Throughout the decade of UPA rule, a Central government intensely hostile to Narendra Modi laboured mightily but failed to come up with even a shred of evidence linking him to the 2002 riots.


Mumbai: In 1986, prominent political analyst, Dr Ashgar Ali Engineer wrote in his article1 “Gujarat Burns Again”, “The mob reached the (Gulbarga) society at about 8.30am and began looting Muslim properties… Jafry appealed to the authorities to impose curfew but with no effect. However, he succeeded in getting police help two hours later… Mischievous rumours were spread that Ahsan Jafry had fired and killed the boy.”
In 2002, Ehsan Jafri, the former Congress MP, faced an eerily similar mob attack in the Gulbarga society, he fired on the mob, and it ended tragically for him. Jafri was among 69 Muslims killed in the Gulbarga society violence by a Hindu mob during the 2002 Gujarat riots triggered by the Godhra train burning, where a Muslim mob burnt to death 59 Hindu passengers, women and children included.
In 1986, Gujarat had the Amarsinh Chaudhary-led Congress government, and yet, Congress leader Jafri’s request for imposing a curfew was not heard by the administration. His request for police deployment, with his residential society under attack, was fulfilled two hours later, and even then, the State Reserve Police personnel had refused to fire on the rioting mob. The rumour that Jafri fired and killed a boy, could have ended in the same tragedy that eventually did happen in 2002.
Zakia Jafri, the wife of Ehsan Jafri, knew the similarities between the 1986 and the 2002 attacks. She knew that her husband did not blame the Congress government or Chief Minister Chaudhary in 1986. However, four years after the 2002 Gujarat riots and the tragic death of her husband, she decided to put the blame on Narendra Modi by approaching the police to file an FIR against Modi and others, under various sections of the Indian Penal Code.
She became the face of the struggle for justice for the 2002 riots victims, the bereaved widow, who was taking on the “Hindutva” strongman Modi. Urging the US government to continue denying the US visa to Modi, she had said, “I know in my heart that Chief Minister Narendra Modi is responsible for the killing of my husband.” In 2016, a special court convicted 24 people in the Gulbarga society case—11 for murder and 13 for rioting. Zakia Jafri’s pursuit for justice, however, was to get Modi charged and tried for conspiracy and murder. While it was impossible to not sympathise with her, it had become clear that willingly or misguided, her plight was being used for political targeting of Modi.
That is why Friday’s three-judge Supreme Court bench judgement dismissing Zakia Jafri’s plea challenging the Special Investigation Team (SIT) clean chit to Modi and several others become extremely important. The Supreme Court observed that Jafri’s “appeal is devoid of merits.” The petitioners had argued that the SIT did not look at several facts presented to them, however, the Supreme Court upheld the SIT report and firmly said that no fault can be found with the investigation or the approach of the SIT in submitting its final report in the 2002 riots cases investigation. The Apex Court emphasised that the SIT had considered all the issues at great length, the findings had passed through the strict scrutiny of the Amicus Curiae, and the Court was monitoring the investigation and allowed submission of the final SIT report only after being fully satisfied with the investigation in all aspects. Therefore, according to the top court, doubting the SIT report amounts to doubting the wisdom of the Apex Court itself.
In its judgement, the Supreme Court raised several red flags, including the delay of 216 days in filing the petition against the High Court judgement, and a vague explanation bereft of any material fact provided by the petitioner Zakia Jafri for the delay. Nonetheless, the Court allowed the petition because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter.
The Supreme Court judgement and upholding of the SIT report establish the following clearly with respect to the 2002 Gujarat riots:
No evidence to even raise a suspicion of a criminal conspiracy at the higher level of the Gujarat government for causing mass violence against the minority community. The extra-judicial confessions made in the Tehelka sting operation did not point to a larger conspiracy.
Nothing said by Narendra Modi was suggestive of any intended promotion of hatred or ill-will amongst religious groups.
Narendra Modi-led Gujarat government put the state machinery on high alert immediately after the Godhra incident, and “all possible precautionary measures were taken by the authorities.”
The riots had taken place spontaneously.
Dead bodies were not paraded. Allegation that victims of riots and police firing were predominantly Muslim community not established.
The army started arriving on midnight of 28 February—not three days later. In all, 26 columns deployed at the peak of the riots, that too at the peak of the border tensions in the wake of the December 2001 Parliament attack.
“The testimony of Mr. Sanjiv Bhatt, Mr. Haren Pandya and also of Mr. R.B. Sreekumar was only to sensationalize and politicize the matters in issue, although, replete with falsehood.”
