Growing up in Kashmir in the early 1990s, I was conscious of the state-sponsored rapes, disappearances and killing of unarmed civilians. There were no tribunals or mechanisms that could deliver justice to the victims of violence – each case only beaded into the more complex structure of violence and impunity. This pattern of impunity continues and exposes India’s fractured justice system.
In her recent book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a cover up, journalist Rana Ayyub narrates a similar story of lawlessness – of “killing with impunity”. The spine-chilling investigative account gives credence to the voice of many: for the first time, people in position of power during the 2002 Gujarat riots, and a series of murky murders that followed, have opened up about their role. Embedded in Ayyub’s investigative account, these characters confirm what some activists and journalists have repeatedly said since 2002.
Identity is a prominent theme of Gujarat Files. Though she may not have consciously built up her narrative around it, the reader will nonetheless find it playing a major role. Ayyub intricately weaves the story of Gujarat around the persistence of caste exploitation and communal polarisation. The government of Gujarat at the time was engulfed in sanguinary politics, pitting one group against the other. The state machinery was used to create the narrative of a threatening “common enemy”, the Muslim ‘Other’. The language, Ayyub says, was one of hatred, and a public imagination of Muslims as “invaders”, “sons of Babur – the invader”, and the more threatening one of a “terrorist” was actively constructed. This role played by the state institutions – political and bureaucratic – in building up the anti-Muslim narrative was indispensible in making the 2002 riots possible.
The task of investigation and collecting the facts to put this book together was challenging. “I was a lone soldier on the field. I had to look after myself and ensure that the investigation yielded honest, fact-based results,” Ayyub writes. With no takers in the publishing world, she struggled but eventually decided to self-publish the harrowing narrative of her experience in Gujarat. In the preface of the book, she mentions something a former editor said, which stayed with her: “A good journalist should learn the art of detaching herself from a story and be pragmatic.” About this Ayyub writes, “Till this day, ‘I regret being unable to master this art.’ But it is this ‘regret’ that has led her to bring forth the truth of Gujarat, including the fake encounter of an alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) ‘terrorist’ Ishrat Jahan in 2004 and the staged killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh in November 2005. Very often, Ayyub adds, this advice of being a good journalist “is an excuse to kill a story at the behest of corporate and political powers.” She shunned the advice, gathered herself, and undertook her peregrination. This account about her mission does not disappoint. The reader gets a sense of Rana’s discomfort, but we also come across the courage which led her to embark on a journey in pursuit of truth. In the end, the author was left with only one option – “to go undercover”.
For months, Ayyub was a mysterious character in the streets and in the corridors of power in Gujarat, living and working as Maithili Tyagi, an independent filmmaker from the American Film Institute Conservatory, who was making a film about Gujarat’s ‘development model’. To give an authentic tone to her new identity, Ayyub needed an assistant. She was accompanied by a 19-year old French student named Mike, who had come to India on an exchange programme. Initially, Mike was not informed about the details of the investigation. In an attempt to not raise suspicion, both Mike and Maithili would indulge in activities like photography and also expanded their social circle that could vouch for their assumed identities.
It was the “warm, conservative and yet strong” identity of Maithili Tyagi that helped Ayyub carry out the most risky exercise, that of interviewing top ranking officials involved in the violence who were living with impunity. Among the interviews, one of the more interesting was with Indian Police Service (IPS) officer G L Singhal, posted with the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) in Gujarat in 2002 as its de facto head. Singhal has since been probed for his role in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case. (In 2014, he was reinstated as the Group Commandant of State Reserve Police at Gandhinagar, Gujarat.) The conversations with Singhal delineate the political machinations, the power struggle, the caste system and the communalist mindset of Indian society and polity. It is through Singhal’s narrative – which echoes all through the book and through interviews with other state officials – that the reader comes across the larger picture of power play in Indian politics.
We were told that Ishrat Jahan was a woman fidayeen (suicide bomber) – the first of her kind in India, an LeT operative – who was out to assassinate Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat. And it was Singhal who had shot her and three other ‘terrorists’. However, the 2009 High Court verdict given by Justice S P Tamang Committee stunned the nation. It said, “Ishrat Jahan’s was a fake encounter – the case needed further investigation.” This verdict led to an uproar in the civil society with street protests by human-rights activists and lawyers against the “gross misuse of power by officials to kill innocents.” The other three named officers involved in this gory crime were D G Vanzara, the ATS chief, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) N K Amin and (DSP) Tarun Barot. Later in 2013, even the CBI team appointed by the Gujarat High Court called the encounter fake, and listed all four top cops as “accused officers”.
Reaching out to Singhal, who had isolated himself, was a difficult task for Ayyub. It was through Naresh Kanodia, “the Amitabh Bachchan of Gujarati film industry”, that Maithili made her way to Singhal. Since Kanodia was from a backward class, he shared a great rapport with Singhal, who was a Dalit. It is these caste-based networks that helped facilitate Maithili’s investigation. On her first meeting with Kanodia, Maithili told him that she was making a film on how the backward class progressed in Gujarat. This sparked an interest in Kanodia who later suggested to Maithili, “You should meet Singhal, one of our finest; he killed many terrorists.”
After a lengthy rigmarole, where she feigned naivety, she got through Singhal. It was a time when the Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) was speeding up its inquiry; two junior officers had been arrested and, in all probability, Singhal could be next. The charges against him included, “conspiring, staging and killing an innocent girl in the name of terror.” Through the conversations with Singhal, the reader comes across the deeply entrenched and unavoidable role of class. Ayyub writes, “He narrated the stories of his childhood, his desire to fight the upper class, the Brahmanical attitude of his neighbours towards his Dalit family, and being the breadwinner for his family.” Singhal explains that most of the officers involved in the encounters are from the lower caste. However, he adds, all of them in the police department have been used and abandoned by the political system.
The complexity of identity and the irony of power come to light when Maithili inquired if the system supports him. To this, Singhal retorted, “No, not in the least. I am a Dalit but I can do everything like a Brahmin. I know my religion, much more than them, but people don’t realise this. If I am born in a Dalit family, is it my fault?” He confirmed that many times, when it comes to promotion, they [backward caste] are not considered because of their caste. “It is rampant…These Brahmins or Kshatriyas will not have a Dalit or an OBC as a junior.” And yet he hails himself as “indispensable” for the upper caste seniors. Singhal further revealed his caste anxiety by saying: “I have countered cases of terrorism for them. But yes, they do their bit – at times they will send me to do a job that can be done by constables.” Most officers of the state, including Rajan Priyadarshi, D Vanzara, Rajkumar Pandian, N K Amin, and J G Parmar under the scanner of the government are Dalits. In conversation with Rajan Priyadarshi, who was IG of Rajkot during the 2002 riots, Maithili sensed that the “Dalit tag continued to haunt him.” She quotes Rajan:
It was very strange, you know it was like if you are a Dalit, anybody in the office can get away with saying anything. There was no dignity attached. I mean a Dalit officer can be asked to commit cold-blooded murder because he (apparently) has no self-respect, no ideals. Upper castes in the Gujarat Police are the ones in (everyone’s) good books.
Talking of the Ishrat Jahan case, Rajan accepts that the charges against her are false. He even held Amit Shah, the then home minister and the current President of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), responsible for all fake encounters, including the 2005 Sohrabuddin Sheikh and 2006 Tulsi Prajapati killings. The killings were carried out at the behest of the Shah because he “never used to believe in human rights.” Further, he speaks of the hostile action perpetuated against Muslims in the state. Rajan recalls an incident when home minister Gordhan Zadaphia called him during the 2002 riots when he was IGP Rajkot. Zadaphia ordered him to arrest three people, who were all Muslims. Rajan refused to carry out the orders stating that the three people who were at that time sitting with him were innocent Muslims and had restored peace by bringing the Hindus and Muslims together. Zadaphia said, “The CM [Narendra Modi] has ordered for the arrests.” Rajan defied the orders and said, “Sir, I can’t do it even if it’s the CM’s order because these three are innocent,” Had there been somebody else in his place, Rajan says, the three innocent Muslims would have been arrested.
To the question, “Is the police anti-Muslim here?” Rajan replies: “No, actually these politicians are nothing. So if an officer does not listen to them, they send them to a side posting so what are they supposed to do.” These conversations reveal the degree of communal hatred and polarisation, as well as the percolation of the images of terror in the state’s language. For Singhal, it justified the killing of Muslims in the name of ‘national security:
You know certain cases are difficult and you have to tackle them differently. Look at what America did post 9/11. There was a place called Guantanamo. They were kept there, detained, tortured. Magar theek hai na [But it’s fine]. Not everybody is tortured. There are 10 percent who have been tortured and even if they have not committed anything, one percent may be wrong. So this has to be done to save the nation, to save the country.
Maintaining ambiguity around Ishrat’s Lashkar links and at one point admitting that she was not an LeT terrorist, Singhal exclaimed, “See, she was not but then she was killed in the same incident. I mean she could have been or not have been. Or she could have been used as a cover.”
