EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
What is the most significant gain in the verdict?
The number of convictions — 32 — which is the highest ever and the fact that the conviction has gone beyond the footsoldier and neighbourhood perpetrators to the political masterminds and instigators; people who enjoyed the highest political patronage.
Has this sent out a message that justice can be had in Gujarat?
I feel it has sent out a very strong message, that the justice system can work if certain preconditions are met. For example, if the apex court monitors the case with attention — takes an interest in the appointments, how the case is conducted, and makes sure it is not derailed. In this case there was a Special Court appointed with a special judge. Witness protection was given to all victims-witnesses by the central paramilitary forces. That is a very important factor. Then, there is the day-to-day legal assistance we managed to provide to the victims and eye-witnesses. These are very complex cases; the legal process is not easy for a layperson to understand. It’s very important that you exercise your right under section 24 (8) (2), which allows victims-witnesses to have their own advocate. If all these pre-conditions are met, yes, a very strong message is sent out that justice can be done. But, we can’t be glib about it. It is rare to get a Supreme Court-monitored trial, get protection at the highest level for victims and you incur the emotional and material cost of providing for them legally.
Why did you get involved?
My association with Gujarat goes back to 1998, when I started covering it as a journalist. One had started foreseeing that something awful was building up. We already had the ‘92-93 Bombay riots behind us and we had got into advocacy trying to get the Srikrishna Committee report published. After the Gujarat riots, I was so enraged, I said let’s see if we can fight and if this country can ever give justice to victims. Citizens for Justice and Peace (CPJ) was formed in April 2002 because we realised one needed support. Vijay Tendulkar was our founder President, IM Kadri was on board; there was a bunch of others — Cyrus Guzder, Rahul Bose, Alyque Padamsee, Ghulam Pesh Iman, Javed and myself. It’s important to have such a group behind you so you are not entirely alone because there are high emotional and mental costs. One had to lay oneself open to several allegations, none of which were proven, yet they are floating around in the public domain.
What do you make of the SIT? In the Naroda Patiya case it has acted a certain way, in the Zakia Jafri case, which claims a larger conspiracy involving Modi, it has behaved completely differently.
Mayaben Kodnani had been named in almost 16 FIRs filed in the Naroda Patiya police station in 2002. But these were dropped in May 2002 when the Gujarat crime branch took over the investigations. Even after the SIT was constituted, she was not charged. In 2009, we moved the Supreme Court saying the powerful are not being punished. Perhaps, spurred by that, in April 2010, Mayaben was first charged. So to cut a long story short, the SIT may have improved things about 25-30 percent in terms of overall investigation, but fell far short of 100 percent improvement in investigations. In the Gulberg Society and Zakia Jafri case they have been completely antagonistic to the victims. That’s a very strange position for an investigating agency to take. Perhaps, the snag is that those cases accuse Narendra Modi of a larger conspiracy. But the questions on these positions are not going to go away. Now that Mayaben and Babu Bajrangi have been convicted in this case, how is SIT going to defend its contradictory positions in our protest petition? These two are also accused in our Zakia case. So it is great for us.
What are some of the major unanswered questions?
There are so many. Why was the critical evidence produced by senior Gujarat policemen like Rahul Sharma and RB Sreekumar not produced in court in time? If the Rahul Sharma CD (with call records of those fatal days) had been investigated by the CBI in 2006, and authenticated, it would have produced so much material. But the analysis was left to NGOs. First Jan Sangharsh Manch did some of the analysis; then we filled the gaps when we found the phone records of Modi and others have not been examined.
What did Modi’s phone record analysis suggest?
