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One step forward…

india Updated: Mar 14, 2010 23:11 IST
Prasad Nichenametla
Prasad Nichenametla
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Is the Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the Gujarat riots doing the job it was mandated to by the Supreme Court?

No, say civil society activists and others.

“The SIT is only sitting, not standing up (to scrutiny),” says Nayana Bhatt, who resigned as assistant public prosecutor in the Gulberg Society massacre trial, one of the most high profile cases relating to the 2002 riots, in which about 1,180 Muslims lost their lives.

Her boss, Special Public Prosecutor R K Shah, also resigned the same day.

In a letter dated February 26 to the Supreme Court-appointed SIT, the two accused it of non-cooperation and negligence, which, they said, would affect the outcome of the case.

In 2008, the Supreme Court had appointed SIT to reinvestigate nine riot-related cases. The team’s mandate included probing the role allegedly played by CM Narendra Modi and 62 others in the massacre of minorities.

SIT and its chief R K Raghavan made news recently when it summoned the chief minister to appear before it (based on a petition filed by Zakia Jafri, widow of Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who was killed in the Gulberg massacre.)

But critics aren’t convinced.

“The summoning is nothing but a smokescreen… to show the court and the public that they (SIT) are doing something,” says R.B. Sreekumar, former DGP, Gujarat. The matter will come for hearing in the Supreme Court on March 15. “Except for the arrest of some low-level officers, the cases have not moved even an inch from what the Gujarat Police had ‘investigated’ earlier,” he adds.

It is SIT’s composition that raises questions. Three of its six members are Gujarat cadre IPS officers — and there are serious questions about all three.

Geeta Johri, convenor of SIT and commissioner of police, Rajkot, was recently pulled up by the top court for shoddy investigation into the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case.

Shivananad Jha, additional DGP and commissioner, Surat, was additional commissioner, Ahmedabad, during the riots. Activists question his selection to the panel given that he was part of law and order machinery that failed to discharge its duties during the riots.

Aashish Bhatia, IG, Ahmedabad range, was additional commissioner of police, Surat, during the riots. He has been accused of producing distorted statements from prosecution witnesses.
“As the matter is before Supreme Court, I do not want to comment on any aspect of the case,” Raghavan told HT when questioned about his team.

But this has not stopped NGOs like Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and social activists from demanding a reconstitution of SIT.

“The struggle has been hard and bitter for the victims. We had to petition the Supreme Court on SIT’s slack attitude in allowing the three Gujarat cadre officers to not only mess up investigations but also intimidate witnesses,” says Teesta Setalvad, convener, CJP.

Legal experts also question the rationale of SIT summoning Modi in connection with the Gulberg case.

“It would have been better had it summoned Modi in connection with the Naroda case (another high profile massacre).” Why? “Because the call records of the leaders involved point to their direct contact with the chief minister’s office,” says Mukul Sinha, a senior advocate representing the families of some victims of the Naroda case.

Sinha feels it is the total unwillingness of the state machinery and Gujarat cadre IPS officers to probe impartially that is affecting the SIT.

There is also the issue of conflict of interest — the three officers remain part of the administration headed by the man they are mandated to probe.

Despite this, Sinha still expects justice. Reason: “SIT is working under the Supreme Court. They are on a better platform and also adequately empowered do a lot better (in bringing out the facts indicting the culprits).”

Ironically, Modi may yet come out of this a winner.

In the past, he has managed to rally voters behind him by portraying efforts to corner him as attacks on Gujarati asmita (pride). “There is no reason for worry … he never shies away from such scrutiny. Modi will come out clean and also gain politically from this,” a party leader tells HT, alluding to Sonia Gandhi’s “maut ka saudagar” (merchant of death) comment during the 2007 assembly election campaign, which Modi seized on to woo Hindu voters and win the elections.

“One can call it an agnipariksha (trial by fire) for Modi but he is the kind who will try to turn it to his advantage,” says Achyut Yagnik, former journalist and political analyst.

The Gujarat government and senior BJP leaders have said they will cooperate with the process of law. What form that cooperation will take will become clear by the end of the week.

But for now, Modi will have to contend with the SIT summons and close scrutiny by the Supreme Court.