An interview with another accused, P C Pande, the Ahmedabad Police Commissioner during the 2002 riots, and the “most trusted” of Modi’s men, is also quite revealing. The conversation between Maithili and Pande begins with her enquiring about the role of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in Gujarat. “The RSS was the backbone of the BJP, of the Government in Gujarat, and “the only organization that could counter the Islamic parties,” says Pande. He adds that when we think of the riots one [meaning a Hindu] feels happy at some point. “It was the most satisfying thing,” he said. Pande’s responses were vindictive in nature. He held Muslims, as a whole, responsible for the ‘anarchy’ in Gujarat. And he described social activists, like Teesta Setalvad, who were protesting against state’s role in the riots, as “scoundrels”, admitting that Modi was worried about Setalvad’s growing concern for the citizens of Gujarat. At one point, Pande bluntly agreed to Maithili’s question that “Modi was made by the riots, right?”
While the nation’s conscience has yet to fully deal with the riots of 2002, reading these interviews one realises that the state of Gujarat has been a cauldron of riots, simmering time to time – “82, 83, 85, 87, and post-Ayodhya 92 riots,” and eventually culminating in 2002. Amit Shah, who was “least concerned about law and order and gave illegal orders to officials” is a common thread in these investigations. In his resignation letter dated 1 September 2013, D G Vanzara accused the Modi-Shah duo of “use-and-throw policy”. Vanzara claimed that Modi was under the influence of Amit Shah, and that Shah’s “unholy grip over the state administration is so complete that he is almost running the government of Gujarat by proxy.” Vanzara, who had once been close to both Modi and Shah, accused them of conspiracy, promising to reveal more in the days to follow. However, “within months of BJP coming to power at the centre in Delhi, bail was granted to DG Vanzara and he was given hero’s welcome in Gujarat,” writes Ayyub.
Vanzara was given a conditional bail on 5 February 2015, ten months after Modi’s ascendance to power in Delhi. The bail barred Vanzara from entering his home state Gujarat. It was only later on 8 April 2016, when the condition was lifted and Vanzara returned home after serving nine years in prison. The day he came out of the jail, Vanzara claimed that “achhe din” (good days) had come for police officers. Unsurprisingly, nearly all the 28 police officers and constables who went to jail in connection with these fake encounter killings got bail in the same period as Vanzara. Several others were reinstated by the Gujarat government in key positions. For instance, P Pandey, the head of the Ahmedabad Crime Branch at the time of Ishrat Jahan’s extrajudicial execution was reinstated as the Additional Director General of Police (DGP).
There are very important nuances that lie under Ayyub’s choosing of the ‘warm, conservative” identity of Maithili Tyagi. Why didn’t Ayyub choose a Muslim name? The vulnerabilities of one’s identity glare in the face while we attempt to answer this question. Going undercover with a Muslim name would have posed similar threats that came with her real identity. This opens the gate to the communal distrust that is exhibited both in the streets of Gujarat and among the political and bureaucratic circles. Rana’s book brings forth the treacherous reality of communalism and casteism and how it haunts the ghettos inhabited by Muslims and Dalits. The book ends on a poignant note with the end of Maithili. Ayyub writes: “I removed the Uninor SIM card from my phone, crushed it and threw it in the dustbin. I did the same with the phone. Maithili made an exit forever that day. The editors took a call that the investigation would not be published. I have remained silent since then. Till now.”
The silence is broken, the investigation is out in the public domain, and what remains to be done is justice – this time in the name of ‘national interest’ – that has for decades been transient and fragile. Thus far, justice has either been negated or delayed in these cases. But there is hope. In the Gulbarg society case, for instance, in which 69 Muslims were killed on 28 February 2002, an Ahmedabad Sessions Judge in June 2016 found 24 people guilty of various crimes and sentenced 11 convicts to 14 years in prison, while 13 others would spend seven to ten years behind bars. In the last 14 years, however, the Indian criminal justice system hasn’t been able to dispense justice to most riot victims. Many cases are still pending while the perpetrators have been released on bail.
The book received mixed response. The Modi-led government at the centre refused to comment on the book. The Congress, on the other hand, remained a mute spectator, keeping a careful watch on the events. The political silence has had a shadow effect on the mainstream India media. There has been limited coverage in both electronic and print media, barring the Indian Express and the Caravan. However, at the time of writing, Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat Files is the highest selling book on online retailer Amazon and civil society groups have lauded the efforts of the author.
~ Adil Bhat is Assistant Editor with New York-based magazine Café Dissensus. He studied English Literature from Delhi University and has contributed articles for Greater Kashmir, Kashmir Reader, Kashmir Life, Café Dissensus and the DU Journal.