We analysed his residence number, his office number, the Chief Minister’s Office, the officials around. These point to many lines of inquiry that should be pursued. For example, between 12 noon and 3 pm on 28 February, the day Gulberg Society and Naroda Patiya were burning, then DGP, PC Pande, strangely enough, did not get out of his room, which was just half-a-kilometer from both the areas. Not only did he fail to go out and oversee the crisis, he received 15 phone calls from the CM’s office in this time. Any investigating agency should have asked, what these calls are about? Either they were telling you to do your job, in which case, why was he not doing it. Or they were telling you not to do your job. But there is a conspicuous silence in both the SIT and the court in not asking Modi, Pande or the CMO officials this question. These are the kind of gross lacunae in the judicial system and investigative agency. We have had to push all the way, on every issue. And every time you push, it means opening yourself to further harassment and allegations.
What role did TEHELKA’s sting investigation – Operation Kalank — play in securing justice in the Naroda Patiya case?
Operation Kalank played a huge role. In 2007, when the investigation was made public, it shocked everybody. The Zakia Jafri matter was waiting deliverance in the Gujarat High Court and we went immediately, through an affidavit of Zakia apa, asking the judge to order an investigation and take Operation Kalank into consideration. He rejected the application. We took it to the Supreme Court but even it did not take serious note at first. I was very worried, so we went to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and they passed a full bench order, on my application, ordering a CBI inquiry into the TEHELKA tapes. The Gujarat government resisted saying they can’t do this. But, after studying it legally, Justice Rajendra Babu, who was the Chairperson, quoted from all the books to say that the NHRC had the power to appoint the CBI. Because of that step, the TEHELKA tapes got authenticated. Had the tapes come directly to Raghavan’s SIT, it may have got subverted.
I think for the first time in the history of communal violence, we have had this kind of material being made available. You did not have it in Bhagalpur; you did not have it during the Sikh riots of 1984; you did not have it in Bombay ’92-93. But in the Gujarat case, we had all these insider accounts — Rahul Sharma’s CD of missing call records during the riots; RB Sreekumar’s affidavit and the extremely valuable corroborative material in the TEHELKA tapes. Every criminal lawyer I spoke to said the TEHELKA investigation amounted to extra-judicial legal confessions. It cannot be the primary evidence but if you already have evidence of a person’s involvement, once you have authenticated the tapes, this is the strongest corroboration you can find. But instead of welcoming this material, what has the SIT done?
Because of the NHRC, the TEHELKA tapes got authenticated. Had they come directly to the SIT, It may have got subverted
They have tried to discredit Sreekumar by saying he is a motivated officer who spoke up only because he was denied a promotion. This is factually not correct because his first two affidavits were filed before the promotion issue came up. It is these that contain all the really incriminating evidence and State Intelligence Bureau data. Only his opinions come in the third and fourth affidavit. But Raghavan has quibbled endlessly over whether his register is genuine.
With TEHELKA too, they have taken peculiar and contradictory positions. In the Naroda Patiya case, they have admitted the tapes and you have a 120-page deposition by Ashish Khetan which is very valuable. But in the Zakia Jafri case, where Narendra Modi is accused number one, you find the evidence not valuable and motivated. It does not make sense to any rational person. And the only reason we are able to track and react to all these contradictions is because we are involved in all the cases. But it makes you crazy.
What has been the most hostile aspect of this process of seeking justice?
The most hostile aspect is that it becomes a very lonely battle. Everyone in our group is superb but it is still very, very isolating. You get lambasted with falsehoods. It would be hugely strengthening if there was a larger community to sustain the fight. One knows there are good people everywhere who are really appreciating what you are doing, but very few want to take on the system themselves and get into trouble. But you can only take on a system when you engage with it, and when you engage with the system, you risk yourself the most. The system works to tire you out; not give you justice. If you have grit and are lucky, you survive. If you are not lucky, you won’t.
The allegation that I tutored witnesses, that whole scandal about our former employee Rais Khan — all of it has been held baseless by a Gujarat court, but you still have these silly Youtubes floating all over the place. I’ve just stopped answering questions on it. If people really want to find out the truth, they’ll get there. But I don’t know if I can ever do all of this again. The cost is very high. You need to tell yourself that you’ll dedicate 10-20 years of your life to just one thing. That is a tough one. You are just not normal anymore.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.