A look back at the pogrom that helped propel the Indian prime minister to power
The 2002 Gujarat riots in India, also known as the Gujarat pogrom, was a three-day period of inter-communal violence in the western Indian state that was reportedly instigated by the burning of a train in Godhra on Feb. 27, 2002, causing the deaths of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya.
Following the initial riot incidents, there were further outbreaks of violence in Ahmedabad for three months; statewide, the violence against the minority Muslim population of Gujarat lasted for one year. According to official figures, the riots ended with 1,044 dead, 223 missing, and 2,500 injured. Of the dead, 790 were Muslim and 254 Hindu. The Concerned Citizens Tribunal Report estimated that as many as 1,926 might have been killed.
On Sept. 24, 2002, six months after the Godhra riots, two men with assault rifles murdered over 30 Gujarati civilians and security personnel in Ahmedabad’s Akshardham temple. The two killers were described as Pakistanis. The act was said to be in revenge for the pogrom in the state against Muslims earlier that year. The massacre was handled by then-Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who was lionized as a brave leader against “Islamist terrorism.” His claim to have a chest of “56 inches” was not based on any particular act of personal bravery. The record will surprise those who assume this toughness against terrorism to be fact.
The 56-inch chest did the job
Toughness here must show in management of the criminal justice system. Much has been written about the abuse of law and process by Modi’s associates and ministers, some of whom have spent time in jail. Let us look carefully at an emblematic case that will show how incompetent the Modi enterprise is when it comes to the very subject that he is meant to be a champion in. This was the most important case of terrorism in all the years that Modi headed Gujarat.
It took 11 months for the Gujarat police to act. The investigation was given to the anti-terror squad in October 2002 but it got nowhere, and in August 2003 it was handed over to the crime branch. That same day, after receiving verbal instruction from a policeman named D.G. Vanzara (later jailed for faking encounters), the crime branch said that it had solved the case. It arrested five people the following day and a sixth a day later. But despite contributing this case-cracking material, Vanzara was not produced as a witness in the case by the state.
The judiciary went in-camera
Six Muslims were tried and convicted by a Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) court in Ahmedabad that heard the trial in-camera (meaning in private rather than in open court). The Gujarat High Court, which for some reason also heard their appeal in-camera, agreed with the trial court and the prosecution, with three men getting death sentences and the others getting imprisonment. The men were in jail for a long time, with one of them actually completing his sentence before the Supreme Court heard the appeal.
Acquitting all the men, the Supreme Court said: “Before parting with the judgment, we intend to express our anguish about the incompetence with which the investigating agencies conducted the investigation of the case of such a grievous nature, involving the integrity and security of the nation. Instead of booking the real culprits responsible for taking so many precious lives, the police caught innocent people and got imposed the grievous charges against them which resulted in their conviction and subsequent sentencing.” (Page 280 of the judgment.)
When the Supreme Court judgment arrived, even Modi’s fiercest critics would have been taken aback by the poor performance of his government in investigating and prosecuting the case. The judgment came, conveniently for Modi, on May 16, 2014, the day he won the general election and moved to Delhi to rule India.
Supreme Court explodes the myth
Of Modi’s own dual role as Gujarat home minister in approving the POTA charges, the apex court said he had “simply signed the proposed note as a mark of approval” (page 107). The court added, “This would go to show clear non-application of mind by the Home Minister in granting sanction” (Page 109). The bumbling goes on and on. The Gujarat police had a handwriting expert—J.J. Patel—who verified the Urdu handwriting of the accused, while admitting he knew no Urdu and could not tell it from Arabic or Persian.
The court said that “the story of the prosecution crumbles down at every juncture.” Because it arrived on the day Modi won his famous victory, the news was buried and the issue hasn’t received much attention. A newspaper report analyzed some of the details. The trial court and the Gujarat High Court had relied on confessions, but the Supreme Court found that those confessions were not voluntary because of the way they had been extracted.
The chief judicial magistrate, who had a critical role in verifying the confessional statements, went on to confess during cross-examination: “I did not make inquiry with any police officers with regard to the said confessions. I had not asked the two accused produced before me as to whether they need any lawyer or not. I had not taken the said accused persons in my custody. It is true that I did not issue any warrant for them to be sent to judicial custody. It is true that I did not inquire with the accused about where and at what time and who recorded their statements. It is true that I have not kept any rojkam (daily register) or record in my court about the accused persons produced before me” (Page 127).
