Will fresh plea for justice take Gujarat riot probe to Modi’s doorstep?

Published August 21, 2015
The widow of slain Congress MP Ehsan Jafri has sought the rejection of the Special Investigation Team's closure report, letting Prime Minister Modi off the hook. —AFP/File
The widow of slain Congress MP Ehsan Jafri has sought the rejection of the Special Investigation Team's closure report, letting Prime Minister Modi off the hook. —AFP/File

The quiet steel in Zakia Jafri’s eyes hasn’t dimmed despite her 76 years, nor has her quest for justice. Around 13 years after her husband, former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, and 68 of their neighbours in Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society were killed by a mob, her legal battle over the massacre continues to haunt Narendra Modi despite his ascendance from chief ministership to prime ministership.

Zakia Jafri is unwilling to give up even after an Ahmedabad metropolitan court’s verdict on December 26, 2013, rejected her protest petition seeking to penalise Modi, who was then the chief minister, and 59 others on charges of state-sponsored criminal conspiracy during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat that killed over a thousand people, mostly Muslims. She has filed a criminal revision application in the Gujarat High Court. The hearings began on August 4.

The application has sought the court’s directive to reject the closure report of the Special Investigation Team of February 8, 2012. While some have interpreted this to mean that Modi has been given a clean chit, in reality the SIT said it did not have enough evidence against Modi to proceed. Her protest petition in April 2013 is the last criminal case in the 2002 communal carnage in Gujarat in which Modi has been accused.

Elaborate conspiracy

The 540-page criminal revision application offers substantive arguments and a mountain of evidence to reject Metropolitan Magistrate BJ Ganatra’s orders. It accuses the SIT of adopting a “double faced” role after the Supreme Court, which was earlier monitoring the investigation, handed it over to the Ahmedabad Crime Branch.

The crux of the arguments by Zakia’s advocates Mihir Desai, MM Tirmizi and others is that the targeted communal attacks on Muslims after the burning of a train coach in Godhra that killed 59 persons, mostly kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, on February 27, 2002, was not the result of a natural Hindu outburst but a larger conspiracy hatched at the highest political level in Gujarat.

The advocates say that the manner in which the violence played out for 72 hours, when major massacres occurred in the state, could not have been so neatly organised without an elaborate conspiracy, assignment of roles and the material wherewithal for such killings already being in place. For over two months before this, there had been an incendiary revival of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in Ayodhya by the Vishva Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal.

It was not without reason that the Supreme Court was directly monitoring investigations into nine major massacre cases, including the attack on Gulberg Society. Seven cases have resulted in convictions. The Gulberg Society case and the case of Ahmedabad’s Naroda Gam are the only ones that are still in the courts.

One-sided attacks

Communal riots in Gujarat through the decades have always been triggered by small sparks like complaints of eve-teasing, scuffles over cricket matches, religious processions cutting through mixed neighbourhoods or road accidents. But 2002 was the first time the state government was directly accused of engineering violence.

Given that the violence followed the deaths of 59 persons returning from Ayodhya after participating in a renewed Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, any government would have introduced stricter patrolling at communally sensitive points, which was not the case. In fact, here have been persistent allegations that the police looked the other way when mobs ran amok.

Over the decades, communal riots in Gujarat played out as battles between Hindu and Muslim mobs, where it was often difficult to conclusively say which side started the violence. In 2002, battles were few and far between. Instead, there were organised one-sided attacks against Muslims. The police FIRs would generally start with a common theme: “……. attack as a public reaction to the Godhra case”. As a consequence, the investigations into the violence blindly started on the presumptions that they are a reaction to the Godhra burning.

Building evidence

Zakia Jafri has been backed in her struggle by Teesta Setalvad and her Citizens for Justice and Peace. The court’s decision to hear her plea allows the prosecution the opportunity to press for a fresh inquiry and prosecute Modi and 58 others.

The case is significant because if the court of Justice Sonia Gokani takes serious cognisance of the evidence submitted by Jafri, it will pave the way for a re-investigation and re-trial of the massacre.

Zakia’s team of advocates has put together the case by, yet again, pooling together the SIT’s reports filed in 2010 and 2012, and from messages collected from the State Intelligence Bureau, phone call records, Police Control Room records and various testimonies given to the SIT.

The criminal revision application says there was non-application of mind by the magistrate and blind acceptance of the contentions in the SIT’s closure report. According to the petitioners, the court simply ignored the prima facie evidence put before it against Modi in “serious crimes of conspiracy and abetment of crimes of murder, arson and rape”.

Among many other things, the application speaks of vital records being destroyed by the Chief Minister’s Office and Home Department, blaming the state “for allowing rape, murder and arson to be the weapon through which unlawful acts were allowed and justice subverted”. It says that the court simply did not take proper cognisance of the mountain of evidence in the case.

Plea for further probe

Opposing Zakia Jafri’s petition through the three hearings so far, the SIT’s senior advocate CS Vaidyanathan contended in court that the Supreme Court had all along expressed its satisfaction with the team’s investigations. He stated that the magistrate had upheld the SIT’s closure report and could not have ordered further investigation since it would have been contrary to the Supreme Court’s order.

He emphasised that the apex court “has taken the view that the complainant [Zakia Jafri] has no role to seek further investigation”.

On Jafri’s behalf, Mihir Desai countered that the magistrate wrongly interpreted that he had no powers to treat her petition against the SIT report as a complaint, and it was perfectly in order for him to have ordered a further inquiry.

This article was originally published on Scroll.in and has been reproduced with permission.

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