The buck stopped with Modi in 2002, and it stops with him now

24 July, 2022

We are not yet at the point where a Galileo has to kneel and apologise for claiming the earth moves around the sun. But we are getting there. A sinister silence is being imposed on public discourse. People are being made to think twice before they express the most ordinary of statements, the act of pointing out the errors of those in power is being deemed a crime, straightforward tweets are becoming the basis to lodge multiple first-information reports, and hatred is fomented in social media against those who question the current dispensation.

Meanwhile, people I have known to be unctuous cowards under previous regimes have learnt to sound bold when they echo this government. We need to heed them only because long before this government falls, their silence will inform us of its coming demise. For now they forget that there will be a time when they will be called to account, not for failing to speak the truth, but for echoing and propagating the falsehoods of hate, which this regime thrives on.

Among the truths they ask us to forget is the truth of what happened in 2002 in Gujarat. I go back to this because under previous governments it was necessary to reiterate the truth of what happened in the country in 1984. But those of the Congress, even at their worst, in their denials and their excuses, in their intellectual vacuity, were never as threatening as those in power now.

Those who pay obeisance to the current regime point to the recent Supreme Court judgment which, referring to the allegations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the 2002 Gujarat violence, stated, “…after going through the analysis done by the SIT of the concerned allegations, we have no hesitation in accepting such opinion that no case had been made out against the named offenders, much less to indicate being party to the hatching of larger criminal conspiracy to cause or precipitate mass violence across the State against the minority community during the relevant period.”

But there is a vast gap between the domain of the law which decides whether a case is made out on the basis of a laid down code and what we mean by culpability in ordinary life. If the ruling party cannot be held responsible for over a thousand deaths in violence spread over months, then we must suspend the very idea of accountability. Modi was the chief minister of the state, the police force answered to his government. We do not have a legal framework that defines command responsibility, but all of us know what it means to say, “The buck stops here.”

In 2004, 18 years ago, I wrote a column for Tehelka titled, “What is the Difference between Modi and Rajiv?” The question was asked in the context of the anti-minority violence in the country in 1984 and in 2002 and my answer was, essentially none. It was then aimed at Congress supporters. Today it is necessary to repeat the same statement for the legion of Modi supporters who proclaim his innocence over 2002, while holding the Congress responsible for the violence in 1984.

The parallels between what happened in 1984 and 2002—with Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister and Modi as chief minister, respectively—are stark. Speaking against the backdrop of the death toll in 1984, much higher than in Gujarat, Rajiv had said, “For some days, people have thought that India is shaking. But whenever a big tree falls, the ground shakes a little.”

After Godhra, Modi said, “It is natural that what happened in Godhra day before yesterday, where forty women and children were burnt alive, has shocked the country and the world. The people in that part of Godhra have had criminal tendencies. Earlier, these people had murdered women teachers. And now they have done this terrible crime for which a reaction is going on.”

Modi has not denied this particular statement, made in an interview to Sudhir Chaudhary, who was then in Zee News. The Special Investigation Team set up to inquire into the Gujarat violence, has stated in its report, “As regards the Zee TV interview of 01.03.2002 is concerned, Shri Modi has stated that after a period of eight years, he did not recollect the exact words, but he had always appealed only and only for peace. He (Shri Modi) had further stated that he had tried to appeal to the people to shun violence in straight and simple language. He had also stated that if his words cited in this question are considered in the correct perspective, then it would be evident that there is a very earnest appeal for people refraining from any kind of violence. He had denied all the allegations against him in this regard.”

This is a bizarre justification. What would be the correct perspective for such a statement? How is it an earnest appeal for peace? How can the chief minister of a state get away by claiming a set of people have criminal tendencies?

These statements by Modi and Rajiv reflect attempts by the heads of government to normalise violence directed against citizens simply because they share a religious identity with those responsible for any one event. It was the state which was responsible for Indira Gandhi’s security, and it was the state which was responsible for the protection of kar sevaks on a train in a communally heightened atmosphere. But the sickness of majoritarian mobs killing innocents was explained away as a reaction or the ground shaking a little. 

Many of the mobs “reacting” in 1984 and 2002, were joined by leaders and members from the organisations that Rajiv and Modi represented, the Congress and the Sangh Parivar, respectively. One would assume that organisations that ended up providing a number of participants in murderous mobs would have done some introspection, tried to examine whether the ideological impulses to murder that were shared by many of their cadre were actually fostered within? But this never happened.

As these mobs attacked members of minorities in different areas, the police, both in Delhi, and Gujarat, proved ineffectual. In Delhi, policemen helped disarm Sikhs before the mobs were left free to carry out murder, rape and plunder. In Gujarat, I point to a fact I have raised in the past but which has never been answered: “In the post-Godhra violence, 697 Muslims and 177 Hindus were killed, and in addition, another 170 people were killed in police firing. The numbers clearly suggest that, on the streets, Hindu mobs outnumbered any Muslims indulging in violence. Yet, of the 170 killed in police firing, 93 were Muslims. How did the police manage this?”

The parallels with Rajiv fade as we move away from 2002. For all the damage that he did in his only term as prime minister, he did not live out the logic of 1984 as coherently and consistently as Modi has lived out the logic of 2002.

The antipathy towards Muslims that has been articulated in the RSS from the time of KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar, has become part of the politics that has kept the BJP in power in Gujarat and then at the Centre. Modi’s election dogwhistles about Muslims have never stopped, and this has been reflected in what the country has become under him.

The growing alienation of Muslims from power is evident in their representation in Parliament and the state legislatures; the BJP has rarely even bothered to field Muslim candidates. The inability of the government to stop violence against Muslims, the ineptitude of the law-and-order machinery in failing to hold those who perpetrate violence against Muslims to account, is evident.

The road from the violence of 2002 to the television outburst against Islam by the former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma is direct. Let us not be caught in false equivalences—there is no comparison between hate targeted and directed by a representative of a ruling party that has enshrined communal bias in its governance for over eight years, and the noise made by a handful of extreme voices. 

The pretence of victimisation of a powerful majority by a disempowered minority has been with us since 2002, and this was the same pretence that was lived out by Sharma. Her sacking does not represent any real change in the way power is being exercised by the BJP. The culpability for the present climate of hate as the basis for our politics also lies with Modi.

The fervour of religion is no guarantor of truth. It took 359 years for the Pope to apologise to Galileo, but apologise he did. If the proponents of Hindutva stare hard enough at the national emblem, if they look past Modi posing in front of the badly carved lions atop the new Parliament building, they will read the words Satyamev Jayate. Just because the currency continues to shrink under Modi, it does not mean that the words printed on it have lost their meaning.