A decade-long inquiry and many more to go?

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Eighteen extensions, 10 years. And the Justice Nanavati Commission has still nothing to show, reports Abhishek Bhalla

 Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Sabarmati Express: CM Modi with former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Photo: Trupti Patel

THE NANAVATI Commission, probing the 2002 Gujarat riots, has been given yet another extension of six months by the Gujarat government — the 18th for the commission since it was set up in 2002. The commission was set up in 2002 to inquire into the Sabarmati Express burning incident on 27 February 2002 in which 59 pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were burnt alive in Godhra, and the ensuing riots.

Inordinate delays, overlooking of crucial evidence such as phone call records, ignoring witness statements, denying crossexamination of the powerful have again delayed justice to thousands who lost their loved ones in the riots of February 2002.

Ten years after it was set up, the two-member commission led by Justice GT Nanavati has failed to finalise a report on the facts and circumstances of the 2002 riots — one of the worst pogroms in independent India. In eight years, the commission has not summoned Chief Minister Narendra Modi even once to inquire into their alleged role — despite rights activists crying foul. It did not act even after the 2004 notification of the Gujarat government that asked the commission to probe the role of the CM and his team.

“The government had received representations for inquiry into the role and conduct of the chief minister and others. The government was of the opinion that it was necessary to widen the scope of terms of reference of the aforesaid commission in public interest so as to look into the role and conduct of the chief minister as well as other ministers,” reads the notification, dated 20 July 2004. Curiously, the scope of the terms of reference was revised after the UPA-1 government was formed at the Centre on May 2004.

While the latest report on the Godhra train incident says it was a conspiracy by local Muslims, it remains silent on the other two crucial aspects — facts and circumstances surrounding the post-Godhra riots and the alleged role of the chief minister. Once again, the commission has missed its latest deadline of 31 March 2012.

Rights groups and activists blame the tardy and biased approach of the commission for the poor probe. Relatives of the riot victims allege that there are functional problems in the commission.

“By not summoning Modi despite strong grounds, and ignoring crucial evidence, the commission is unable to unravel the truth. This raises serious questions on the commission’s intentions,” says Mukul Sinha, a lawyer representing Jan Shakti Manch, an NGO that has been fighting for justice of the post-Godhra riot victims.

“Who was responsible for the violence that took so many lives? Does the commission want to know the truth? The way it is working, I think we are far from the truth,” he adds.

The NGO sent two applications to the commission in 2007 and another in 2009 pleading that Narendra Modi be summoned as stated in the government notification of 2004. The commission turned down both applications in 2009, calling the allegation against Modi vague and based on unwarranted assumptions.

Apart from not summoning the Gujarat chief minister, advocate Sinha blames the commission for not allowing him to cross-examine certain witnesses — former ministers IK Jadeja, Gordhan Zadafiya, private assistant to the chief minister Om Prakash, officers on special duty to the CM Tanmay Mehta and Sanjay Bhavsar.

“The reason given was that permission for cross-examination was at the discretion of the commission,” says Sinha. The commission was given records of calls made by the three members of the CM staff to Jaideep Patel, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader who played a key role in the post-Godhra carnage. Patel is also an accused in the riot cases.

“Ministers like Zadafiya and Jadeja held important positions,” elaborates Sinha. “We should have been permitted to grill the people at the helm of affairs for the truth to come out.”

Evidence in form of call details to prove that the rioters were in constant touch with politicians made available to the commission has not been analysed. Rahul Sharma, superintendent of police in Bhavnagar during the 2002 riots, had given these records to the commission. It was the proactive role played by Sharma that resulted in the mob being neutralised. Ironically, he was transferred to the police control room in Ahmedabad soon after. While assisting in the investigations into the Naroda Patiya massacre, Sharma collected call records of some crucial people in Ahmedabad.

Sinha calls this data a “goldmine of crucial evidence” that the commission has ignored. “The same data was used by the Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team (SIT) to make certain arrests but strangely, the probe panel has not taken it into consideration,” he says.

‘ Rs 36 crore has already been spent on the commission, but the final report is still not out,’ says advocate KG Pandit

Sharma was later chargesheeted under the Official Secrets Act for keeping the call details with him without permission as he was later moved out of the probe.

Police officer Sanjiv Bhatt, who has been in the line of fire ever since he took on Narendra Modi for his government’s inaction during the 2002 riots, has also raised doubts on the state’s role in influencing the Nanavati probe.

In a letter written to President Pratibha Patil, Bhatt has questioned the CM’s role in the adequacy of measures taken to prevent the violence.

“The deliberate exclusion of Reference (c) has ensured that the role and conduct of the then chief minister and/or any other minister(s) in his council of ministers, police officers, other individuals and organisations is not examined with respect to the adequacy of administrative measures taken to prevent and deal with disturbances in Godhra and subsequent disturbances in the state,” states the letter dated 6 April 2012. The President’s Secretariat has forwarded the letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In the letter, Bhatt presses for a commission of inquiry to look into the role of the chief minister and his Cabinet in failing to deal with the violence. He also alleges that the state government is acting in a partisan manner by not allowing the commission to function properly. He further states that officials of the state government have been tutoring witnesses, who have to depose before the commission.

SINHA AND Bhatt are not alone in raising questions on the commission’s functioning; a public interest litigation has also been filed by one Jignesh Goswami on the delays in submitting the report. “In the past 10 years, Rs 36 crore has been spent on the commission, but the final report is still not out. Public money is being spent ruthlessly,” says KG Pandit, lawyer for the PIL.

“The last deadline was 31 March 2012, but now it has been extended by another six months. We want to know on what grounds the extension was granted,” he adds. TEHELKA contacted government pleader PK Jani, who has been appearing in the matter, but he refused to comment.

In a major setback for the rights groups, the apex court refused to entertain a petition seeking summoning of chief minister Modi. The petitioner withdrew the petition after the court showed little inclination to entertain it.

But the proceedings have created more doubts because the Supreme Court initially issued notices to the commission and the Gujarat government on 19 March, but a week later, the apex court made a U-turn stating that it is for the commission to decide who to summon, and passing any order to such an effect will amount to judicial overreach.

Advocate General Kamal Trivedi has been representing the Gujarat government and the commission in the court. Even after repeated calls and text messages, he was not available for comment.

“The court said that there was some misunderstanding while issuing notices,” said Shreeji Bhavsar, the lawyer who filed the petition. “We are wondering what could have happened. We don’t expect such misunderstandings on the part of the Supreme Court.”

Abhishek Bhalla is a Senior Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
abhishek@tehelka.com

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