Later this week, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is expected to appear before the Special Investigations Team (SIT), which has summoned him, based on the complaint of Zakia Jafri, whose husband Ehsan, a former parliamentarian, was among the many who were killed during the riot at Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad in 2002.
Modi wasn’t there—and that’s what this is about, his absence: not so much physical, but the absence of the state in protecting civilians. Gujarat suffered from widespread violence in the days following the incident at Godhra, where 58 Hindu activists were killed when their train compartment caught fire. Many Hindus blame a Muslim mob at the station for starting the fire, and in retaliation Hindu mobs attacked Muslims, their homes and businesses, elsewhere in the state. At least 900 people were killed, two-thirds of them being Muslims. Many more were displaced, and there have been credible allegations of many rapes.
Modi’s lawyers will try to avoid the questioning legally, but if he does appear before SIT, the questions will be restricted to the Gulbarg Society incident. Perhaps the time to question him on the general collapse of his administration during those days will come another day. But even this limited inquiry will throw light on his governance and administrative capability, two aspects of his leadership his supporters praise routinely.
Modi’s supporters say he is a first-rate administrator—efficient, results-driven, and focused on achieving targets. By each of these criteria, Modi’s administration failed miserably those days. Regardless of what happened in Godhra, an official’s responsibility is to prevent any incident from sparking a communal bloodbath. This means deploying security forces in sensitive areas likely to flare up, and preparing the administration to respond quickly to emergencies. And yet, not only Ahmedabad, the state’s premier city, but many other towns burnt for days. Human rights groups have alleged that when fearful Muslims turned to the authorities for help, they were told: “We have no orders to protect you.” That law enforcement officials have to wait for orders to protect citizens in distress is an example of a colossal leadership failure.
Modi’s supporters have called SIT’s inquiry a political exercise intended to destabilize Modi and derail his ambition of leading the Bharatiya Janata Party, and one day, they hope, even lead the country. They point out industrialists’ endorsement of Modi as a potential prime minister. They show statistics of Gujarat’s progress. They also talk of double-standards—if Congress leaders are not prosecuted over the riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, in which thousands of Sikhs were killed, why should their leader be judged by a different standard? (As arguments go, it is remarkable; it implies if hundreds of people from community A die under X’s rule, then it is wrong to complain when under Y’s rule hundreds of people from community B are killed. But surely both X and Y are wrong, and should face charges.)
Modi’s critics respond that his economic performance is irrelevant; it cannot offset the horrors of what happened in Gujarat in 2002. An analysis of capital flows shows that in the years immediately following the riots, Gujarat began falling behind other states in attracting capital, suggesting that smart money was leaving a state where the government was failing its basic obligation to uphold the law and establish order. It is also legitimate to ask if the credit for Gujarat’s progress should go only to Modi, considering that Gujarat has always been known for its enterprise, industrial peace, pragmatic bureaucrats and superior infrastructure.
If Modi appears before SIT, he could say: “It was my responsibility to protect all the residents of my state. I failed. I should have defended the vulnerable; my police turned them away. For that I am sorry. I should have prevented violence; I did not. But in the eight years since, I have learnt. I have created jobs, improved social development indicators, and there hasn’t been violence. I want to atone for what happened by making Gujarat peaceful and prosperous.”
Or he could say: “I had nothing to do with the deaths. It is sad that so many people died, but Gujarati Hindus were provoked, and they reacted. I have stood against forces of terror and destabilization. Look at Gujarat today—we represent what India is capable of doing. This is a politically motivated inquiry and the people of Gujarat have re-elected me twice since 2002.”
Towards the end of Ketan Mehta’s 1980 film, Bhavni Bhavai (The Ballad of the Ages) the director offered viewers two endings—a rousing one, where the king unites with his son, and water flows in the dry step-wells of Gujarat. And then the director intervenes; the protagonist offers a darker ending of death, bloodshed and an arid landscape.
One is a fairy tale; the other, a raw documentary. What ought to be, and what will be. And the Modi saga is far from over.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org