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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 42

Nanavati Commission and Gujarat 2002


Wednesday 8 October 2008, by SC


With the economic crisis in the United States refusing to be defused, latest reports from Washington show that top Congressional and White House officials, stunned by the House of Representatives’ 228-205 rejection of a massive $ 700 billion rescue plan for the US economy on September 29, are desperately trying to structure a new, revised bailout proposal. Meanwhile PM Manmohan Singh (who could not witness the full materialisation of his pet project—the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement—when he was in the US due to the critical situation in Wall Street and had to remain content by offering fulsome tributes to the US President while conveying the Indian people’s “deep love” for George W. Bush for having radically transformed Indo-US ties and given a strategic content to them) has sounded a necessary note of warning: he told Le Figaro that India cannot remain “untouched by the financial turmoil in the US”, adding that the nation’s capacity to finance development “will be affected and exports compromised if major economies go into recession”; though he subsequently called for urgent measures to insulate the country from the baneful effects of the meltdown, the fact is, as the PM initially observed in the aforementioned interview, “our value markets are opened to the world and, if they are affected, this will affect our capacity to finance our development”. Undoubtedly a cause for worry, anxiety and concern despite the optimists’ assurances to prevent the spread of panic.

The Indo-US nuclear deal is about to get the green signal in the US Senate but all available indications suggest there will be stringent conditions attached. Howsoever much the officials continue to assert that this would not have any impact on the 123 Agreement which would not be changed, it is clear that the final outcome of the exercises in the NSG and the Capitol Hill has failed to allay the fears voiced by the BJP on the negative consequences following a fresh nuclear test by India as a result of the deal or the apprehensions of the Left on the adverse implications of the Hyde Act and other domestic US laws on ensuring uninterrupted fuel supply as well as the conduct of an independent foreign policy, thereby hurting our national interests.

However, as far as the domestic scenario is concerned, what is a matter of serious concern is the first part of the Justice G.T. Nanavati Commission report, which was tabled in the Gujarat Assembly on September 25 and thereafter became public. The Commission was set up by the Gujarat Government to probe both the fire in the Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27, 2002 and the post-Godhra riots in the State in March that year. The first part of the report deals excessively with the train incident and the Commission has said that the second part of the report covering the subsequent riots would be submitted separately by December 31, 2008. Scanning the first part of the report, the media has pointed out the following:

...while the report makes it clear that “there is absolutely no evidence to show that either the Chief Minister and/or any other Minister(s) in his Council of Ministers or Police Officers had played anyrole in the Godhra incident”, it goes on to give a clean chit to the government on what followed.

It says there is no evidence of “any lapse in providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to victims of the communal riots and in the matter of not complying with the recommendations and direction given by the National Human Rights Commission”.

In other words, the Modi Government has been absolved even before the second part of the report is tabled.

(“In Part 1, Nanavati concludes Part 2: gives Modi Govt, cops clean riots chit”, The Indian Express, September 26, 2008, p.1)

The Nanavati Commission attributes the fire in the Sabarmati Express’ coach no. S-6 (that killed 59 kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya) to a pre-planned conspiracy involving “some individuals”. This goes against the conclusion drawn by the Justice U.C. Banerjee Committee probing the train fire—that the fire was an accident. Which of these are we to accept?

“Gujarat’s Forensic Science Laboratory had conducted a study of the Godhra train burning and concluded that the inflammable liquid that caused the fire was spread from inside, not outside the coach... Both the Banerjee Committee and Forensic Laboratory versions of the train fire are contradicted by the Nanavati Commission’s version. Which of these versions, then, do we take as definitive?

(“It’s Not Over Yet”, editorial, The Times of India, September 27, 2008, p. 20)

That is doubtless a major question, But more important is the stand of the National Human Rights Commission. Justice J.S. Verma, who headed the Commission during the 2002 Gujarat carnage, has told the media:
It is not correct and, in fact, far from the truth that the Gujarat State Government adhered to the NHRC reports and recommendations. Even a bare perusal of the numerous recommendations the Commission made at the time makes that clear.

