The trouble with political controversies is that we sometimes forget the ordinary people at the root of each uproar. Something like that seems to be happening in the war of words between the BJP and the Congress in the Amit Shah case.
The story begins in 2005, when a man called Sohrabuddin Sheikh — from all accounts, a small-time gangster — and his wife, Kauserbi, were picked up by the Gujarat and Rajasthan Police. A Deputy Inspector-General of the Gujarat Police, DG Vanzara, later announced that Sohrabuddin was a dangerous Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) terrorist intent on killing Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who had been engaged by the state police in an encounter. The brave officers of the Gujarat Police had killed Sohrabuddin in the course of this encounter.
Sohrabuddin’s wife, Kauserbi, was never located and was regarded as ‘missing’. But an eye-witness to the abduction of Sohrabuddin called Tulsidas Prajapati appears to have been taken into custody. Prajapati also died at the hands of the brave officers of the Gujarat Police, who killed him in ‘self-defence’.
The matter would have rested there — like so many encounters — if it had not been for the efforts of Sohrabuddin’s brother to discover the truth. After he went to the Supreme Court, an investigation revealed that Sohrabuddin had been bumped off in cold blood. Later, his wife had also been murdered and her body burnt to prevent discovery. Even Prajapati appeared to have been killed in a fake encounter because he knew too much.
The investigation led to the arrest of Vanzara and some of his men. But because the Supreme Court felt that the Gujarat Police were either unwilling or unable to go further, it handed the probe over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in January 2010 and asked it to submit its report by the end of July.
Last week, the CBI made its move. It filed a chargesheet that confirmed what had long been rumoured: that Vanzara and his men were in constant touch with State Home Minister Amit Shah. Not only did Shah know about the fake encounter, he also instructed Vanzara to eliminate Kauserbi because she was a witness to her husband’s murder.
The CBI relied largely on the evidence that had been collected by the Gujarat Police before the bureau was handed the case. It produced statements from witnesses who said they had knowledge of Shah’s involvement and it also produced phone records which suggested that Shah had made more calls than usual to Vanzara during the days when the killings occurred.
How should a political party react to these developments?
It is possible to claim that the CBI’s case is full of holes. It is even possible to believe that because the CBI is a central agency, it may well be biased towards the ruling Congress.
Nevertheless, some things seem clear. As the CBI’s involvement is entirely the consequence of the Supreme Court’s instructions and as the court itself is monitoring the investigation, any malafide on the part of the CBI will be noticed at once by the Supreme Court. Any CBI director who is found to be functioning as an agent of the Congress risks incurring the wrath of the country’s highest court. Any miscarriage of justice will be quickly set right.
In the event, the best course for Amit Shah would have been to have declared his innocence but to have resigned his post and handed himself over to the CBI. If the case is as weak as his lawyers say it is, he will certainly be let off by the Supreme Court with a minimum of delay and the CBI director will probably have to resign.
Instead, the BJP and Amit Shah both decided to play it differently. For all of Friday, Shah tried to hide from the CBI. After the sessions court turned down his anticipatory bail application, he disappeared from view and refused to turn up for the CBI’s interrogation.
His party threw a full-fledged hissy fit in New Delhi. Both Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj swallowed their differences long enough to appear at a press conference where they accused the Congress government of misusing the CBI and defended Amit Shah. The BJP even boycotted the prime minister’s lunch held to prepare for the forthcoming parliamentary session as a gesture of protest.
Then, BJP spokesmen made the rounds of TV studios accusing the Congress of playing ‘vote-bank politics’. (‘Vote bank’ is the BJP’s code phrase for Muslims.) Others suggested that Sohrabuddin was no saint and therefore not worthy of the attention being paid to him.
There was much abuse of the CBI, much to the consternation of TV audiences who had last seen the same spokesmen appear on TV to demand that the telecom scam be investigated by the very same CBI, which, a couple of months ago, was characterised as an independent and therefore a trustworthy investigating agency.
All searching questions from TV anchors were parried with references to the 1984 Sikh riots, to the role of Ottavio Quattrochhi in the Bofors scandal and various other irrelevant issues dredged up from the depths of history.
It is not my case that Amit Shah is guilty. Even though the BJP seems willing to hang the CBI on the spot, I still believe in the presumption of innocence. Shah is entitled to a fair trial. And he might well be exonerated.
My concerns are different. When the Supreme Court orders and monitors an investigation into what appears to be a case of cold-blooded murder, I think it is incumbent on everybody — and on politicians, in particular — to respect India’s premier court, its motives, and the investigation it has ordered.
When a political party reacts with this kind of ill-tempered tantrum only because one of its own members has been accused by the investigators then it does no favours to the accused minister. Instead, it only serves to demonstrate how far that party has travelled from the principles of justice. Sohrabuddin was a citizen of India. If he was murdered by policemen, with the connivance of politicians, and then falsely described as a LeT terrorist, then he deserves justice. Allow the police to murder who they like and tomorrow it will be you or me at the end of a police bullet.
I wrote last week how the BJP was behaving like the Shiv Sena. This week, we have new evidence: a BJP minister is accused of conspiring with cops to bump off people in cold blood. The minister then scurries for cover and refuses to turn up for CBI investigations. His party closes ranks, attributes motives to the investigators and sends spokesmen to rave and rant on television.
There was a time when the BJP was regarded as a respectable political party. What has gone so wrong?
Why is it engineering its own degradation?
If this sad and tragic decline continues then the BJP can kiss its middle-class supporters goodbye. And it can prepare to be in Opposition for a very long time.
The views expressed by the author are personal