Public discourse in India tends to be over-the-top. But the debate around Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has been extraordinarily excessive. To have had a Congress spokesperson liken Modi’s questioning by the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) with Dawood Ibrahim showing up for interrogation doesn’t stick. Whether you like his politics or not, you just don’t compare a democratically-elected CM with a terror and criminal mastermind. Such flippancy also trivialises the entire issue of providing justice and closure to the events in Gujarat in 2002.
To begin with, it is entirely welcome that the head of a government has been called and agreed to go before a judicially-mandated investigation team. Indeed, the Modi example should be the norm. There is reason for this. Each case of religious, caste or sectarian violence leading to large-scale deaths is, in its essence, a repudiation of the social contract between citizens and those they elect to office. If people have died on someone’s watch — even indirect watch — he is honour-bound to answer questions.
What went wrong? What could have been done to prevent this? What are the lessons for the future? Were there failures on the part of the authorities? Were these failures of omission or commission? If failures of omission, were they inadvertent or deliberate? Why just Modi, every CM or home minister — or, in an extreme case, even a prime minister — should be invited to give evidence and clarify doubts. Step away from the polarising ‘1984 versus 2002’ (anti-Sikh riots versus Gujarat violence) equation and consider a more neutral example: the Mandal Commission unrest of 1990.
The turbulence began when V.P. Singh, as PM, announced job quotas for OBCs without priming the public. It led to student protests, police action, suicide attempts and deaths. An SIT-type body could have asked Singh about the circumstances of his announcement, whether he was sufficiently aware of or prepared for its incendiary potential, whether he did enough to calm the waters, or if his subsequent actions and somewhat stilted television appearances only served to provoke.
No one is suggesting Singh killed people in 1990; no one is accusing him of ‘mass murder’. Yet, if he had answered questions to an independent panel — as government leaders in mature democracies routinely do — it would have added to the lustre of public discourse. It would also have made Modi’s appearance before the SIT, or the Justice
G.T. Nanavati Commission that is studying the Godhra massacre of 2002 and the retaliatory killings, expected rather than exceptional.
From the larger principle, move to the facts of the case. Why was Modi called in by the SIT? It is sobering to note that other than loose, unproven statements by political mavericks, there is no charge against him. There is only a claim by the family of Ehsan Jafri, a senior politician who was horrifically burnt to death during the riots, that Jafri phoned Modi several times while his house was besieged.
Were these calls made? If so, did Modi receive them or did someone else in his office? If Modi and Jafri spoke, did Modi promise and send help, which couldn’t make it in time? If Modi and Jafri spoke, did Modi delay help and instead encourage Jafri’s killers? Each of these has a profoundly different implication. Unfortunately, on television chat shows, they are likely to be bundled together.
This is exactly what Modi’s opponents are doing. Sources suggest the Supreme Court and the SIT have no evidence that these calls were made or that Modi’s rejection or perversion of any notional SOS calls led to Jafri’s unfortunate and terrible murder. That’s why Modi was only “requested to answer questions”. That’s why there is no First Information Report or chargesheet against him.
Should then all of Modi’s congenital adversaries — from the ‘Dawood-comparing’ Congress spokesperson to the cabal of activists who have made Gujarat 2002 a cottage industry, complete with doctored victims’ petitions and perjury — simply give up, pull their ears and surrender? Certainly not. They are welcome to fight him. Even so, they must not and cannot use (or seek to pervert) the judicial process and the criminal justice system for what is essentially a political battle.
Modi’s triumph and validation — or, conversely, defeat and punishment — will not come in a courtroom but in the larger arena of public life and electoral politics. That is his true test, not some hyped-up hours before a court-monitored panel. That is where the legacy of 2002 will forever be with Modi. Consider Modi’s career in the past eight years. He has gone from strength to strength in Gujarat, combining charisma and identity appeal with integrity and deft governance. He is near unassailable there. The Congress is decidedly defeatist, playing second fiddle to NGO warriors. The Dawood Ibrahim statement reflects the party’s frustration.
Yet, in the India outside Gujarat, Modi continues to face a challenge. Despite his achievements as perhaps the most able CM of his generation, the fact is many BJP allies (or would-be allies) are wary of him. Forget the SIT; this is the lonesome valley he has to negotiate.
Ashok Malik is a political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal