When Narendra Modi won the Gujarat state elections in the winter of 2002, it was argued by many of his colleagues that this finally settles all questions of his culpability, even if they ever existed, regarding the unfortunate rioting that took place earlier that year in Gujarat. This argument was legitimately critiqued by opponents of Modi on the grounds that electoral victories, or defeats for the matter, do not in any way settle questions of legal nature. The only place to settle legal accountability is the courts, which do not factor in any mass support a political leader may or may not have.
This difference between moral and political accountability on the one hand and legal accountability on the other is important to understand. In democracies, the only arena where moral and political accountability is settled is the arena of elections. The electorate weighs in all the factors and then casts their vote. In UP elections of 2012, for example, the electorate factored in the record of Mayawati government on being able to deliver on law and order but fail massively on corruption, and on balance decided to vote her out. What has the electorate of Gujarat done? In three successive elections after the 2002 riots, they have voted in Modi by a decisive mandate each time. On balance, between Modi’s ability as an administrator during the 2002 riots and his record in governance overall, the electorate of Gujarat has overwhelmingly endorsed Modi. Any political or moral accountability has thus been settled not just once but thrice.
But what about legal accountability? The verdict by the metropolitan magistrate on 26th December 2013, accepting SIT closure report and rejecting Zakia Jafri’s protest petition, has settled that question too. Or has it?
Consider some of the well-known charges against Modi and his government regarding 2002. That he delayed calling the Army by three days and thus gave free hand to rioters. As court has now proved, rioting started on 28th February 2002, and within hours, on the same day, the Army columns were air lifted and were on ground by early hours of the next day, that is 1st March 2002. This despite the fact that the Indian Army was on eyeball-to-eyeball biggest war mobilisation against Pakistan after the 1971 war. Or consider the charge that dead bodies of the victims of the innocent men, women and children, burnt down in the Sabarmati express, were paraded in Ahmadabad and that this incited passions. As the court has now proved, this is an entirely concocted charge, as the bodies left Godhra in the night on February 27, reached Ahmadabad in the early morning hours, and then were handed over to respective families soon after. Or consider the much reported gruesome incident of a pregnant woman raped and the fetus ripped apart from her womb. As another court verdict has proved, such an incident never took place.
Alternatively, consider some of the leading personalities arraigned against Modi and his government regarding the 2002 riots. Teesta Setalavad, the toast of the left-liberal activist gang, was awarded the Padma Shri and Rajiv Gandhi National Sadhavana Award for her activism. Today, she stands accused of perjury, of concocting evidence, of dictating false affidavits and of misusing funds collected in the name of riot victims. Residents of Gulbarg society have banned her entry on account of some of these accusations. Or consider Sanjiv Bhatt; as SIT recorded in its closure report, now accepted by a court of law, Bhatt laid about his presence in the February 27 2002 meeting, fabricated facts, concocted intelligence reports and submitted a false affidavit in the Supreme Court. Or consider Zakia Jafri herself; between 2002 and 2006, she appeared in front of multiple law enforcing authorities and never once named Modi. In March 2002 statement, she actually praised the police for timely action and saving lives of many including her. In August 2003 she appeared before Nanavati commission but did not make any allegations against Modi. In September 2003, she filed a petition in Supreme Court and again did not make any allegations. It was only in 2006, four years after the incident that she came with the allegations for the first time. But in an unprecedented action, when Zakia Jafri was examined by SIT in November 2008, she again failed to state any of the facts or allegations against Modi!
As the court has now given a clean chit to Modi, after a decade long campaign of calumny against him, should this not settle the legal question too? Zakia and her advisers have been on record that they will appeal against this verdict in higher courts. Eventually, one way or the other, this case will reach the Supreme Court. How should the Supreme Court finally dispose off this case?
One of the founding principles of criminal jurisprudence is the presumption of innocence till proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. In routine criminal cases, most of which are of private nature, judgment of guilty or innocent are delivered and case is closed. But how about the case involving Modi? Is this a routine case? As the SIT closure report, now accepted by the court, proves, every charge ever made against Modi was concocted and every witness ever produced against Modi was false. Never in history of democratic India, has one man been so systematically besmirched through a campaign of calumny and falsehood. All the levers of the establishment, be it dubious NGOs and activists, compromised sections of the media or corrupt and dishonest members of the bureaucracy, were used with one express purpose – to embroil Modi in a false case.
This campaign against Modi has not been that against just one man but it became an ideological calling card in the polity of India. It can be convincingly argued that the might of the falsehood unleashed against Modi was so immense, that a host of political powers used it as an ideological prop to further their politics. On the strength of this falsehood elections were fought, reputations of dubious characters were built, national and international awards were won. Such people, who built a public perception for themselves as fighting for the riot victims and against Modi, built an important role for themselves in influencing the national public discourse. That discourse has had debilitating influence on the larger national interest.
In some measure, the activities of all these characters gained legitimacy because the Supreme Court’s dramatic intervention of appointing a SIT to investigate a chief minister in office. This innovation of appointing a SIT was a first in history of India. The Supreme Court was driven by the desire to deliver justice to the riot victims. But does the Supreme Court not have a sense to deliver justice to an innocent man too? Will that justice be delivered by merely declaring him not guilty as happens in all routine criminal cases? But this was not a routine case.
The Supreme Court accepted this itself when it deviated from the routine by its dramatic intervention. Principles of natural justice demand that when declaring the man innocent, against a decade of falsehood, the Supreme Court make a similar dramatic intervention too. Only such an intervention will have the effect of decisively reversing a decade of falsehood. That decisive intervention must be a judicial innovation too, just like the SIT was. When the case finally reaches the Supreme Court, the court ought to declare Modi as innocent by delivering a judicial apology to him. Only that will serve the cause of natural justice.
This article was originally published in DNA web edition on 27th Dec 2013. Here is the link: