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

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