How long should the Gujarat riots of 2002 be held against Narendra Modi?
It is true that the problem most of Modi’s critics have with him was his inability, 11 years ago, to stop the killing of a thousand Gujaratis, and his incompetence at investigating and prosecuting their murderers. But it is also true that he personally appears to want to move on.
Modi’s recent reaching out to Indians has been through stressing the corruption of the Congress and its allies, his own efficiency at administration and his managing of the economy of Gujarat.
And if we observe his style dispassionately, his appeals to communal passions have been episodic and election related. It was during the 2002 election campaign that he informed Indians that the JM in their chief election commissioner Lyngdoh’s name stood for ‘James Michael’. In the same campaign he warned that the four-wife allowance to Muslim males had led to “Hum paanch, hamarey pacchhees”. In the campaign for the next election, 2007, he showed his fist to ‘Mian Musharraf’. And it was in last year’s campaign that he asked Gujaratis to beware of ‘Mian Ahmed Patel’. You see the pattern.
Once the votes have been counted, Modi largely reverts to his developmental self. So should we see his bigotry as being opportunistic and not ideological? Should we move on? This is the question that those who dislike Modi’s politics must confront, if they are to nuance their view of India’s brightest political star.
And now Rajnath Singh, the BJP president, has asked Muslims to put the Gujarat killings behind them. “There may have been some incidents but can we not forget or ignore them now?” The PTI reported him telling a group of Muslims in Jaipur, “Incidents have been happening and 13,000 communal riots took place in the country before 2002.”
Moving on is a good message. Particularly so in a country where communal violence is generally in decline, and where it’s not just the BJP that has been up to mischief. Far more rioting has happened under Congress rule than in the limited BJP period. And the events in Delhi of 1984 were bloodier, more savage and over a smaller area than those in Gujarat. So why are secularists still after Modi when they appear to have absolved the Congress?
The fact is that the Congress has made its peace with Sikhs. To see this we need to only go through the names of Punjab’s legislators. Of the 46 Congress MLAs, 33 are Sikh (on the other hand 10 of the BJP’s 12 MLAs are Hindu). It is the Sikhs who elected Congress to government twice in Punjab after 1984. Whatever one may think of her reasons for doing this, Sonia Gandhi’s handing the prime ministership to Manmohan Singh is a magnificent gesture to Sikhs in a culture where gestures can heal. Singh has been treated with dignity and respect, and given two full terms.
In Gujarat, there has been no gesture and no healing. It would not be wrong to say that the BJP has done the opposite of healing.
Modi has neither distanced himself, nor condemned, nor even commented on, the conviction (in 2012) of his minister Maya Kodnani, sentenced to 28 years for organising the murder of 95 Gujaratis. He should do this unequivocally. Why is it difficult for him to say that killing 32 women and 33 children is wrong?
Second, he should stop his persecution (I use the word advisedly) of police officers who acted against the rioters. Rahul Sharma, the IPS officer who collected the cellphone records that showed the movement and involvement of ministers is being tried by Modi under the Official Secrets Act for giving the data to independent investigators, instead of giving it to the Gujarat government. This is an act of great cruelty for which all Indians must feel ashamed. How could Sharma hand over evidence to those whose guilt he had proof of? A brave man is being mistreated for doing the right thing, and he isn’t the only one. Riot hero Satish Verma is also being harassed by Modi.
Verma put together the evidence that showed the Gujarat government murdered Ishrat Jahan and others. He raided the office of the forensic science laboratory and confiscated computer hard discs and photographs. Modi must announce he will let these men do their job.
Third, Modi must stop promoting Amit Shah, the former deputy home minister, who is accused in a case where yet another man, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, was murdered by the state and even his wife was killed and her body destroyed.
None of this is about the awful days of 2002. Of course we should put them behind us. The participation of civil society in all Indian riots is a sad fact that we must confront and it is wrong to assume it is just the BJP and its votaries who did the killing.
But moving on requires some concession, some gesture. It does not happen of its own. Certainly it requires that the state not keep the fires burning, as Modi has done in Gujarat.
Rajnath Singh is mistaken in assuming it’s only Muslims who have a problem with Modi. Many people from other communities also feel anguish over his actions and his refusal to let Gujarat find its peace.
In that sense, it is the BJP that hasn’t moved on from the riots.
Aakar Patel is a former Gujarati newspaper editor and a columnist for Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal