By Ashish Khetan
08 Sept 2012
I WAS over the moon the day TEHELKA’s six-month-long undercover operation on Gujarat riots was scheduled to be aired on AajTak and Headlines Today and couldn’t sleep the previous night. The AajTak editor, QW Naqvi, had called the programme ‘Operation Kalank’ — a blot on the nation and democracy. I remember Tarun Tejpal, TEHELKA’s editor-in-chief, go on about how our investigation was going to change the narrative of Gujarat riots and the politics around it.
After all, what we had achieved was groundbreaking. Rioters, conspirators, public prosecutors, Sangh Parivar leaders and a BJP MLA, were all caught on tape confessing to their roles in the 2002 massacre and the systemic subversion of justice in its aftermath. How women and children were hacked and burnt to death, how Ehsaan Jafri was lynched and set on fire, how women were raped, a foetus impaled on a sword straight out of the mother’s womb, how the police had assisted the rioters, how ministers were taking a blow-by-blow account of the ongoing massacre from them, how witnesses were bought or intimidated into silence, how evidence was destroyed, how judges were transferred to secure bail for rioters. All of this was said on record by the very men who did it.
It was unprecedented. Never before in the history of Indian journalism had there been a reportage that had caught killers, rapists and rioters giving a graphic account of their crimes. The first-hand accounts left little doubt that it was a State-sponsored pogrom. And it was all in the can.
We had also nailed the real story of the Godhra train burning. The star police witnesses were caught on camera telling how police had tutored them to give false testimonies and framed a spontaneous communal riot into a cold-blooded conspiracy. They confessed they were party to a police conspiracy, in which respected Muslim leaders of Godhra were falsely implicated to justify Narendra Modi’s “action-reaction” theory.
We, at TEHELKA, were convinced our story would result in a nation-wide uproar. We had over sixty hours of unedited video recordings. We thought the lies of the Modi administration on the Godhra train burning incident would be exposed. We thought that people would demand immediate action. Modi would be forced to resign. The killers would be put behind bars. And victims would get justice.
How wrong we were!
The story was aired on October 2007, on AajTak, for over five hours. Spokespersons from different parties came on TV and reeled off the usual platitudes. The next day some newspapers carried it as a front-page story.
Honestly, on a personal level, I was expecting awards and recognition. But what followed devastated me as a journalist. The Gujarat state election was round the corner and people — which included some responsible human rights activists and Muslim leaders — started a whisper campaign that the sting operation had been orchestrated and sponsored by Narendra Modi himself. The Congress party, which we thought would make our story a national issue, instead tried its best to skirt the revelations made in the TEHELKA tapes. A few Congress leaders even floated the conspiracy theory that as the Congress party was all set to trounce Modi in the upcoming Assembly election, Modi had hired TEHELKA to whip up the communal sentiments of the Hindus by way of inflammatory statements of the riot-accused. On the other hand, the BJP was accusing us of having conducted the sting at the Congress’ behest.
‘We drove Muslims into a khadda and killed them. After that, I called up the home minister and Jaideep Patel...’
BABU BAJRANGI, caught on sting
Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi made a statement in Parliament suggesting that the sting operation was the result of a conspiracy hatched by some BJP leaders sitting in Delhi. He even defended the Gujarat government’s decision to ban the telecast of TEHELKA sting in Ahmedabad. Dasmunshi claimed that Central agencies had solid intelligence of the ‘deep-rooted conspiracy’ and the truth would emerge soon. My brother called me from my hometown in UP and said local Congress leaders were asking him how much was I paid by Modi to do this story. A prominent civil rights activist called me and made a probing enquiry into how we managed to get the accused on camera and how they never suspected my intent.
A Muslim leader from Mumbai came to meet me and alleged that the whole thing was a set-up. How could you get such clear video footage and such good angles with a spy-camera, he asked. I argued that technology had improved and the latest spy gadgets could record clear footage. I tried explaining that as an undercover reporter, I had spent long hours practising angles and placement of camera. I tried telling him how difficult it is for an undercover reporter to first win over the trust of a person and then capture him making self-implicating revelations without arousing his suspicion all along. And all of this in the span of an hour — time that a spycam battery would last. I tried telling him that I took risks in doing this story. How I would frequently change hotels. How I stayed at hotels under bogus names. How I could not sleep at night while in Ahmedabad, the fear of getting caught haunting me all the time. How I had a few narrow escapes when my cover was almost blown. “But the videos were not shot on a spy camera but on an open camera,” the Muslim politician was convinced.
The most dismaying moment for me was when I saw Ehsaan Jafri’s widow, Zakia, suggesting on a news channel that Modi had stage-managed the sting to polarise the Hindu votes (later she changed her view and appreciated the work done by TEHELKA).
The tapes also contained serious allegations against the functioning of the Nanavati–Shah commission. The special public prosecutor for the Gujarat government, Arvind Pandya, told me the commission was partisan towards Modi, and its proceedings were compromised. After the exposé, the commission issued a statement that it would summon the tapes and look into them. But they never asked TEHELKA for the tapes. Nor did they conduct any inquiry.
Two months later, in December 2007, Narendra Modi dealt a sound drubbing to the Congress at the poll. In private conversations, the Congress leaders blamed the TEHELKA story for their electoral defeat. The morning after election results, a prominent English daily began its adulatory lead story on Modi’s poll triumph by saying, in spite of TEHELKA’s “dubious sting operation”, Modi emerged triumphant.
‘Narendrabhai had come to Patiya... to see the thing did not stop the next day. He saw our enthusiasm and left behind a good atmosphere...’
Among the few human rights activists who stood by TEHELKA’s story was Teesta Setalvad. Realising the immense evidentiary importance of the TEHELKA tapes, she first moved the Supreme Court, pleading that the court take immediate cognisance of the TEHELKA evidence. At the time, the matter of Gujarat riots had reached a stalemate in the Apex Court. The Court had said the tapes would be examined in due course and refused to intervene. At this point, Teesta moved the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and asked for an inquiry into the TEHELKA expose. The NHRC advised the Modi government to give its consent for a CBI probe. Modi declined. His government claimed that since the Gujarat riots were already being inquired into by the Nanavati-Shah commission and cases were pending in trial courts, there was no need for a CBI probe. Overruling Modi, the full bench of NHRC, headed by Justice Rajendra Babu, by its order dated 5 March 2008, ordered the CBI to conduct an inquiry into the authenticity of TEHELKA tapes and the allegations made therein. “The revelations (made in the TEHELKA tapes) bode ill for the future of the human rights in the country,” the NHRC ruled. After months of despair, I saw this as the first glimmer of hope, that perhaps the work done by TEHELKA would not go waste. I was now hopeful that though the story didn’t get the journalistic recognition it deserved, it would go a long way in securing justice for the victims.
The Mumbai wing of the CBI registered a preliminary inquiry and took in their possession the full raw footage, the spy cameras used to record it and the laptop on which it was stored. CBI sleuths recorded my editor’s and my statements. The agency sent the equipment and the footage for forensic examination to a CFSL lab in Jaipur. Six months later, I learnt from newspaper reports that the Jaipur lab found the TEHELKA footage 100 percent authentic.
In March 2008, the Supreme Court constituted a Special Investigations Team (SIT), headed by retired CBI director RK Raghavan, to re-investigate nine major riot cases, including the Godhra train burning, Gulberg Society and Naroda Patiya massacres.
I wrote to the SIT and asked to depose before it. Soon, I received a communiqué from Raghavan’s camp office and I was told to appear before him. I appeared before the full panel of SIT, which at the time included Geeta Johri, Shivanand Jha and Ashish Bhatia — all Gujarat cadre IPS officers. I submitted the full raw footage and the transcripts. I made a passionate plea in my meeting with Raghavan. “If I, as an individual reporter, with no powers other than that of a common citizen, can gather so much evidence and peel off so many layers of judicial subversion and miscarriage of justice, I’m sure that your team with full statutory powers and the mandate given by the Supreme Court can get to the bottom of 2002 riots,” I told Raghavan. All along, the SIT members kept a straight face and didn’t say much.
