Murderers on Camera
As some of you may have worked out, Narendra Modi is not my favourite person. And yet, my view of him is not as simplistic as the blanket condemnation preferred by many of his critics.
A few years ago, when the US government refused him a visa, I wrote, in these columns, that I disagreed with the decision. We may have our own view of Modi, I said, but as long as he was the legally elected chief minister of an Indian state, the US was obliged to respect his position. He may be a mass murderer, I wrote, but he’s our mass murderer.
Likewise, when a delegation of activists picketed a function in New Delhi and tried to prevent Modi from speaking, I came out against them. It was no good calling Modi a fascist and then — in true fascist tradition — denying him his right to free speech. The point of a liberal society is that we try and listen to everybody.
Nor am I blind to his achievements as chief minister of Gujarat. A year ago, a very senior member of the UPA Cabinet said to me, a trace of sorrow in his voice: “It’s a shame that a man like Modi is the chief minister of Gujarat because, in many ways, it has been a model state in terms of development.”
So, unlike some of my liberal friends who were outraged when Modi was invited to speak at the HT Summit, I actually looked forward to his speech. It is easy to caricature and demonise people whose politics we do not like. But it is far more useful to see them up close and to try and understand what makes them tick.
In the event, Modi’s speech was a triumph. He is a first rate orator, knows when to switch gears from emotion to reason, and is brilliant at playing to the gallery.
The problems began during the Q&A session. Rajdeep Sardesai, the moderator, started gently, trying to draw Modi out on his role during the Gujarat riots. At first, Modi was dismissive but as Rajdeep’s questions grew sharper, his irritation began to show.
Did it worry him, Rajdeep asked, that so many people regarded him as a “hero of hatred”? Why, even the Hindustan Times had almost called him a mass murderer, said Rajdeep, looking at me (I was in the audience) for confirmation.
“Well, no,” I said. I hadn’t almost called him a mass murderer. I did actually call him a mass murderer and continue to do so.
Modi looked a little put out but not entirely surprised. But then, to his horror, nearly every single question from the audience focused on his role in the riots. Did he regret what had happened? What was his attitude to Gujarat’s Muslims? Why had his government taken so long to congratulate Irfan Pathan? Did he feel no shame in appropriating Gandhiji — who stood for Hindu-Muslim unity — for his own ends? And so on.
As the questions kept coming — and as Rajdeep kept up the pressure — the eloquent Modi, who had made such a great speech at the beginning, vanished. In his place, a petty, arrogant man emerged. Not only did he insult those who dared ask probing questions, he repeatedly passed up the many opportunities he was offered to declare that mistakes had occurred during the riots or to state that he had nothing against Muslims. Instead he took the line that as he’d won the election that followed the riots, he had been vindicated by the people of Gujarat.
The ‘electoral vindication’ argument is an old and not terribly convincing chestnut. Every murderer and criminal who wins an election offers some variation of this claim. So does every party that is associated with a communal riot.
There is no doubt that Congress functionaries massacred Sikhs on the streets of Delhi in 1984. And yet the Congress won its largest-ever mandate at the election that followed. But HKL Bhagat’s massive majority did not prevent a Delhi court from finding him guilty of involvement in the riots some years later. Nor did Jagdish Tytler’s electoral triumph stop Manmohan Singh from throwing him out of the Cabinet a couple of years ago when an inquiry report raised fresh doubts about his role in those riots.
It intrigued me that unlike, say, LK Advani, who sought to advance moderate credentials in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition (“the saddest day of my life”), Modi made no attempt to move to the political centre. Rather he was content to occupy the sort of position that Bal Thackeray chose after the Bombay riots (“I regret nothing”).
I thought back to Modi’s performance at the Summit and to the snarling, vituperative responses he offered during the Q&A session when I saw the Tehelka exposé on the Gujarat riots last week.
I’m not a great fan of sting operations but even so, it was nearly impossible to watch the boasts of the Sangh Parivar activists who had been captured on secret cameras, without wanting to throw up. How could any man talk about ripping open the womb of a pregnant Muslim woman and pulling out her unborn foetus? What about the goon who bragged about raping a Muslim woman who was “like a flower”?
Most horrific of all was the saga of the slaughter of Ehsan Jaffri. His murderer told the hidden camera how Jaffri had offered the mob money to protect the poor Muslims who had taken shelter in his house. We took the money, the man said, and then we attacked him. They cut his arms off with swords. Then they mutilated his genitals. And finally, they burnt him alive.
One man said that Modi hid him in Gujarat Bhavan in Mount Abu for four-and-a-half months to escape the law, in the aftermath of the riots. Another said that Modi told the rioters they had three days to take revenge on Muslims. A lawyer, attached to the commission investigating the riots, explained how he was trying to get the accused off. There were suggestions that Modi had manipulated the judicial process, changing judges till one of the key accused could be set free on bail. The police, we were informed, had been asked to lay off.
I do not claim that all these charges are valid. It is possible that some of these men made empty boasts. And the allegations about Modi’s involvement are unproven till he has had a chance to defend himself (or to change judges again).
But the footage made my stomach churn. Were these people human? Could the Sangh Parivar really have allowed them to flourish within its ranks?
It is foolish to pretend — as some secular liberals do — that the BJP is the first national party to sponsor a massacre. It is clear that Congressmen participated in the 1984 Delhi riots. Bal Thackeray has openly taken credit for the Shiv Sena’s role in the Bombay riots (“My boys took revenge”).
But there are differences. The Shiv Sena is not a national party and Bal Thackeray does not want to become Prime Minister. The Congress erred badly in the immediate aftermath of the riots but, then, moved to heal communal divides, winning back the confidence of the Sikhs and even coming to power in Punjab with Sikh chief ministers. The political careers of those involved in the riots suffered and few people bother to make excuses for them today.
But that’s not true of Gujarat. As Modi’s behaviour at the HT Summit demonstrates, he is not interested in healing any wounds, admitting to any mistakes or punishing the guilty. He has worked out that there are more Hindus than there are Muslims in Gujarat and as long as he can vitiate the atmosphere and consolidate the Hindu vote, he doesn’t need to worry about minorities or social justice.
Most disappointing of all is the behaviour of his BJP colleagues, many of them otherwise decent men. AB Vajpayee’s prime ministership will forever be blotted by his failure to sack Modi. The BJP spokesmen have cut pathetic figures on TV in the last three days. Even if Tehelka is a Congress front, as they allege, and even if the timing of the exposé is suspect, how do they explain the things we hear on the tapes? None of them has an answer to that one.
Finally, there’s the question of the future of the BJP itself. Despite this exposé, my guess is that Modi will win the Gujarat election. On most measures of development, he has been a good Chief Minister. And he’s easily the smartest, most charismatic politician in Gujarat.
Does that mean that the party will turn a blind eye to these revelations and to his record as a mass-murderer on the grounds that he can win votes by dividing communities?
I have a terrible feeling that this is exactly what the BJP will do. And as Modi climbs the political ladder, India will pay the price.