He further opined:

What makes the observations made by the Nanavati Commission appear more surprising is that it took six-and-a-half years of laboured and intensive effort by the Commission to arrive at this conclusion. Only someone very naive could have arrived at the conclusion that the State Government complied with the recommendations made by the NHRC.

Suffice it to reproduce some passages from the “NHRC’s Preliminary Comments and recommenda-tions on the Gujarat Situation” formulated after the visit of a team of the Commission to Gujarat and following a meeting of the NHRC in the Capital on April 1, 2002. This document was subsequently published in Mainstream (April 13, 2002).

The Commission would like to observe that the tragic events that have occurred have serious implications for the country as a whole, affecting both its sense of self-esteem and the esteem in which it is held in the comity of nations. Grave questions arise of fidelity to the Constitution and to treaty obligations. There are obvious implications in respect of the protection of civil and political rights, as well as of economic, social and cultural rights in the State of Gujarat as also the country more widely, there are implications for trade, investment, tourism and employment. Not without reason have both the President and the Prime Minister of the country expressed their deep anguish at what has occurred, describing the events as a matter of national shame. But most of all, the recent events have resulted in the violation of the Fundamental Rights to the liberty, equality and the dignity of citizens of India as guaranteed in the Constitution. And that, above all, is the reason for the continuing concern of the Commission.

The Commission is constrained to observe that a serious failure of intelligence and action by the State Government marked the events leading to the Godhra tragedy and the subsequent deaths and destruction that occurred. On the face of it, in the light of the history of communal violence in Gujarat, the question must arise whether the principle of ‘res ipsa loquitur’ (‘the affair speaking for itself’) should not apply in this case in assessing the degree of State responsibility in the failure to protect the life, liberty, equality and dignity of the people of Gujarat.

Referring to the Gujarat Government’s claim that “major incidents of violence were contained within the first 72 hours”, the NHRC noted:
The Commission considers it would be naive for it to subscribe to the view that the situation was brought under control within the first 72 hours. Violence continues in Gujarat as of the time of writing these proceedings. There was a pervasive sense of insecurity prevailing in the State at the time of the team’s visit to Gujarat. The was most acute among the victims of the successive tragedies, but it extended to all segments of society, including to two Judges of the High Court of Gujarat, one sitting and the other retired, who were compelled to leave their own homes because of the vitiated atmosphere. There could be no clearer evidence of the failure to control the situation.

What do these indicate? The role of the State Government in the Gujarat happenings of 2002 was definitely not beyond reproach. As a correspondent wrote as early as the first week of March 2002,
...the Prime Minister must realise that what has happened in Gujarat is not abstract, amorphous violence but the targeted killing of Muslim citizens with the tacit backing of the State administration. Godhra was a terrible crime but the government at least did not help the murderers; what happened afterwards, however, suggests official complicity. Unless the guilty are punished, the Central Government will have relinquished its moral right to hold office.

(‘Carnage in Gujarat’ by Siddharth Varadarajan, The Times of India, March 6, 2002)

Nevertheless, the Nanavati Commission’s is not the last word. What is more, we would have to wait for the second part of its report (which is due to be submitted by December 31). Around the same time the Special Investigation Team (SIT), appointed by the Supreme Court to probe the entire happenings in the State at that period, is to file its report, As underscored by several dispassionate observers, any objective study of the developments at that time in the State cannot absolve the Gujarat Government of its responsibility behind whatever then happened there. That reality cannot be concealed under any pretext.

In the wake of the latest developments—the persisting attacks by the Hindu communal forces on Christians in Orissa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu in particular as well as the stereotyping of Muslims after the recent bomb blasts in Delhi and elsewhere (as seen from the incident at Batla House in the Capital’s Jamia Nagar)—it is imperative to bring out that reality once again for a fresh exposure of the ugly face of the majoritarian offensive against the country’s secular democracy. Let us not forget that the life of the Father of the Nation, whose birth anniversary we observe this week, was brutally cut short by that very offensive sixty years ago.

October 1 S.C.

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