Perhaps the story of senior police officers who failed in their constitutional duty during the 2002 mass crimes in Gujarat is best highlighted through the exemplary conduct in equally explosive circumstances of other officers who ensured that the rule of law prevailed in the cities and districts under their respective jurisdictions.
The glaring contrast between conscientious and delinquent IPS officers forms part of the 514-page Protest Petition (with nearly 1,000 pages and 9 CDs annexed) filed by Zakia Jafri — a survivor from the February 28, 2002 massacre of 69 Muslims in Gulbarg Society — in a magistrate’s court in Ahmedabad on April 15. The protest petition challenges the closure report of the SC-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) absolving Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and 58 others (ministers, BJP MLAs, VHP leaders, top IAS/IPS officers) of serious criminal offences.
Nineteen of Gujarat’s 26 districts were affected by the gruesome violence that erupted within hours of the inferno in a compartment of the Sabarmati Express near Godhra railway station on February 27, 2002, claiming 59 lives. However, district-wise statistics of lives lost post-Godhra are quite telling: Ahmedabad (359), Panchmahals (93), Vadodara (36), Mehsana (33), Surat (7), Rajkot (four), 11 districts (no deaths). In Ahmedabad, the city adjoining the state capital, the number of Muslim religious and cultural places (mosques, dargahs) stood at 181; more than half the total such destructions or desecrations in the entire state.
The seven deaths in Surat in 2002 are in striking contrast to the over 300 killed in the immediate aftermath of the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, 10 years earlier. What accounts for this dramatic difference was the professional conduct of the man at the helm in 2002: police commissioner VK Gupta. Responding promptly to urgent messages sent out by the ground level personnel of the state intelligence bureau (SIB), Gupta put the force at his disposal on high alert, issued clear instructions and imposed strict curfew in good time.
Of the 11 persons injured in police firing in Surat, 10 were Hindus, one a Muslim. Compare this to Ahmedabad city where, according to official figures quoted in the protest petition, 251 Muslims were killed as against 75 Hindus in mob violence. Yet, of the 114 people who died in police firing, 78 were Muslims while 36 were Hindus. By training their guns on mobs screaming ‘blood for blood’, the Surat police prevented a replay of 2002 even though the situation this time was far more explosive.
To this day, the then police commissioner of Bhavnagar, Rahul Sharma, remains a hero for the city’s Muslims and a villain for Modi’s government and supporters of Hindutva. The protest petition gives a detailed hour-by-hour account of how this honest officer was out on the streets, led his force through personal example, kept round-the-clock vigil, ordered repeated police firings to foil every attempt by the BJP, the RSS and the VHP led mobs out to burn and kill. The then management and 400 residents of Akwada Madarsa believe they owe their lives to Sharma who risked his own life to save theirs. Sharma’s biggest ‘crime’ was his dogged refusal to release the 21 local leaders of the BJP, the RSS, the VHP who had been arrested under his direct orders for leading violent mobs targeting Bhavnagar’s Muslims. Sharma insisted that even if the arrested managed to get bail, he would order their preventive detention to maintain the majesty of the law. Thus did he manage to keep the violence in Bhavnagar under control. But for such ‘insubordination’ he was unceremoniously shunted out to the state police control room.
This part of the story in the protest petition ends with one simple question. Why were police officers — like Gupta, Verma and Sharma — who did their duty under extremely difficult circumstances face vindictive action? Raju Ramachandran, who was appointed amicus curiae by the Supreme Court in the case, has recommended the prosecution of Modi, MK Tandon and PB Gondia. What the magistrate’s court in Ahmedabad decides remains to be seen.
Javed Anand is founder trustee, Citizens for Justice and Peace, whose lawyers assisted Zakia Jafri in filing her protest petitionThe views expressed by the author are personal