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Writing the riot act

“What is this?” asked Virender Kumar, then resident editor of The Indian Express, Ahmedabad, the newspaper I was working for back in 2004. I held two compact discs in my hand.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2009 00:18 IST
Stavan Desai

“What is this?” asked Virender Kumar, then resident editor of The Indian Express, Ahmedabad, the newspaper I was working for back in 2004. I held two compact discs in my hand.

“Somebody sent these to me,” I told him. “They have the records of all the mobile phone calls made and received during the riots two years ago.”

“How much data is there?” asked Kumar. “About 5 lakh entries,” I replied.

I thought he would ask me to file a story for the coming Sunday edition and forget about it. Instead he stood up and called my bureau chief. “He works on a special project from today,” Kumar said, referring to me. “Don’t disturb him even if I’m killed.”

That was just the beginning. I found the data was stored in Microsoft Access, a software capable of storing vast amounts of data but one about which I knew nothing. I spent a week working out how the software was used.

For the next two months I went through the entries, honing in on the phone numbers of top police officials who were in charge during the riots and senior politicians. Most of them had changed their mobile numbers after the riots. But I had my 2002 diary in which their earlier numbers were noted.

I kept matching and cross-matching the records. Slowly a pattern emerged. I got to see who had been between February 28 and March 4, who had called whom, how many times and for how long.

When my research was done, Express deputy managing editor Rajkamal Jha flew from Delhi to Ahmedabad just to make sure my story was foolproof. He did not want me to email him the information, for fear it might be leaked. “Sometimes the meat is so juicy you don’t need to marinate it,” he said after going through the information. “We blast them from this Sunday.”

Thus on November 21, 2004, started a six-part series, which revealed names of senior policemen and politicians who had been present in the worst riot-struck areas while the killings were on, much as they had earlier denied it. It brought to light telephonic contact they had repeatedly made during that period with one another, even though they claimed not to have.

Yes, my work was recognized. The Gujarat home department ordered an enquiry against me by an IG. But I also received the Polestar Award for the best breaking news of that year.