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Rahul Jacob: Fact, fiction and Narendra Modi

Rahul Jacob
More Columns by Rahul Jacob

Even in a nation known for illogical bureaucratic communication, the letter written the night of February 27, by the revenue officer in is bewildering. It concerns the departure of "five trucks despatched here with, which may be accepted". The trucks were carrying 54 dead bodies of the victims of the Godhra train tragedy, which were handed over neither to their families nor to a government hospital mortuary as the law or even common sense would have dictated, but to Jaydeep Patel, the then general secretary of the unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). A parade with bodies of the victims fanned the flames of the that broke out in the following day.

As Manoj Mitta, the author of a new book on the riot of 2002, The Fiction of Fact-finding: Modi and Godhra, observes, "If there was any exceptional reason to depart from the norm [of handing over a dead body to a legal heir or guardian], the letter should have disclosed it." The brief letter offers none.

When was asked by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) in 2010 whether Mr Patel had spoken to him about the dead bodies, he replied that he did not remember meeting him that fateful night when he visited Godhra and that he did "not know the details as to how and when the bodies reached Ahmedabad".

Mr Mitta's book quotes the district magistrate of Godhra at the time, who has a different version of events. She recalls Mr Modi being in the meeting at her office in the Collectorate during which the "unanimous decision" to send the bodies to Ahmedabad the same night was made. Among the others present, in the district magistrate's version of events, was "one Shri Jaydeep Patel, a activist".

The Fiction of Fact-finding is a profoundly disturbing book at several levels, not least because it is written by an author whose previous book offered a damning indictment of the Congress party's role in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. It made uncomfortable reading for me because I had decided after Mr Modi's speech on February 27 that there was enough sensible thinking in it - about foreign direct investment, about getting used to e-commerce, about sanitation - to justify choosing him over Rahul Gandhi, who, like Hamlet, delivers soliloquies that all but say he does not want the job.

Mr Mitta, in effect, indicts us all. "The book is ultimately a commentary on the people of India. It interrogates their claim to being a liberal democracy," he writes. "Rajiv Gandhi's unparalleled success in the election and the growth of the Modi phenomenon, whether because of or in spite of the 2002 violence, reflect the social sanction enjoyed by communal politics."

Mr Mitta parses the unanswered, but also unasked, questions of the investigations into the violence of 2002. Who made the decision to hand over the bodies to the local VHP chief is but one of them. He revisits the Gujarat government's bizarre aversion to collecting mobile phone data until Indian Institute of Technology graduate Rahul Sharma, the deputy commissioner of police consigned to the Ahmedabad control room, apparently for his success at preventing the riots from getting worse and saving children trapped in a school within a mosque, took on this task. (In 2011, the state government started disciplinary proceedings against him for doing so.) Damagingly for Mr Modi and those of us who have decided to support him because of his superior administrative skills, Mr Mitta revisits the subject of when Mr Modi learned about the massacre at Gulberg Society, where former Congress MP and others were killed.

Reports of the mobs congregating in the area had started to come in about noon, about four hours before the killings. Mr Mitta points out that the SIT does not account for the "unexplained incongruity of Modi's claim that he was unaware of the massacre for almost five hours".

The miscommunications between New Delhi, the state government and security forces during the mayhem of 26/11 in Mumbai suggest it is possible that amid the chaos of that frenetic day police officers did not inform Mr Modi, but it belies his supporters' claim that he is a terrific hands-on manager. In his speech last Thursday, he spoke in a different context of "respect, responsiveness and responsibility". They are all words missing from this narrative of 2002.

The larger problem, says human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover, is that the law in India is weak on the government for not having taken action to control a riot. The unwillingness to revamp it extends across party lines to the bureaucracy and police. The Indian Penal Code is to blame for its outdated notion that the state does not commit crimes against its people.

Like Mr Mitta, Ms Grover holds the electorate's tendency to allow itself to be polarised and rationalise the sins of the victors as also responsible. "If you are able to cause a really serious riot, the electoral victories are confirmed," she says. "No law can fix that part of the story."

In this silly season of pronouncing that 2014 is an election that heralds dramatic change - even redemption - for this unfortunate country, all too little is changing.

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