August 27, 2010

Frontline Column: Beyond the Obvious

by Praful Bidwai

One thing the Bharatiya Janata Party cannot be accused of is failure to anticipate trouble or lack of combativeness vis-à-vis adversaries, regardless of who they are and how high the price to be paid for fighting and even maligning them. Ever since the Gujarat police admitted to the Supreme Court in 2007 that Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a small-time extortionist, was killed in a fake encounter, Chief Minister Narendra Modi has known that his government, in particular Minister of State for Home Amit Shah and many senior police officers, would come under critical scrutiny. The admission was made under the weight of strong evidence against three Indian Police Service officers, DG Vanzara and Rajkumar Pandyan of Gujarat, and Dinesh MN of Rajasthan, leading to their arrest.

Modi and Shah launched an elaborate, complex cover-up and damage-control operation by effecting postings and transfers of key police officers with a view to killing a crucial witness and close Sohrabuddin associate (Tulsiram Prajapati), and misleading the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Gujarat’s anti-terrorism squad, headed by Inspector General Geetha Johri, which was inquiring into the “encounters”.

Modi and Shah very nearly succeeded—until the Supreme Court this past January chastised the Gujarat police for not conducting the investigation “in an impartial manner” and “trying to subvert the case”, and transferred the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation. The CBI began to unravel the conspiracy behind the cold-blooded killing of Sohrabuddin, his wife Kauserbi (who probably witnessed his murder), and Prajapati, and its numerous links with Shah and other powerful functionaries.

A breakthrough came with the arrest of another IPS officer and Deputy Commissioner (Crime), Abhay Chudasama, a close confidant of Shah’s, against whom there are no fewer than 197 complaints of extortion and harassment. The Bureau also interrogated other Shah associates including Ajay Patel and Yashpal Chudasama (Abhay’s cousin), who are chairman and director of the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank, over which Shah exercises great influence. In a videographed statement, they confessed to extortion, ransom-taking and threatening witnesses on Shah’s behalf. Patel said he received Rs 70 lakhs in ransom for Shah, to whom he had the money delivered.

The net started closing in on Shah. Once the CBI, apparently armed with formidable evidence, summoned him and filed a formal first chargesheet against him and 14 others, the BJP went ballistic. It gratuitously decided to politicise the issue by terming the CBI “Congress Bureau of Investigation” and obfuscating the fact that the Supreme Court, not the CBI, had initiated the investigation. The BJP’s charge sounded hollow and hypocritical not least because it has itself demanded CBI investigations into recent controversies, including the telecom scam. Shah went absconding for two days, setting a disgraceful precedent for a high functionary.

The BJP’s shrill anti-CBI campaign and its utterly unconvincing defence of Shah, including his flagrant violation of the rule of law—which he is tasked to uphold—, has badly dented its credibility and is probably eroding its support within its core-constituency, the upper-caste urban middle class. After all, no other junior or senior Home minister in any state has behaved so abominably. And no Chief Minister has shielded one as brazenly as Modi.

Clearly, the BJP has very little choice. It has elevated Narendra Milosevic Modi to an exalted position as its topmost leader after LK Advani, and as its principal mascot and star-campaigner. And Shah is Modi’s most important protégé and prime disciple, the only Minister who enjoys his full confidence. Modi personally inducted Shah into his team and entrusted as many as 10 portfolios to him. Shah acts as Modi’s agent and spy in the Council of Ministers and sits on nine-tenths of all cabinet committees, more than any other Minister.

Personal proximity and loyalty apart, Modi has much to fear from a thorough and honest investigation into Shah’s role in Sohrabuddin’s killing and successful prosecution of the case. First, if Shah is proved complicit in the murder of Sohrabuddin, his wife Kauserbi, and Tulsiram Prajapati, and the subsequent cover-up, Modi will also be widely held morally and politically culpable. This will be extremely damaging—probably to the point of making Modi a political liability and pariah for the BJP outside Gujarat and putting paid to his possible future bid for the Prime Minister’s position, an ambition Modi nurtures and many BJP leaders endorse.

