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Scared of the light

india Updated: Oct 13, 2011 22:47 IST
Prabhat Patnaik
Prabhat Patnaik
Hindustan Times
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Ashok Malik (A shot in the dark, Comment, October 10) sees Sanjiv Bhatt as a dubious and unreliable person making opportunistic moves to revive a sagging career, whom a bunch of 'Modiphobes', hell-bent on using any stick to beat Narendra Modi with, are making out to be a hero. The term 'Modiphobia' Malik uses is symptomatic of his general argument: it trivialises the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat.

There are certain episodes in the life of a nation that must not go beyond in a routine manner. Doing so only inflicts long-term damage on itself. The nation has to get to the truth, fix responsibilities and mete out justice before it can go beyond them. The pogrom in Gujarat is one such episode. It could not have occurred without the complicity - or, at the very least the callousness - of the administration. And in a state where the administration is run by a 'hands-on' chief minister, a trait for which he is being constantly lionised, the sins of the administration in 2002 can't but be laid at his door. Unless Modi's role in the pogrom, whatever it may be, is unearthed, the nation must not proceed with 'business as usual'. Nobody is born a 'Modiphobe'. Those accused of being so simply refuse to make light of 2002.

Bhatt's testimony becomes important in this context. He is not a 'whistleblower' in the sense the BJP MPs in the 'cash-for-votes' case claimed to be. He didn't fix a meeting and 'entrap' Modi. He merely revealed that he had been present at one of Modi's meetings and testified to what transpired there. His claim may be right or wrong; that is for the Supreme Court to decide. This decision has to be solely on the merits of the case to which Bhatt's own past misdemeanours, if any, are of little relevance.

Likewise, any closeness he may have with Congress leaders in Gujarat is irrelevant to the question of whether he is speaking the truth. Indeed, for anyone to acquire courage to testify against Narendra Modi who is usually lauded for his aggressiveness in short-circuiting procedures (in wooing corporate investment, for instance), some amount of soliciting of support from rival political formations would be quite natural. It does not make the testimony suspect for that reason. Similarly, questioning the truth of his testimony on the grounds that other people's testimonies contradict his is a complete non-sequitur.

One cannot take Bhatt's testimony to be correct just because it is anti-Modi. Its veracity has to be independently established. But Bhatt's refusal to have any judicially-brokered compromises with the state government can't but be lauded for its underlying courage. The fact that the Gujarat government chose to arrest him and demand police custody indicate an attempt at intimidation and vendetta. Nobody is above the law and the police must act on the basis of a complaint filed against a person.

This happens to be a case where no truth can possibly be attached to any middle ground. Either Bhatt has been speaking the truth all along; in which case police constable KD Panth's complaint is bogus and probably instigated by the threatened authorities. Or Bhatt has been making bogus charges; in which case Panth's complaint against him is genuine and he needs to be protected from Bhatt. But no matter which is true, the ends of justice would have been served well if Bhatt did not suffer incarceration and was simply denied access to Panth while the apex court was sifting through the evidence to arrive at the truth.

Such an act of intimidation and vindictiveness is inconceivable without the complicity of the 'hands-on' CM. Bhatt's affidavit on Modi's role in the pogrom was submitted to the Supreme Court sometime ago. But that did not make him the public figure that he now is. The status he now enjoys is a result of the bloody-minded actions of the Gujarat government. It is not the 'Modiphobes' who made Sanjiv Bhatt a hero, but Modi himself.

The Bhatt case does raise the important issue of what constitutes proper conduct on the part of a serving official. Certainly, for an official to air critical opinions on government official policy, or even to hold forth as an independent commentator on what government policy should be, represents a violation of service conditions. Not surprisingly, those who do express such opinions do so anonymously or under pseudonyms, which is an admission of transgression on their part. But when we are talking not of expressing opinions about government policy but of revealing facts about an incident that has a bearing on a major issue of justice, the official has a duty to speak the truth.

Fixing responsibility is essential if injustice is not to be perpetrated through a convenient anonymity. And service conditions must not come in the way of any official acting with the intention of fixing responsibility. To be sure, if the official does so falsely or with malicious intent, then appropriate punishment must be visited upon him. The practice of officials speaking the truth to fix responsibility in major matters involving justice will have an extremely salutary effect on the administration and the polity of this country. Political bosses are known to use pliant officials to serve all kinds of personal ends through unjust means. But if both the leaders and the officials know that they will be held responsible for their actions and that they cannot hide behind a cloak of anonymity, then their propensity to inflict injustice will be curbed.

Prabhat Patnaik is a Delhi-based economic and political commentator associated with the Citizens for Justice and Peace. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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