I didn’t know at the time that what lay ahead was a tortuous journey for the victims and the witnesses. As time went by, the much-hyped SIT only turned out to be a sophisticated version of the Gujarat police — but only slightly. The field and supervisory officers — from sub-inspectors to deputy SP to Inspector General — who were part of the SIT were all drawn from Gujarat police. Raghavan worked as SIT chief in absentia. He visited Gujarat only once or twice every month. The investigation, for all practical purposes, was again back with the Gujarat police.
The probe team recorded my statement about half a dozen times, in five separate cases. It was my first engagement with a police investigation. So far, I had only reported on and critiqued investigations and court proceedings. Now, I was a part of the process. I had reported on the selective application of law. Now, I was experiencing it first-hand. The Investigating Officers mined me for all the evidence that I could provide against the likes of Babu Bajrangi, Mayaben Kodnani and Jaideep Patel.
Every piece of the missing puzzle, as far as the roles of the foot-soldiers was concerned, was carved out of the TEHELKA tapes, corroborated by eyewitness testimonies, and then pieced together to build a case. I was told that the extra-judicial confessions of two rioters — Mangilal Jain and Madan Chawal, both mohalla-level VHP cadres — recorded on the TEHELKA tapes, was the only piece of evidence to establish how Ehsan Jafri was murdered, and was thus valuable. I was told that revelations made by Suresh Richard and Prakash Rathod — both lower-rung Bajrang Dal members — about the role played by Mayaben Kodnani in the Naroda Patiya riots was crucial. The SIT told me that the testimony of Bajrangi in the tapes had filled the critical gaps in the Naroda Patiya investigation. But the claims made by all of them about Modi were dismissed by the SIT as unsubstantiated averments.
In every meeting, Bajrangi told me that after the Naroda massacre, Modi kept him in hiding for months at a state guesthouse at Mount Abu. But the SIT told me that the official register maintained at the government guesthouse in Mount Abu did not have entries of Bajrangi and thus it couldn’t be substantiated. Bajrangi had given a blow-by-blow account of how his arrest by the police was stage-managed by Modi to pacify the media outrage over his prolonged disappearance. The SIT didn’t go into the details. Bajrangi claimed that Modi manipulated the Gujarat judiciary to get him bailed out. The SIT overlooked this.
‘If I did not have his support, we could not have avenged Godhra. After it was over, [Modi] was happy, people were happy, we were happy... ’
The then BJP MLA from Godhra, Haresh Bhatt, was caught on record by TEHELKA saying Modi had given senior BJP and VHP leaders three days to unleash mayhem. Bhatt gave the details of a fire-cracker factory where deadly arms were produced and then distributed to rioters. VHP leaders in Sabarkantha took this reporter to a stone quarry and demonstrated how bombs were manufactured and then transported to Ahmedabad. Rioters in every district told TEHELKA that the police had told them they were under instructions to just stand by and not intervene in the Hindu retaliation against Muslims. The killers of Ehsaan Jafri told TEHELKA that the massacre would not have been possible without police cooperation. But all this was dismissed by SIT as unverifiable assertions.
But what the SIT did, in the Godhra train burning investigation, borders on the diabolical. First, it made Noel Parmar, architect of the devious Godhra case, the IO for re-investigating the same case. Yes, Parmar was asked to re-investigate his own case. He was removed only after the victims petitioned the Supreme Court. The new Godhra IO, before recording my statement, did a full-body frisk to ensure that I was not carrying any recording device. Then he asked me about my motivation for doing this sting operation. “Did you want to show the Hindu community in a poor light?” he asked. “I am a Hindu myself. Why would I malign my own community? More importantly, the story was about the heinous crimes committed in the name of religion and not about investigating any religious ideology,” was my response.
While recording my statement, the IO treated me not as a witness but as an accused. He asked me if I had bribed the police witnesses to say what they said on camera. The idea was to discredit my investigation. I told him that if he cared to see the tapes, he would find that all my meetings with the accused and the witnesses, from the time I stepped out of the taxi to enter their residence or office, till the time I came back and sat in my taxi, were all on tape. If there was any allurement, it would be on tape too, I argued. But the SIT authenticated the Gujarat police’s Godhra investigation to the T.
I got a full sense of the odds stacked against the victims in their quest for justice when I was summoned to depose as a critical witness in the Gulberg Society massacre case. The judge before whom I appeared was BU Joshi. Many witnesses had already approached the Gujarat High Court and complained that Joshi was being partisan and unkind towards the victims. A victim, Sairabehn, who had lost her only son in the Gulberg massacre, was humiliated by Joshi in the open court. When Rupabehn Modi — whose son went missing in the riots and on whose life the film Parzania was made — while recounting the events of the day broke down in court, Joshi didn’t even allow her to take a break or have a glass of water. Victims had already petitioned the Gujarat High Court, asking for Joshi’s removal.
I was not at all worried. I told the public prosecutor, when I ran into him before the start of my testimony, that I could recount the facts of the sting operation even in my sleep. “I have nothing to hide or obfuscate. Moreover, the victims have a tendency to exaggerate. But how could a judge insult or humiliate the witnesses in a trial monitored by the Supreme Court?” I told the prosecution lawyer.
The chief examination — the process where a witness is first allowed to give his testimony — went smoothly. The trouble started with the cross-examination. In the first hour, the judge screamed at me on a few occasions and stopped me from clarifying on a few issues.
At one point, the defence posed a question: “If you are shooting a beauty contest on your camera and you inadvertently record a scene which you don’t need, then do you have the facility to delete it?” The defence insisted I reply with just a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. I could clearly sense the defence was trying to entrap me by way of mischievous questions. I replied that the question was unclear, as I needed to know which camera the defence was referring to. Upon this, the judge lost his cool and said everybody in the court could understand the question except me: “Court me baithe sub log samajh sakte hai to tum kyun nahi samajh sakte ho?”
“But,” I insisted, “sir, one can’t tamper with a spy camera. And since it is my spy camera footage that is in question, this is not a question I can reply with just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without giving a clarification.”
‘Narendrabhai got me out of jail. He changed the judges thrice. The 4th judge, Akshay Mehta, did not even look at the file. We were all out ’
At this, Joshi flew off the handle. He said I should not treat the court as if it was a ‘janpanchayat’: “Tum journalist is court ke bahar hoge, yahan nahi. Yaha seedha-seedha jawab do. Defence ke question ko vague kaise kah sakte ho tum. Yeh koi tamasha nahi, court hai.” For over five minutes, he kept screaming at me and even made many unwarranted personal remarks. And it didn’t stop at just that. The defence lawyer also joined the judge in screaming at me. The defence then said, “My Lord, you have just seen this man’s mentality. I’m going to further expose his motives.” After 10 minutes of further humiliation and insults by both the judge and defence, the court finally recorded my reply. I was shattered by the judge’s anger, which was not only uncontrollable but unwarranted too.
The accused who were seated in court were thoroughly entertained. I could see them sniggering at me.
But I decided I would not lose my cool. And continued to answer the defence lawyer’s questions with full clarity.
Seeing that I was not getting perturbed, the judge and the defence lawyer now decided to ridicule and taunt me.
At one point, the defence asked me why I had stung Hindu rioters but not the Muslims who were accused of the Godhra train carnage. I replied that since the accused were all behind bars, I could not have reached them. Upon this, the judge first refused to include this explanation along with my reply and, yet again, insisted that I reply in either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The defence wanted to paint me as communal and biased, and the judge, by insisting on plain ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, was pushing me right into his trap. Joshi then went on to remark that people like me could reach anywhere: “Tum log to kahin bhi ja sakte ho.”
The defence then joined in: “Who knows, if you are secretly recording the proceedings of the court also.” To this, I said I would never do something like that. The defence retorted: “Then maybe you should record it as it will come to your use in the future.” Then the judge and defence looked at each other and chuckled.
I had produced the transcripts of the sting operation against some of the Gulberg massacre accused. The defence asked me: “Do you agree that the common man would not understand the meaning of the dots, which you have used in the transcript to imply a pause in conversation?” I replied, “In transcripts, it’s a common practice to use dots to refer to a pause in the conversation.” The judge intervened: “But do you accept that the common man will not understand the meaning of dots used in transcripts? Do you accept it or not? Yes, right?” The judge was forcing me to give a reply that would suit the defence!
During the cross-examination, the defence asked me details of my residential address in Delhi, whether it was a rented or owned accommodation and the date from which I had been staying there. There were over 50 accused present in the court. To question me at length about my home in their presence was nothing but an intimidating tactic. Sadly, the prosecution also didn’t object to the irrelevance of many such questions. The overall atmosphere in the court was that of willful hostility.