Cooked-up story of Muslim killers
The Supreme Court continued: “The statements by the Chief Judicial Magistrate show how casually the mandates under Sections 32(4) and 32(5) were followed, rendering the said requirement a hollow and empty exercise.” Of the magistrate’s role, the court observed that he had been able to “record the statement of the accused persons, read it over to them and enquire about any coercion and torture, all in a period of half-an-hour.”
Even this cooked-up story was done incompetently by the Modi government. The confessional statements gave “different versions of the same story, each of which contradicted the other and was actually fatal to the case of the prosecution.” The Modi government said it had recovered letters from the trouser pockets of the slain Muslim attackers. The statement of the man who actually recovered them, a brigadier of the National Security Guards, was not even recorded.
Mysterious Muslim letters
Though there were bullet-holes even in the trouser pockets, the Supreme Court observed, the letters apparently recovered from them were clean, without any tear or crease, soiling or stains of blood. With regard to the letters being in a perfect condition, the High Court merely observed that “Truth is stranger than fiction”. The apex court added: “We cannot accept the recording of the High Court that the secret behind the crease-free unsoiled and unstained letter lies in the philosophy of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’.”
A Times of India analysis said: “The case would not have gone to trial with such infirmities had Gujarat’s home department—a portfolio then held by Chief Minister Narendra Modi—denied the necessary sanction for prosecution under POTA. K.C. Kapoor, who was principal secretary, Home, admitted that that in the material placed before him for sanction, he had not seen any papers suggesting compliance of the statutory conditions. As a corollary, the SC said that the sanction was neither ‘an informed decision’ nor was it on the basis of ‘an independent analysis of fact in consultation with the investigating officer’.”
After massacre, ‘the good days’ of Modi
There was belief that Modi’s win of May 2014 would enable him to change the mess he was himself a part of. Achche din aane wale hain! This Indian version of the Great Man theory (which posits that history is largely explainable through the impact of great individuals) didn’t look at the societies and economies of developed nations and what they had done to reach where they had. It didn’t look at why India was sailing in the same boat as its neighbors when it came to key indicators and indeed trailing in some of them. The problem was not that of India alone in South Asia, and the solution did not appear to reside in the idea of a missing messiah.
The myth was spread aggressively in the campaign leading up to the 2014 general election, and it was believed because of a successful campaign. Modi became one with the messaging. His actual performance and delivery in the past was not important enough to have been considered seriously. The focus was on the promise and the image. The media analyzed this in articles, columns and slide-shows.
Modi’s ‘sabka vishwas’ (trust for all)
Academic Neelanjan Sircar has written that Modi’s 2019 win was on the basis of the trust people reposed in him. Modi expanded his 2014 slogan to ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikaas, sabka vishwas’ (inclusion, development and trust of all). Sircar explains that this comes from personal politics in which voters prefer to centralize political power in a strong leader. They trust him to decide on issues and have faith that whatever he does is for the best. This is different from the traditional way in which politics functions—through accountability and a demonstration by politicians that they have performed on the economy and elsewhere.
Two things made this possible. The pushing of a Hindu nationalist identity for India, as opposed to the traditional multicultural identity. This religious nationalism supported centralized politics (because India’s messy regional politics involves a federalism that must negotiate across language, region, caste and religion). What Sircar describes as “vishwas” is easier explained as tribalism—support empty of all content other than visceral identity. It is hollow and with no real expectation of delivery or performance. And secondly, Sircar argues, the BJP’s control over media and communication gave it structural advantages in mobilizing the voters around Modi.
Modi’s mystique and the reality
This is a convincing explanation for why Modi’s popularity is disconnected from his performance. Pratap Bhanu Mehta explores the idea further, writing that three things follow from the politics of this “vishwas” or “bhakti” (as noted, Modi’s supporters are sneeringly referred to as “bhakts” or mindless devotees on social media). First, that there is an immunity to any accountability: You can preside over poor economic performance, suffer a military setback, inflict suffering through failed schemes like demonetization, and yet the trust does not decline.
The second is that this form of politics required continued pushing of religious majoritarianism. And the third is that it has to be continually sustained through control of the media. The reason that bhakti has taken such strong hold on the polity, Mehta wrote, is a deep pessimism. Faith was necessary only when there was no confidence in one’s own ability to influence the economic and political world. Handing one’s agency over to the great leader was easier and liberating because one didn’t have to do anything. The leader would take care of it all.
This report examines the notorious Godhra massacre of 2002 through Aakar Patel’s Price of the Modi Years