India’s Twitter friendly Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who has embarrassed the government several times recently through his over enthusiastic slip of tongues, be it in the Pathankot or the JNU issue, recently made a very interesting statement. Asked by a journalist about the Narendra Modi government’s approach to Islamist terror, Singh said that this government departed from the previous government’s approach of indiscriminate arrests and persecution of Muslims. His government followed, what he called “a balanced and a nuanced approach”. The statement was indeed quite baffling, for had not the BJP repeatedly termed the Congress’ approach on this front as “soft” and reflective of its overall policy of “appeasing” Muslims. But this one, I guess, was a Freudian slip! Anyways, now that the slip has been made by a senior BJP leader who has been so forthcoming about the fact that Muslims have indeed been persecuted, targeted and witch-hunted and the role of other governments, let us slip into some other territories where the likes of Singh will not tread. Let us slip into the heart of the beast, Gujarat – that Hindutva laboratory, whose successful experiments are being replicated across the country today.
Days after the above statement by Singh, journalist Rana Ayyub’s self-published book “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up” was out on the stands. An account based on an undercover sting operation, the work brings out the involvement of the state machinery right up to the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, in communal massacres and fake encounters of Muslims. Gujarat, under the BJP, would indeed stand out as a state where those from the minority community might actually ‘prefer’ indiscriminate arrests, as that at least means not being killed in a state orchestrated riot or ‘encountered’ by many of the specialists. Nothing that the book unearths is new. These are, rather, some of the biggest open secrets of our times. Those who despise Modi, do so for largely his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat carnage. His admirers admire him for the same. They worship him for teaching the Muslims of Gujarat a lesson. Either ways his involvement is uncontested. The only difference being that his admirers, henchmen and foot soldiers, maintain a pretense and do not speak about it in public domain. To make them open up requires a sting operation – something the author refers to as the last resort of a journalist in search for the truth.
A few years back, another journalist from Tehelka magazine had carried out similar sting operation on the foot soldiers of the Gujarat riots. The revelations, and more than that the celebratory descriptions of the rapes, arson and killings by those who had carried them out, were quite chilling. Rana Ayyub goes a level higher, transforms herself into Maithili Tyagi, a conservative filmmaker from the diaspora, makes top cops and diplomats open and reveal the ways and means through which the police, intelligence and investigative agencies were put to use for furthering a particular political project in this period in Gujarat.
Ensuring complete control of the police and the intelligence has always been central to the political project of the sangh – for they can then be put to optimum use during riots and killings, or later in systemically destroying evidences. Gujarat Files brings out, from the horses’ mouth the overarching control of the RSS over the Home Ministry in Gujarat with the Home Minister sending regular instructions – to arrest, kill, or botch investigations. Police officers speak of the tight control of the police by Amit Shah who controlled all the transfers, postings and promotions – based invariably on who complied and who refused the directions from above. Narendra Modi, on the other hand, comes out from the conversations as looming large in everything but in a much more shadowy manner, always from behind – passing on orders to a select few and putting nothing on paper that could embroil him in legal trouble.
The conversations with police officers also delve at some length on the series of fake encounters in Gujarat, especially those of Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin Sheikh. Most of the officers whom Ayyub stung can be seen lamenting their “use” and eventual abandonment by Modi, Shah & Co. in the encounter killings. That most of them came from Dalit and OBC backgrounds is one of the central (and in my view also over stretched) arguments of the book, based on the author’s deduction of her conversations with the cops. But while this realization on the part of those involved in the encounters came way too late and only in the face of an imminent arrest, their rationalization of the logic of encounter killings even at such a juncture is extremely instructive of their internalization of the deep necessity of such killings. Some of these encounters, like say Sohrabuddin Sheikh’s encounter, was in the eyes of certain officers a job gone wrong in its execution, one that could not be carried out in a manner that could have been later covered up and legally justified. Another official, the Gujarat ATS in-charge Girish Singhal, who comes out from Ayyub’s narratives as one of those Dalit officers subsequently dumped by Modi-Shah after the job was done, when asked about his role in the Ishrat Jahan encounter comes down on the obsession of human rights commissions with what are in his view difficult issues. He makes an analogy with the use of torture by the US in Guantanamo Bay to drive the point that some innocents are bound to suffer for the greater mission of saving the country from terrorism.
One of the lacunae of the work is not developing this aspect further. In fact, this would not have been a big issue had it been limited to simply the internalization of encounter killings by cops – for how else is a police force, trained to be trigger happy, supposed to think? But, given the political context, such kinds of rationalizations go much beyond the police and percolate to the larger collective conscience. Some people, simply on the basis of the charges against them (that too made post the killing), and especially if the charge is that of being part of an Islamist terror organization, are seen as ‘encounter-able’. Too much botheration of how it was carried out are seen as unnecessary. What else are we to do, the supporters of encounter killings say, with those who have the potential to disturb “our peace”? Or in the other words of Girish Singhal, Ishrat might or might not had been part of the LeT but then some innocents are bound to suffer for the greater common good and why should human right commissions be so bothered about these difficult and complex issues.
The recent resurfacing of the shrill debates around accusations of Ishrat Jahan being a member of the LeT, the shadow boxing between the Congress and the BJP, the politics around affidavits and counter-affidavits and the flip-flops by the Congress leaders in the entire case to portray her as a member of the LeT misses a deep fundamental point – that the charge of Ishrat being a LeT member still does not justify her extra-judicial killing. The veracity of these charges could have only been decided by the courts, but in cases like this the dead of course cannot come back to defend themselves. In this entire debate, the obfuscation of the fact that the police has no right to shoot down any one who is already in their custody only serves to normalize encounter killings in the society. And this delves perfectly well within the overall atmosphere of hatred and bias against Muslims. These are points that come to one’s mind after reading the transcripts of Ayyub’s conversations with several cops. But apart from perfunctorily touching upon these aspects, she does not quite develop the same.
It is an important political intervention and a powerful indictment of the likes of Modi and Shah. And at a time when there is much hullabaloo of two years of Modi’s government, it could not have been better timed. Behind all the self-advertising and self-aggrandizement about these two years, we can clearly discern a clear replication at a national level of all that the book unearths about Gujarat. Over the past many years, helped as much by the soft-Hindutva approach of the Congress, the RSS has already ensured that their people are everywhere – from police, intelligence to the investigative agencies. And today, as the BJP enjoys a full majority inside the parliament, all of these – from police, forensic labs, legal machinery and the mass media- are being put to use in an extremely brazen and synchronized manner to push through the sangh’s political agenda. The fascist coup of the self-proclaimed largest democracy of the world is unfolding before our eyes through perfectly ‘legal’ and ‘democratic’ means – through the parliament, through the courts, through investigative agencies and of course through the media. Gujarat Files refreshes our memory of the various state machinations in Gujarat over the past decade and a half which were the forebodings of this ongoing fascist coup. Since fascism thrives as much on mass amnesia, Rana Ayyub deserves a thousand salaams for putting out this work in the face of immense hurdles.
Umar Khalid is a scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.