Second, in critical cases of postings and transfers of police officers, believed by the CBI to be responsible for Kauserbi’s rape and murder, and a year later, Prajapati’s killing, and also in the cover-up, Modi’s role was reportedly crucial. As junior Minister, Shah recommended the postings, and Modi approved the recommendations as his principal in the Home Ministry.

Of pivotal importance here were the transfer of Vanzara—credited with 15 “encounter” killings—as DIG Border Range just before Prajapati was killed, and OP Mathur’s posting as Ahmedabad’s police commissioner. (Mathur is accused of having erased a part of the record of an astounding 155 telephone calls between Shah and policemen such as Vanzara and Pandyan. However, the CBI has a copy of the original, untampered, record.)

Third, the CBI reportedly has evidence of Modi’s direct involvement in the Sohrabuddin cover-up through a “file noting” through which he instructed the posting of police officers Abhay Chudasama and NK Amin to the SIT, headed by Johri, just when it was to investigate a crime in which the two were suspects. (The Times of India, August 2). The noting says: “The composition of the SIT is being changed” “on the instructions” of the CM. This was done to keep track of the direction of the investigation so that critical information could be leaked.

Thus, Prajapati was killed in a fake encounter just a day before Johri was supposed to question him. Johri was also put under pressure to take the probe “in a wrong direction”, according to CBI sources. Johri was threatened that her husband, an Indian Forest Service officer, would be charged under the Official Secrets Act unless she “cooperates” with the government. In a secret note, she complained to the Supreme Court of “political pressure”. Yet, eventually, she made a misleading report. The Supreme Court reprimanded her for “not conducting the investigation in a fair manner”.

Whatever the accuracy of the CBI’s charges, four facts are incontrovertible. First, Shah, Vanzara and Company ran a major extraction racket in which they collected sums such as Rs 70 lakhs and Rs 40 lakhs from businessmen and builders for dropping trumped-up charges implicating them. For instance, brothers Raman and Dashrath Patel have testified before a magistrate that they were implicated in a firing case and for hiring underworld operators to settle personal rivalries. “To settle the matter, we paid Rs 60 lakhs to Vanzara, Rs 40 lakhs to Abhay Chudasama and Rs 70 lakhs to Amitbhai Shah ….” Ajay Patel confirmed to the CBI that he received Rs 70 lakh in three instalments on Shah’s behalf. There are other similar allegations.

Second, Sohrabuddin regularly collected ransom on behalf of Shah and Vanzara, but eventually got to know too much and had to be eliminated. Similarly, Kauserbi and Prajapati were witnesses to Sohrabuddin’s abduction and killing and were killed. Police officer NK Amin, who has applied to be approver, could add further evidence and corroborate many details regarding this.

Third, the Gujarat police cynically used nationalism and counter-terrorism as a cover behind which to commit sordid crimes. Appallingly, IPS officers took the lead in this. Perhaps in no other state have so many IPS officers been as criminally compromised as in Gujarat. Vanzara convened a press conference in November 2005 to announce that Sohrabuddin, a Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist who planned to assassinate Modi, was killed in an “encounter”.

This was part of an effort to build up Modi’s image as a heroic fighter against terrorism and threats to the nation—unlike the Congress, which coddles Afzal Guru. This only confirmed that patriotism had become became the proverbial last refuge of the scoundrel.

Fourth, Modi has demagogically tried to turn Shah’s indictment into an issue of Gujarat’s pride and accused the Centre of treating it like an “enemy state”. Modi and the BJP are playing for broke as they run their hysterical campaign with the utmost duplicity. It is hard to see how the public, including fence-sitters and even many BJP sympathisers, will not feel repelled by this.

In 2002, the BJP regrettably escaped well-deserved political punishment—and Modi, criminal prosecution—for Independent India’s worst state-sponsored anti-Muslim violence. Justice demands that they are brought to book at least for the lesser crimes that followed. Gujarat will remain a benighted state so long as the BJP rules it with an amalgam of communalism, criminality and unparalleled venality. Gujarat deserves better. So does India.