Indian politics is divided so deeply today that Rana Ayyub’s deeply troubling account of her brave sting operations for the magazine Tehelka, where she was an investigative reporter, is unlikely to sway anyone. Those who support Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah will find nothing redeeming in the book. They will see it as another attempt to smear their heroes by bringing up the spectre of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Those riots will forever haunt Modi’s record as a leader, but his supporters believe that the issue is now irrelevant, particularly after Modi’s successive subsequent electoral victories in Gujarat, and in 2014, across the nation.
Those who will never forgive Modi precisely for those riots will hang on to every claim and hint in this book and connect the dots and simmer over the state’s failure to bring the perpetrators to justice. The cynicism on one side and the passion on the other are both shaped by opinions; the facts recede as time passes.
In 2014, Manoj Mitta’s book on the 2002 riots, The Fiction Of Fact-Finding: Modi And Godhra, meticulously exposed the shoddy investigations and lack of accountability that followed. Ayyub has now self-published Gujarat Files, containing transcripts of her clandestine interviews with senior Gujarat police officers which Tehelka had refused to publish. Ayyub alleges that the magazine didn’t pursue the stories due to political pressure; Tehelka’s former editor, Shoma Chaudhury, has said there were editorial concerns about the stories. Gujarat Files takes the story forward from 2002, focusing on encounter deaths, and offers possible explanations of why senior police officers acted the way they did.
There were several high-profile encounter deaths in Gujarat between 2003 and 2006. The victims included Ishrat Jahan and three others who were described as terrorists, but later investigations cast doubts on those claims. Other cases included those of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, Kausar Bi and Tulsiram Prajapati. An unprecedented number of senior police officers were investigated, and in some cases imprisoned, after the first exposés were published in Tehelka and elsewhere. Shah, who was then state home minister, was also arrested and barred from entering Gujarat.
The picture that emerges from Gujarat Files is profoundly disillusioning because it reveals that the checks and balances which are so vital for a functioning democracy simply did not work in Gujarat. The book does not say why, but shows the culture of suspicion, fear, resentment and willingness to comply among senior police officials whom Ayyub interviewed surreptitiously. Ayyub gained access to these officials by posing as a US-based film-maker, Maithili Tyagi, with impeccable pro-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh credentials. She managed to get close to not only several senior police officials—including G.L. Singhal and Rajan Priyadarshi, who headed the state’s anti-terrorism unit, P.C. Pandey, commissioner of police of Ahmedabad during the 2002 riots, G.C. Raigar, intelligence chief during the riots, among others—but also senior bureaucrat Ashok Narayan, then additional chief secretary (home), as well as former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani, who would later be found guilty in the Naroda Patiya massacre. Still pretending to be Tyagi, Ayyub also managed to meet Modi, who gave her an interview, but the reader gets few details of this.
The relative ease with which Ayyub was able to get invited to officials’ and politicians’ homes, wearing a hidden camera in her clothing, is astonishing. This is not to detract from Ayyub’s courage, but it is dismaying to see how trusting, or gullible, the officials were, or how susceptible to flattery, as she played to their vanity at the prospect of being featured in a dubiously premised film about Gujarat.
The transcripts show how difficult it is to assemble credible evidence of wrongdoing, for there appear to be no written instructions or records which can pin the blame on specific individuals for certain orders. She has promised to hand over the tapes to investigators, if asked.
The officers Ayyub interviews appear helpless as they carry out actions which may not be legal, or are without written authorization. They follow orders because not doing so would seriously jeopardize their careers. Some reveal their communal prejudice; some point out the caste-based discrimination in the way appointments are made and assignments given. Gujarat was a communally charged place, and regardless of one’s political view, Ayyub’s guts in taking on the assignment, concealing her Muslim identity, adopting a Hindu name and leading a double life are impressive.
The most disturbing part about Ayyub’s account is the casual acceptance of encounters. Senior police officers are aware of the questionable legality of encounters, but they seem to accept these as part of their job; their regret is over details (such as there was no need to kill Kausar Bi), and not over the practice itself.
Human rights groups have long criticized extra-judicial executions in India, and “encounter" is a euphemism for illegal murders carried out by the state.
Public revulsion has grown. In September 2014, the Supreme Court issued a 16-point guideline to investigate police encounters in cases of death. Those who try to explain encounters in utilitarian, pragmatic terms argue that witnesses turn hostile, that court procedures take too long, that gathering evidence is hard, and that some evidence may be too sensitive to be brought before the court. None of these excuses are justified in a republic based on the rule of law.
There is a deeper issue the book raises, of journalistic practices. Ayyub earns the trust of those she interviews, and she does feel squeamish, as she knows what she is going to do with those conversations. American writer Janet Malcolm’s pitiless examination of the journalist comes to mind—“preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse". Many, including journalists, have criticized the means and methods of sting journalism, which Tehelka excelled in, and which got the magazine scoops. Ayyub was one of many correspondents at Tehelka who took risks (Disclosure: For some time since its inception, up to 2009 or so, I occasionally wrote for Tehelka from the UK, but I was not a reporter, nor would I carry out sting operations).
Sting journalism can be thrilling, and reporters often feel compelled to push the conversations in specific directions in pursuit of the scoop. The deceived party then claims entrapment, and the conversation shifts from the substance to the methods. Public interest defence is often invoked to justify the practice. But the resulting scoop may not be sufficient to achieve the desired outcome. Would these officials make the same statements before investigative officers? And even if they do, what if there is no evidentiary trail leading up to the executive that presumably gave the orders?
While the book will convince very few to change their minds, it would have been more valuable had it included a clearer narrative of the cases and people involved. While the story pushes the reader directly into the maze of officials, acronyms and individuals, descriptive paragraphs contextualizing the narrative would have significantly increased its accessibility. It would have taken away from its breathless prose, but it would have widened its audience. That would have made it a very different book, which may not have been the author’s intention.
There can be reasonable differences of opinion between editors and reporters. There can be different views on sting journalism. Set aside all that, this is clear: Ayyub is courageous; she has revealed information that authorities should examine; and the fact that the book is published, even if by Ayyub herself, shows that it is possible to question those who wield power.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.