Manoj Mitta's first reaction when he arrives at The Big Chill is a journalist's one. "Will you be able to record? Maybe we should go somewhere quieter?" he anxiously suggests over the boisterous din of an unexpectedly early lunchtime crowd in Khan Market. I am reluctant to forego the delights of the Big Chill Mediterranean menu, so I request the staff to lower the volume on the sound system (over which Lobo can be heard crooning the 1970s hit I Love You to Want Me) and put my faith in a marvellous little digital recorder.
Mitta, senior editor with the Times of India, has just published his second book, The Fiction of Fact Finding: Modi and Godhra. It is a dispassionate assessment of the investigations into the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat and the role of Narendra Modi as chief minister. Despite the matter-of-fact tone, the book is an expose, an inconveniently credible alternative narrative from the received wisdom as purveyed by Modi, his supporters and, astonishingly, the legal establishment. Mitta's careful research of the events and official investigations points to obvious, and shocking, gaps in the fact-finding process - "tell-tale pieces of evidence that were overlooked" as he puts it.
The Fiction of Fact Finding follows When a Tree Shook Delhi which was on the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Co-authored with H S Phoolka, the advocate who led the struggle for justice for the victims, When a Tree… points the needle of suspicion just as squarely at the Congress leadership of the time.
One of Big Chill's insouciantly informal servers comes up to take our order and Mitta chooses Portuguese Fish, grilled with piri-piri, the African chili that is a poor cousin to the Indian variety. I indulge in prawn-mushroom risotto, the arborio rice dish that requires the patience of Job to prepare, and greedily ask for a side helping of bacon.
Mitta's investigation into the post-Godhra carnage runs against the current mood since media and urban India are inclined to forgive and forget because they think Modi is headed to No 7, Race Course Road. Rather than "compare and contrast" 1984 and 2002, which the BJP and Congress supporters often do to extract a twisted kind of exoneration, Mitta, whose style is as low key as his prose, focuses on a larger problem. "The fiction of fact finding is not limited to those two tragedies," he says, "It is a systemic problem that stems from our excessive reverence for authority. So, what authorities do under the trapping of the rule of law goes unchallenged. But if you look at it closely, you will find it prone to error as any other process."
He thinks it is the duty of the media and civil society "to be vigilant about these things, otherwise those in power will be confident that they can get away with them". That was evident, for instance, in the manner in which the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) handled the investigation into riot victim Zakia Jafri's complaint against the Modi regime (her husband Ehsan Jafri was murdered in the Muslim pocket of Gulberg Society, one of the major atrocities in the state the day after the Godhra killings).
For instance, Modi, who also held the home portfolio then, told the SIT he only heard of the Gulberg Society killings at 8.30 that night. This even though he claimed to have been in touch with the police through the day, and the police were exchanging messages on the crisis in Gulberg Society. "So this man had real-time knowledge but claims he did not know till five hours after the massacre! How do I know this? On the basis of what the SIT recorded - but it did not make the connection. There's this whole mass of evidence and they are focused on giving Modi a clean sheet."
The thing I found odd, I say, was that although several such anomalies were apparently overlooked by the SIT, they were highlighted by the amicus curiae appointed by the Supreme Court. Indeed, the amicus curiae, Raju Ramachandran, suggested that cases should be registered against Modi and some senior police officers. Why didn't the apex court, which prides itself on its activism on all manner of issues, pursue these findings? Was there a story?
Mitta sticks stolidly to the facts. "I don't want to get into conspiracy theories but the fact that the SIT watered down its own conclusions even though the SIT chief made some damning admissions in the comments accompanying the report should have been considered. And the manner in which they suddenly withdrew the monitoring of the case was surprising."
Was he intimidated or obstructed in his research? On visits to Gujarat where he met activists, lawyers, victims and so on, he says, "I could feel the tension and fear in the air. They were fighting for justice in a hostile environment, which is why the Supreme Court shifted some of the cases outside the state and the ones being heard in Gujarat were provided security by the central forces. If the Supreme Court had to go that far, it's a reflection of the level of intimidation on the ground."
The food arrives, providing an agreeable break from the grim content of our conversation. The risotto is rich and creamy, making the extra serving of crisp bacon redundant but I sprinkle it liberally anyway. Mitta is talking about the fact that Modi supporters say the conviction rate in Gujarat has been greater than in Delhi - state minister Maya Kodnani being one prominent example. This is true, he says, but only because of the Supreme Court's intervention and that is, in turn, the result of the evolution of judicial activism, which didn't exist in 1984.
The other big difference in the Kodnani case was the role of the whistle-blower policeman Rahul Sharma. Mitta's book has a riveting account of how Sharma obtained and copied CDs of the call detail records (CDRs) of the phone companies for those fateful days. Incredibly, the CDRs, which provided damning evidence of the nexus between the rioters and the police, only became part of the evidence when the SIT was constituted in March 2008.
Why did Mitta decide to focus on these two tragedies? The impulse is partly personal. He comes from Hyderabad and remembers communal riots in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "I lived in the older part of the city, which was often curfew-bound, and my school was in the newer part. My education was disrupted by frequent curfews and I remember people commenting, 'oh, you've come from that curfew area, that's why you didn't come to school!'. It made me a little sensitive, you see, that innocent people are affected by this crime."
Coming to Delhi in 1985, he found the city still scarred by the carnage. Following stories on its aftermath, soon after he graduated from the first batch of the Times group's school of journalism, he recalls, without rancour, the taunts from colleagues and friends. "At that time, like now with Modi, the media and middle class were eating out of Rajiv Gandhi's hands. He represented the new India, plus he had a brute majority of over 400 seats MPs . So when I did these stories, I was called 'anti-national' and accused of unwittingly playing into the hands of the Khalistanis."
The risotto is heavy, and I regretfully give up on it three-quarters of the way through. Mitta, who is a sparing eater, picks at his fish but declares it "good". On the all-consuming nature of the writing process, he talks good-naturedly of how the "preoccupation with this book over three years got me bad appraisals, understandably, from my office, family and friends". Not that this has deterred him from planning another book, one that will complete a trilogy on mass violence in India. "This one will be on fact-finding related to caste atrocities across the country," he says, where the biases are no less glaring.
Which leads me to ask him about his own caste - I can't tell from his surname, the very Indian way of identifying someone's provenance. He laughs and says Telugus mostly don't have caste surnames but family ones, so Mitta is his father's name and he reversed the order when he came up north. He is, in fact, a Munnuru Kapu, a backward caste from Telangana. I am quite excited because I tell him Vikram Akula, of SKS Microfinance fame, told me he was from the same caste. "We're actually distantly related," he tells me, "though we have never met."
And no, he replies patiently to my tactless question as we wrap up the meal, he did not rely on the reservation system for his education. "For one, law was not a sought-after course and, for another, I had good enough marks not to need it!"