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An officer & a Gujarati

Today, as the Supreme Court ponders the progress of its special investigators into the 2002 riots, it may find they have much to prove. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Apr 26, 2011 23:11 IST
Samar Halarnkar

'It isn't that I have taken a Viagra for courage. If I think of the consequences, I will not be able to act. If nothing happens, it's fine. I've done my best." This is what Indian Police Service officer Sanjiv Rajendra Bhatt told me when I pointed out the inglorious consequences visited on the few officers who have previously tried to implicate Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and his administration in the riots of 2002.

Earlier this month, Bhatt, 47, filed an affidavit to the Supreme Court of India (SC) saying its Special Investigation Team (SIT) was ignoring evidence - including floppy disks, cellphone records and documents - that he had submitted establishing official complicity in one of independent India's bloodiest riots. A Gujarati and a graduate in geotechnics engineering from the elite Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Bhatt in his affidavit says he told the SIT of a late-night meeting on February 27, 2002 - where Modi allegedly said the police must allow Hindus to vent their anger - and provided "verifiable details" about a larger cover-up aimed at undermining the judicial process. Instead, says Bhatt, he faced "unconcealed hostility" from the SIT.

"I have time and again tried to bring these facts to the notice of the SIT but they seem disinclined to follow up these important leads," says Bhatt's affidavit, which he drafted himself earlier this month, unsure of whom to trust. He also accuses the SIT of having "chosen to intimidate certain witnesses" who testified to his presence at the meeting with Modi.

Some background: When it seemed clear that Gujarat would not duly investigate the riots, the SC created the SIT in March 2008 to probe the nine worst massacres of 2002. Trials in these cases are now underway. Bhatt's affidavit relates to the SIT's latest task: investigating the death by burning of 69 people at the Gulberg Society in Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002, including former Member of Parliament, Ehsan Jafri. The court ordered the probe after a special petition from his widow, Zakia.

Why did Bhatt wait nine years to speak up? His contention: as an intelligence officer, he was bound by confidentiality. When the SIT first summoned him in November 2009, Bhatt told its officers he would reveal what he knew only if a criminal case was registered. With his career at stake, he wanted his testimony to count, not be part of a vague inquiry.

"Given the conditions that have existed in Gujarat for almost the last decade, it would be very unrealistic to expect any government servant to depose freely and fearlessly before any forum, including the SIT, unless he or she is provided adequate protection and complete immunity from persecution from a highly vindictive administrative setup," says Bhatt's affidavit.

The Gujarat government indeed persecuted the few officers who chose to control mobs instead of letting them run riot in 2002 or, later on, tried to follow the judicial process. What has since emerged is a pattern of lost records and official amnesia, of investigations soft-pedalled in a manner to undermine eventual prosecution.

For instance, of the seven officers whose presence was confirmed in the February 27 meeting, two told the SIT that they had a loss of memory. Another did not deny Bhatt's presence but said he could not remember if he was there. Of the other four, only K Chakravarthi, police chief in 2002, said Bhatt was not there.

In May 2010, the SIT submitted to the apex court a progress report - scooped in February 2011 by the newsmagazine Tehelka - that confirmed the non-cooperation of officials, Modi's inflammatory speeches, his administration's partisan behaviour, the appointment of Hindu extremists as public prosecutors, and persecution of neutral officers.

Even so, there are escape hatches in the SIT's approach. When SIT inquiry officer AK Malhotra last year asked Modi who came to the February 27 meeting, the chief minister, according to the report, named seven officers and then said - without being asked - "Sanjeev Bhatt, then DC (Int.) did not attend, as this was a high-level meeting".

SIT chairman RK Raghavan, a former Central Bureau of Investigation director who handpicked the investigating team, in his comments said, "Bhatt is considered an unreliable witness, especially because no official, who is known to have definitely attended the meeting has spoken of his presence there." Yet, his inquiry officer, Malhotra, termed the testimonies of the seven officers unreliable because they were either rewarded by Modi or continue in service.

The SIT has constantly needed pushing from the SC. Here are two instances of what happened after a dissatisfied court last month ordered the SIT to probe Modi's complicity. One, after years of claiming that police records from 2002 were destroyed, then commissioner PC Pande is now learned to have submitted scanned copies of more than 2,000 pages of those records. Two, investigators again approached Bhatt, who believes they still aren't doing enough. He clearly hopes the SC will now call him to testify directly.

Bhatt will not reveal his evidence. Instead, he quotes to me this verse from the Hindi poet Dushyant Singh:

Sirf hangama, khada karna, mera maksad nahi
saari koshish, hai ki ye, soorat badalni chahiye
mere seene mein nahi, to tere seene mein sahi
ho kahi bhi aag lekin, aag jalni chahiye

(It is not my intention to only create sensation
All my efforts are to create change
If not in my heart, then in yours
wherever the fire, it must burn)