Torched A mob at Khokhra, Ahmedabad
If I, a journalist from Delhi working for a reputed newsmagazine with the immunity it affords, could be subjected to this, I shudder to think of the plight of the poor victims and vulnerable witnesses from the minority community in Gujarat. Joshi was later transferred out of Ahmedabad and another judge took over the trial. The verdict on the Gulberg case is still awaited.
I was called to testify in the Naroda Patiya case in December 2011. My testimony against Babu Bajrangi and other accused took four days to record and ran into over 90 pages. The trial was conducted by Judge Jyotsnabehn Yagnik. Not only was she completely impartial and fair in her conduct, she ensured that the defence did not humiliate me to entertain their clients seated in court, during the cross-examination. “Witnesses are the eyes and ears of my court. They come at my invitation and are the guests of this court. You may ask him whatever is relevant to your case but I will not allow you to insult him or make wild remarks about his character,” Judge Yagnik told the defence lawyer.
On 29 August 2012, Yagnik delivered her verdict and held both Babu Bajrangi and Maya Kodnani, among others, guilty of rioting and murders. Seen in the context of Gujarat, the Naroda Patiya verdict is historic. For six years, between 2002 and 2008, even as all major riot cases were stayed by the Apex Court, the rioters roamed the streets of Gujarat, threatening or buying off witnesses.
In 2007, when TEHELKA first met Babu Bajrangi in his stronghold at Naroda Patiya, he seemed invincible. He had just forestalled the release of the Hindi film Parzania in Ahmedabad, as he thought the film would hurt the pride of Gujaratis. While he publicly issued threats to cinema-owners, the government kept mum. There were many newspaper reports on how Bajrangi and his gang were “rescuing” Hindu women from their Muslim husbands by abducting them and forcing them to return to their parents. He had, by his own admission, abducted 957 Hindu girls until then. Clearly, Bajrangi had powerful protectors in the government. “I will not mind if I am condemned to death, but if they ask me my last wish, I’d want to blow up Muslim localities and kill ten to fifteen thousand Muslims before I die,” Bajrangi told this undercover reporter. Bajrangi told me that the police had even manipulated evidence to show his presence at a hospital, away from the scene of crime.
Hellhole The well behind Naroda Patiya in which bodies of victims were dumped
Photo: Cherian Thomas
Maya Kodnani was an MLA and a powerful minister (minister for women and children’s development) in Modi’s council of ministers. The Ahmedabad crime branch had already told the court that there was no evidence against Kodnani. Both Bajrangi and Kodnani and others like them were confident that the law would never catch up. Hence, the Naroda verdict is an important milestone in the quest for justice. But by no means the final frontier.
The most fundamental questions of the Gujarat riots still remain unanswered. Did the conspiracy to butcher Muslims of Patiya start and end with Bajrangi and Kodnani? Was the conspiracy to kill Ehsaan Jafri and scores of other Muslims at Gulberg Society hatched and executed by local VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders? Or was there an over-arching conspiracy behind these separate incidents spread across the state and involving accused from a section of saffron outfits? Why are there striking similarities in police inaction at different locations? Why almost every rioter TEHELKA met and filmed believed they had the Gujarat government’s full support? Why did Gujarat police let off Maya Kodnani? Why had it given a clean-chit to Jaideep Patel?
Why were Hindu rioters allowed bail? Why were public prosecutors threatening and buying off witnesses? Why were investigating officers weakening the evidence? Where is the written record of Narendra Modi’s efforts, in his Constitutional capacity as the chief minister of the state, in quelling the riots? How many meetings had he held with police officials on those three crucial days? Where are the minutes of those meetings? What did Modi do to ensure an impartial and fair investigation post riots? Why was justice secured in only those cases that were transferred out of Gujarat or tried in Gujarat but monitored by the Apex Court? These questions may seem too many, but the dark truth is that there are far more unanswered questions that dangle over Modi's head for his role in the 2002 riots. Until they are answered, these questions continue to hold an entire nation to ransom.
Ashish Khetan is Editor, Investigations with Tehelka.