Narendra Modi has faced a two-decade-long campaign of calumny painting him personally liable for the riots. His political opponents have called him the worst of names, including a “mass murderer” and “maut ka saudagar”. Concerted efforts were made to turn him into an international pariah. In 2013, 65 Indian MPs wrote to the US President to continue the US policy of visa denial to Modi, a three-time democratically elected Chief Minister of an Indian state. Debunked lies like “foetus on the sword” were used to incite Muslims. Even those, who had an in-depth understanding of the existing communal faultlines in the state, blamed the Modi government for the riots. To give an example, Dr Ashgar Ali Engineer had written in his 1986 article “Gujarat Burns Again”, “…a rumour was widely spread that the Muslims in Sarkhej (a locality near highway where mainly Muslims live and many Muslims had sought refuge after the riots started on July 9) had burnt alive more than 60 Hindus travelling by a bus. The rumour was so strong that TV and radio had to counter it lest it should have had disastrous consequences.”
When that scary rumour of 1986 Ahmedabad became a horrific reality of 2002 Godhra, Dr Engineer chose to blame the Modi government for provoking the riots. In the wake of the clean chit to Narendra Modi by the SIT in 2012, Dr Engineer had written to the SIT Chief, “Anyway whosoever was responsible the Modi Government got an opportunity to provoke riots against Muslims.”2
By whosoever was responsible, Dr Engineer meant the Muslim mob that burnt 59 Hindus to death at Godhra—a grave provocation, even a rumour of which could have caused disastrous communal riots in the Congress-ruled Gujarat of 1986.
The attempts to make Modi personally liable for the 2002 riots have been so many, so often and so obvious that the Supreme Court couldn’t help but comment on it. The Zakia petition judgement discredits “disgruntled officials” of the Gujarat state, who in joint efforts with others, deliberately issued false statements to implicate Modi. The judgement also criticises the petitioner for misusing the legal process and casting aspersions on the integrity of everyone involved in the process. The judgement calls it a devious stratagem adopted “to keep the pot boiling for ulterior design.” The Court also opined that “all those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.”
Narendra Modi was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in October 2001, a few months before the ghastly Godhra incident and its equally ghastly aftermath. He was elected to the Assembly on 25 February 2002, just three days before the riots. From 1995 till he became the CM, he was kept out of the state because of the internal politics of the party. It is common sense that one needs a strong hold on the state machinery as well as on the party and the people to orchestrate state-wide riots—something that the Congress had during the 1984 anti-Sikh violence. Modi had none—he was back in the state after a gap of six years, and he was facing strong opposition within the Gujarat BJP.
In its 18 February 2002 issue, India Today3 called Modi “junior Vajpayee” for his inability to cleanse the jihadi elements from the madrasas in the state and quoted Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia on the soft stance of Modi on Muslims. Ten days later, the agenda was set to pin the post-Godhra riots on Modi and the narrative was quickly shifted to blame the so-far soft-on-jihadis Modi government for orchestrating anti-Muslim riots.
As pointed out in 2014 by an academic, Professor Madhav Nalapat, throughout the decade (2004-14) of UPA rule, a Central government intensely hostile to Modi laboured mightily but failed to come up with even a shred of evidence linking Modi to the 2002 riots. Not just the UPA government, but also the media and many social activists tried relentlessly for years to find evidence of Modi’s complicity in the riots. They could not. The Supreme Court-monitored SIT did not. Because his complicity was only in the fake narrative that was created, and not in reality, as decisively established by the SIT and the Supreme Court judgement.
The constant targeting didn’t seem to affect Modi, his popularity, or his political rise, so he rarely spoke about the riots. He did make himself available for the SIT investigation without making any fuss, even though he was the democratically elected CM of a state and was aware that the UPA government wanted to bury him politically. However, all along, he refused to apologise for the riots, insisting that if he is found complicit in the riots he should not be forgiven, he should be hanged4. The Supreme Court reaffirmed on Friday, not guilty. It is time for the nation to accept the verdict and learn a lesson not to fall prey to fake narratives.
1 Gujarat Burns Again, Vol.21, No.31, Economic and Political Weekly, 2nd August 1986
2 Open Letter to SIT Chief R.K. Raghavan, Ashgar Ali Engineer, Islam and Politics,, 17th May 2012
3 Gujarat CM Narendra Modi does little to cleanse madarsas of jehadi elements, India Today, 18th February 2002
Semu Bhatt is a Mumbai-based strategic advisor and author. She writes on geopolitics and governance.