Asghar Ali Engineer
(Secular Perspective 01-15 June 2003)
Justice G.T. Nanavati who has been investigating Godhra incident and the Gujarat riot that followed recently said that he has so far found no evidence that the state machinery and police were involved in Gujarat communal violence. Justice Nanavati has given this statement to the press and also spoke to a T.V. channel on these lines. He was quoted by a news agency as saying, “Evidence recorded so far did not indicate any serious lapse on the part of the police or administration in controlling the communal clashes. When there was outcry against his statement he gave a clarification on phone to Indian Express that “I had said that so far no serious allegation had come on record against police and the administration during the district level hearings.” He further explained that “This does not include the hearings conducted with regard to Godhra incident and affidavits which have been filed before the Commission.”
The Commission was appointed on March 6, 2001 and the Commission has received so far over 3000 affidavits from riot victims. According to news paper reports Nanavati said that some of these affidavits included allegations against a few police officers from some districts.”
Such a statement from the inquiring judge at an unfinished stage is quite improper. It can give wrong impression and the accused can even treat it as a ‘clean chit’ in their favour. The legal community of Gujarat was also of the opinion that this was improper on the part of Justice Nanavati. Former chief justice of the Gujarat High Court B.J. Diwan maintained, Nanavati should not have made the statement.
As a retired judge of the Supreme Court Justice Nanavati should know better that before completing an inquiry and without thorough inquiry no such comments could be made. It can vitiate even further findings, as victims may not come forward to record their evidence. The victims are already under tremendous pressure not to name anyone and if head of the Commission gives such statement it may further put them under pressure.
The case of Best Bakery in Baroda is quite illustrative in this regard. The main eye- witness has gone back on her earlier statement obviously under intense pressure and threats. According to The Indian Express (dated 20th May, 2005) “Till last Saturday every body knew Zahira Sheikh as the key witness in the Best Bakery case. It was Vadodra’s most gruesome incident in last year’s communal violence. Twelve people were burnt alive. Zahira, an eye witness, had cried, had made loud representations and demanded justice on several occasions. Including when the then national Human Rights Commission Chairman Justice J.S.Verma and Chief Election Commissioner J.M.Lyngdoh came visiting.”
After turning hostile Zahira has disappeared. She and her family refuse to have interaction with those around them. Even her elder sister refused to divulge where her sister is and also refuse to give her own name. Zahira was seen with BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastav in the court premises and this led to several eyebrows being raised. One can well understand what was cooking and how witnesses are being pressured, lured or threatened to weaken the cases against the accused in burning, looting and murdering cases. In such atmosphere of fear and threat justice Nanavati’s kind of statement can further discourage key witnesses from appearing before the commission.
It is not unknown in ordinary murder cases how criminals exercise intense pressure on eye- witnesses not to give witness. In this case the whole might of state is involved and how they can threaten and pressurise is not beyond imagination. Not that witnesses can not be found for involvement of police and state machinery in Gujarat carnage but people in many cases are unwilling to talk for fear of consequences.
Justice Nanavati should know as an experienced Supreme Court judge how things work in India. He should have also known the over all situation in Gujarat before rushing to the press making such statement. Much has appeared in media as to what happened in Gujarat after Godhra incident. Not one but several retired high court and Supreme Court judges had visited Gujarat and had known first hand about the happenings there. An expert panel of judges from Supreme Court and high courts headed by Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer has even prepared a comprehensive report entitled Crime against Humanity detailing involvement of police and state machinery and the ruling party.
Justice J.S. Verma, the Chairman, National Human Rights Commission, himself had passed severe strictures against the State machinery and the way it handled communal violence in Gujarat. Besides these eminent judges hundreds of eminent citizens and concerned people had visited and prepared reports of Gujarat carnage and complicity of state machinery. The former direct general of police, Maharashtra and Governor of Punjab, Julio Ribeiro had strongly castigated the Gujarat police and its role in controlling communal violence.
Mr. Ribeiro in an interview to the Times of India dated 10/9/2002 had said, in a reply to a question “What in your opinion was the reason for the failure of the Police in Gujarat” had said, “The top brass must take the blame. I did not sense a whiff of leadership from top police officers. Senior officers have been reduced to mute spectators as they have little control over the force. Generally, senior police officers discipline errant subordinates by transferring them to insignificant wings. But in Gujarat, officers from the subordinate ranks manipulate all the transfers and postings at the police station level, which is the cutting edge of the force.” This speaks volumes about the role of police in Gujarat and is quite damning for top police leadership.
He also commented in the same interview that many people told him that the police were recording absolutely incorrect FIRs. “I (Ribeiro) met a respectable Hindu gentleman who said that the police did not take down the names of the rioters he had seen and wrote that it was a group of unidentified people. If people who have seen their mothers and sisters raped and burnt before their eyes have no hope of getting justice, they will all turn into terrorists and why are we talking about ISI and Pakistan when we are doing their job for them by creating terrorists?”
This damning evidence of police inaction and involvement in Gujarat carnage should have been taken notice of by the honourable judge before he made his pre-mature comments in the public.
Even if it is true that Justice Nanavati had not received complaints about police behaviour during hearings in the districts other than Ahmedabad and Baroda, it was improper for him to comment on the role of police and administration in a hurry. It is overall situation, which matters, not piecemeal evidence. An ‘investigator’ much more a judicial officer of highest rank, has to keep overall situation in mind before commenting. It is also not true that there are no complaints against police in the areas covered so far by Justice Nanavati Commission i.e. Panchmahal district and other districts except Ahmedabad and Vadodra where worst incidents took place.
There are serious complaints, particularly against police in Panchmahal and other districts also. I have myself visited these areas and heard heart-rending stories from victims themselves and their bitter complaints against police inaction or complicity. In the Eral village of Panchmahal district a woman called Madina told inconsolably how they hid in the nearby fields for two three days and then tried to escape from there but were caught by the mob and her daughter and niece Shabana and Suhana were raped and killed and police was no where to be seen. They made desperate calls to the police to rescue them. In fact her entire statement is on camera with us.
There is another heart-rending story from Randhikpur village in Dohad district. A woman called Bilqis aged 19 and her family sensed danger and phoned police and got usual reply they can do nothing about it. The family kept on hiding here and there and at last was caught by the mob on 2nd March. Bilqis – three month pregnant was raped by three men and taken to be dead, regained her consciousness after sometime and survived. However, 14 members of her family were massacred and her 3 year- old child was among them.
She asked police to record her statement but police, after dilly-dallying recorded wrong statement and took her thumb impression. She was suspicious and when collector visited her refugee camp she drew his attention. Collector repremanded police and asked them to record proper FIR and file case on the basis of second FIR. However, meanwhile the Collector was transferred (as all good, conscientious officers were transferred by Narnedra Modi) and police filed the case on the basis of first FIR and destroyed the case. This too is on record on camera with us.
How then justice Nanavati drew his conclusion? The Asian Age also has produced in its edition of 22nd May 2003 has reproduced under the caption “What’s Nanavati talking about? Here is proof.” in original Gujarati an affidavit filed before the Commission about the police complicity and inaction when the mob cut off two hands of a Muslim woman. Such an attitude on the part of inquiry commission can vitiate the whole inquiry and discourage people from appearing before it.
The head or members of inquiry commission should not make any public comment before the inquiry is finally over. It is unfortunate that Justice Nanavati chose to speak pre-mature on the subject of his inquiry thus lowering the dignity of the commission and making people loose confidence in his impartial nature of inquiry.
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Posted 2 June 2003
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