This post originally appeared on the India At LSE blog
On three occasions – one each in 2011, 2012 and 2013 – the Supreme Court of India has supposedly absolved Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the upcoming elections, of culpability in Gujarat’s communal riots of 2002. But a case against Modi has never been registered in the Supreme Court. So how has the court given him a ‘clean chit’ without being asked to adjudicate the matter? And on what basis does Modi claim a clear conscience with regard to the 2002 violence in Gujarat?
A clean chit for what?
The question the Indian courts are considering is whether there is prosecutable evidence against Modi to establish criminal liability for his role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people and made 200,000 people, mainly Muslims, homeless. There are allegations that Modi masterminded the riots; more specifically, he is accused of the following:
- Allowing the charred bodies of 54 Hindu victims of the Godhra train fire to be paraded in the streets of Ahmedabad
- Supporting a Gujarat bandh (closure) announced by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu fundamentalist organisation, thereby facilitating riots
- Directing senior police officers not to interfere if Hindus sought revenge
- Placing two cabinet colleagues in the police control rooms to ensure compliance with his directives
- Penalising upright police officers and rewarding compliant ones
- Appointing partisan public prosecutors berated by the Supreme Court for “acting like defence counsel”
The Supreme Court in 2008 appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into nine riot cases, removing them from courts in Gujarat. A year later, the Supreme Court asked the SIT to investigate a criminal complaint against Modi, filed by Zakia Jafri in 2006. The Gujarat police had done nothing about the complaint, so Zakia had filed a case in the Gujarat High Court to get the police to act on the complaint. When the High Court rejected this, Zakia referred the matter on to the Supreme Court. Modi’s three so-called ‘clean chits’ from the Supreme Court relate to this case.
Zakia is the widow of Ehsan Jafri, a former MP and state Congress Party member, living in Gulberg Housing Society in Ahmedabad. When news of the slaughter of Muslims following the Godhra train fire in 2002 started trickling through, scores of frightened Muslim neighbours gathered in the Jafris’ home believing that Ehsan’s connections would help ensure their safety. As a violent mob advanced on Gulberg, Ehsan made repeated phone calls to the police and political authorities – in Ahmedabad, Delhi, and even to Modi himself – pleading for help. But none came, even though police were present in the area. Eventually Ehsan and 68 others were massacred, many of them burnt alive. According to eye witnesses, Ehsan’s severed head was hoisted on a trident.
The SIT investigating Zakia’s complaint ran into difficulties. First, the Supreme Court had to drop two of its officers as they were found to be untrustworthy. Then, in 2010, the special public prosecutor working with the SIT resigned, saying by way of explanation that “I am collecting witnesses who know something about a gruesome case in which so many people, mostly women and children huddled in Jafri’s house, were killed and I get no cooperation. The SIT officers are unsympathetic towards witnesses, they try to browbeat them and don’t share evidence with the prosecution as they are supposed to do.”
After all this, when the SIT filed its interim report, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of asking an eminent advocate, Raju Ramchandran, who was already appointed as an Amicus Curiae (friend of the court), to assist in this critical case and visit Gujarat, independently assess the evidence generated and meet with witnesses directly.
Click here to read the complete post on the India At LSE Blog.
Gautam Appa is Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics.