A gripping but difficult read on Gujarat riots and their aftermath
Gujarat 2002 is still with us. A suppurating sore that continues to agonize, shame, and enrage us, whether we swing to the Left, Right, or dawdle in between. Though a generation focused on economic progress and with little memory of the horror has appeared in the 14 years since the event, the rest of us pick at the scab and contemplate, in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, the banality of evil, the possibility that we could have been the ones looting that Shoppers’ Stop in Ahmedabad, stuffing stolen goods into our car boot, or cheering on incensed gangs as they murdered neighbours. Because those who identified as Hindu did gape at images of that burning train at Godhra and feel rage, a sense that the ‘other’ had gone too far. Only amnesiacs will deny this.
Then came the danse macabre on the streets, the charred bodies, the raped women, the burning homes, and the savagery that filled many, including this reviewer, with disgust and intense shame, and led to a personal reassessment of what it means to be a Hindu, even a nominal one. In the years since that bloody spring, identities and allegiances have hardened, ostentatious displays of faith have become the norm, the shadow of terrorism has lengthened, the protracted battle to bring justice to the victims is nowhere near the end, and attempts continue to be made to arrive at the truth of what happened during those terrible days.
Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat Files, Anatomy of a Cover Up, which grew out of an eight-month-long undercover investigation conducted for Tehelka magazine in 2010 -- looks not just at the riots but also at the encounter deaths of 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin Sheikh, among others, and the murder of Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya. A social media celebrity with some 102K twitter followers, Ayyub is articulate and possessed by an unflagging desire to unmask the guilty, to unearth the invisible lines that connected the powerful with those who executed the killings.
Towards this end, she assumed the identity of an NRI filmmaker, a fictional Ms Maithili Tyagi keen to make a feel-good film about Gujarat, and set out to meet police officers, politicians and bureaucrats who served in the state between 2001 and 2010.
Transcripts of her secretly taped conversations with Girish L Singhal (former head of the Gujarat ATS and an accused in the Ishrat Jahan case), Rajan Priyadarshi (Gujarat ATS Director General in 2007 when the Gujarat CID investigated the fake encounters), Ashok Narayan (Home Secretary in 2002), Chakravarthy (DG of Police in 2002), PC Pande (Commissioner of Police), GC Raigar (Intelligence Head of Gujarat), Maya Kodnani (politician convicted of engineering the Naroda Gam and Naroda Patiya massacres that killed close to a 100 Muslims), Geeta Johri (who headed the CID investigation into the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kausarbi), and Jagruti Pandya (wife of Haren) form the text of this book. The conversations implicate powerful politicians and reveal sins of omission and commission.
This is a gripping read but a difficult one. Only those obsessively immersed in the details of the horrific events will make complete sense of it in a single reading. The book could have done with a sterner editorial hand that weeded out spelling errors and reworked the bits of jerky writing. It would also have benefitted greatly from the attentions of a subject matter expert.
Judging from recent Twitter conversations, AAP Politician Ashish Khetan, another former Tehelka journalist, who did some of the most chilling stories to emerge from Gujarat, and the author are not on amicable terms. Ayyub, who has self published, should then, perhaps, have roped in someone like Manoj Mitta (author of The Fiction of Factfinding: Modi and Godhra) to point out the holes and give the narrative more coherence. As it is, the book seems to confirm the readers’ worst suspicions about the riots but lacks analysis, and the rigour of an editor who knows the subject.
And then there are the especially troubling bits. The Maya Kodnani transcript, which appears to present the former minister of Gujarat for Women and Child Development as blameless, is one of these:
A) …I know I am innocent and God will help me. I was not there Maithili, I was 20 kms away from that place. I was at Sola. I went to the assembly, which started at 8.30. I went there. I started from my house, went to Anandiben’s office. We went there. We chatted there...
Q) So what’s the allegation?
A) They are using witnesses to prove that I was instigating riots. That I was leading the mob. I came to my hospital… attended a labour patient. 3 o clock I went to the hospital. They said that the mobile was there in this particular locality so I was there.
…There were riots in all of Gujarat, but they were after the Naroda MLA, me.
Q) Made you into a scapegoat?
This is explosive stuff and you wish some serious commentary accompanied it.
Some sections could also have been pared down. The conflicted Singhal suggests that lower caste officers are often used to do things upper caste officers will not. This includes encounter killings. Discrimination against Dalits has been widely documented so Ayyub’s surprise at its existence reveals a touching naivety. That Singhal uses the treatment of Dalits as an excuse for his involvement in encounters becomes particularly galling when you read the transcript of the conversation with Rajan Priyadarshi, another Dalit senior police officer, who refused to do anything against his conscience.
Clearly, greed and the absence of character, rather than caste status, is what allowed Singhal, Vanzara et al to eliminate people. Again, there is no authorial voice to provide the reader with this overarching perspective. Often, the authorial voice properly surfaces only when Ayyub talks about food, her young assistant, her interaction with her family, or in descriptions of her disguise, and lacks the gravitas required when writing about an event that has scarred a nation.
In the last chapter, Ayyub suggests that Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhury of Tehelka chose to kill her story as they were afraid of the repercussions. Tejpal has responded that the editorial decision was taken because the story was incomplete. Incomplete it may be but if the magazine had intended to carry the piece, the gaps would have been identified and Ayyub asked to fill them. There is definitely much sensational material here that needed to be crafted. This reviewer’s advice to Ayyub: bring out another heftier and better edited edition complete with copious footnotes and references. Internet links as footnotes just will not do.
Gujarat 2002 is still with us. The shame and horror continues to haunt us, which explains the packed book launch venues and the eagerness of several liberal public figures to be seen at them. Registering your presence is a public announcement of your cosmopolitanism and enlightened politics, disseminated in quick time over social media networks. Ayyub’s repeated suggestion that mainstream media has blacked out her book – most print publications, at least, seem to have reviewed it within a fortnight of the launch, an honour normally reserved for the likes of Amartya Sen – has contributed to the conspiracy theories besides bolstering the author’s reputation as a fearless journalist.
Still, despite her relentless self promotion (Here, Ayyub can quote Gore Vidal: “Heroes must see to their own fame. No one else will.”), her understandable suspicions, and the book’s clunky narrative, Gujarat Files is an important work.
Read it and ponder.