All over again, timed with the run up to voting, there's plenty of uproar over Gujarat. A Times of India journalist called Dhananjay Mahapatra wrote a report (NGOs, Teesta spiced up Gujarat riot incidents: SIT, April 14) which casts doubt on a number of aspects of the violence in Gujarat in 2002.
In his report, Mahapatra mentions the Special Investigation Team that has been looking into the violence. On April 13, writes Mahapatra, "the SIT led by former CBI Director RK Raghavan told the Supreme Court on Monday that [Teesta Setalvad] exaggerated macabre tales of wanton killings." (Note the impression he gives that Raghavan himself was in Court on Monday to say this). Mahapatra's report also tells us several things that Gujarat counsel Mukul Rohatgi said in Court.
Among others, Mahapatra makes these allegations:
* 22 witnesses who had submitted "identical affidavits" regarding the carnage were found to have been "tutored" by Teesta Setalvad and had "not actually witnessed" incidents during the violence.
* The SIT also found "no truth" in three "widely publicised" incidents:
- that a pregnant woman, Kausar Banu, had been gangraped and killed, her body slit open to remove her foetus.
- that dead bodies had been dumped in a well in Naroda Patia
- the police botched up investigations into the killing of some British nationals who got caught in the violence.
Mahapatra ends this part of the report with this direct quote from Rohatgi:
"On a reading of the report, it is clear that horrendous allegations made by the NGOs were false. Stereotyped affidavits were supplied by a social activist and the allegations made in them were found untrue."
Right here there are questions about Mahapatra's news report. From his own writing, it is clear that it is Rohatgi who claims that Setalvad and NGOs spiced up the incidents. Not the SIT.
Mahapatra also reports that the SC Bench "swiftly told" Rohatgi that regardless of his particular reading of the SIT report:
- it was the efforts of the SIT that had resulted in action against "many more accused" than Rohatgi's client, the Gujarat Government, had managed.
- there was "no room" for allegations and counter-allegations now. "In riot cases," the Judges observed, "the more the delay, there is likelihood of falsity creeping in."
That last observation, about falsity, is worth keeping in mind as we try to make sense of all this.
Naturally, various pundits with their own dislike for Teesta Setalvad, her NGO and their methods, immediately offered their various comments on all this. That's their prerogative, of course. But it's interesting to note that the one thing they picked on from Mahapatra's report to comment on was his assertion that there was "no truth" in the Kausar Banu murder. (Swapan Dasgupta, for example, uses Mahapatra's report to say that the stories of disembowelled pregnant women "appear to have been the product of warped minds"; he doesn't even mention Mahapatra's other claims, for example about the affidavits. See his Apologise to Gujarat).
CJP, Sahmat and Setalvad put out their own responses to Mahapatra's report. They make these points:
* Mahapatra says the "SIT led by former CBI Director RK Raghavan told the Supreme Court" about Setalvad's supposed falsehoods. Yet nobody from the SIT, certainly not Raghavan, was at the SC on April 13 to tell the SC anything.
* The SIT submitted a report to the SC in March 2007, whose contents are not public.
* The Gujarat government produced its own comment on the SIT report, and this is what Rohatgi tried to read out in Court. (Not the report itself).
Faced with this, Mahapatra himself issued a rebuttal (Report based on SIT findings, April 16) in which he says his paper has a copy of the SIT report.
He quotes from it. Most of his rebuttal is about statements by 19 (not 22, his earlier claim) witnesses. They came before the investigating officer with previously prepared statements that Setalvad and advocate Tirmiji had helped them prepare. Nowhere in his rebuttal does Mahapatra repeat his earlier claim that they were "identical affidavits".
Mahapatra goes on to say that the IO explained to these witnesses that according to law, he could not take these statements on record, and that he had to "write the statement ... after interrogating them personally." When the IO did this, he found "discrepancies" and "contradictions" between the previously prepared statements (which, let me repeat, he wasn't considering anyway) and the ones he wrote down. This prompted six witnesses to now say that they had themselves prepared their earlier statements, not Setalvad and Tirmiji.
Mahapatra comments: "In other words, [these] witnesses changed their version about who had prepared their signed statements." The "signed statements" that, let me repeat once more, the IO was not going to consider anyway.
That these witnesses "changed their version" about irrelevant statements, and the explanation of the way the law requires witness statements to be made is, according to Mahapatra's own rebuttal, the sum total of his allegations against Setalvad and her NGO.
Repeat: the sum total.
But note the omission from Mahapatra's rebuttal. He makes no mention of the three "widely publicised" incidents he originally claimed the SIT had found "no truth" in. No mention of British nationals, no mention of bodies dumped in a well, no mention of Kausar Banu.
Mahapatra simply lets those serious allegations hang in the wind. On Swapan Dasgupta's site, one commenter has already called the Kausar Banu murder "a myth". Better, these years later, to pretend it's a myth than to actually seek to deliver justice for horrible crimes.
But it was no myth. On December 12 2003, for example, two separate witnesses told the Nanavati Commission about the evisceration and murder of Kausar Banu. That deposition was reported in a news item titled "Nanavati panel hears stories of rape, murder". Where did that news item appear? In Dhananjay Mahapatra's own newspaper, the Times of India (see Nanavati panel hears stories of rape, murder, Dec 13 2003).
Should we now denounce those two witnesses as "warped minds"? What about the Nanavati Commission itself?
Here's just one more data point on this. Yesterday (April 19), the Hindustan Times carries an article by a writer called Chitralekha. (I can't find the article online; this is the epaper version which will need you to log in first).
In it, she refers to "Ahmedabad killer Bhanu Chhara, remembered by witnesses for the macabre murder of Naroda resident Kauser Bano and her nine-month-old foetus."
So let's sum this up quickly. The bloodshed across Gujarat in 2002 -- from people burned alive in a train to people slaughtered in their homes -- is a matter of public record. It is hardly surprising that there are those who try, as the years pass, to turn that public record on its head.
Yet this is itself the reason justice must be delivered to the victims of the killings of 2002. We know the SIT and the Supreme Court will not be distracted by assorted attempts to deny that bloodshed, and will work to deliver that justice.
(Slightly different versions crossposted on Citizens for Peace and Kafila).
(Also see Sundeep Dougal's FAQ on this episode).