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Gandhinagar Sachivalaya: Modi's powerdom during 2002 Godhra, post-Godhra riots

Modi coming out of the Godhra train: Feb 27, 2002
By Rajiv Shah 
Twenty years on, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-hand Amit Shah, appear to “firmly” in the saddle, ruling the country, mystery still surrounds as to what might have happened on February 27-28, 2002, the day Godhra train burned leading to death of 58 kar sevaks, followed with one of worst anti-minority riots in Gujarat, spread over around three months, in which at least a thousand people are confirmed dead and as many are said to be “missing.”
While Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, and the circles around him called the Godhra train burning an act of Pak-sponsored terrorism on February 27 itself, there is still no official confirmation as to what might have caused it, though several theories still prevail what may have happened -- ranging from an act of arson committed by a Muslim mob of 1,000 to 2,000 people (Commission of Inquiry), violent reaction by the local Muslim Ghanchi community provoked by the kar sevaks on the railway station (then Congress leader Amarsinh Chaudhary), to a terrorist act (Modi).
The Supreme Court found no evidence against the person who was declared its “key conspirator”, Maulana Hussain Umarji, leader of the Muslim Ghanchi community. Declared a jehadi having links with Pakistan, arrested in 2003, he was set free in 2011, and died a disillusioned man in 2016.tThe same year, another “mastermind” was arrested – Farooq Bhana, a petty property broker from Godhra, who was “absconding” for 14 long years and lived in a Mumbai slum. Interestingly, while the Gujarat High Court in 2018 convicted him for life sentence, he is only described as “a key conspirator”, and not Pak-sponsored terrorist.
While conspiracy theories around the Godhra train burning appear to have been forgotten (they appear to have fulfilled the political job of BJP’s Gujarat rulers), there is a huge amount of circumstantial evidence on how the “reaction” to it was built up. While a lot of it is public knowledge – including how Modi presided over a controversial meeting where he reportedly told top cops and government officials to allow Hindus to vent their anger, and how the kar sevaks’ charred bodies were brought to and displayed in Ahmedabad allegedly to provoke anger against the Muslims.
However, little is known on how people around Modi, his ministers, and top officials in Sachivalaya behaved on February 27-28 in the aftermath during the riots. Indeed, the atmosphere in Gandhinagar, the Gujarat capital, especially among Modi’s men, was either indifferent to the riots, or gleeful. I was personally witness to how on February 27, a top Modi minister, Nitin Patel, coming out of the Gujarat state assembly, where anti-Muslim sentiments were already charged.
Nitin Patel went straight his Gujarat state assembly chamber, where I found him making frantic calls to his supporters in Mehsana, a North Gujarat district, to “get ready” with all their might to support the Gujarat bandh call by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in reaction to the Godhra train burning. During the riots that began on February 28, the district became notorious for at least two ghastly incidents, both which took place on March 1, 2002: Dipda Darwaza in Visnagar town, in which mob killed 11 members of a family; and Sardarpura village, where 33 people were killed.
The next day, on February 28, while my colleagues in Ahmedabad were already out, covering some of the worst communal carnages had happened – Gulbarg Society and Naroda Patia – I reached my “Times of India” office in Gandhinagar early after “examining” two small incidents. Waqf Board and Gujarat Minorities Finance Corporation offices in Old Sachivalaya were set on fire. The fire was extinguished immediately. There was no casualty. On reaching the office, I began to find out, on phone, and from whomever I could, to find out what all was happening.
Among others, I phoned Opposition leader Amarsinh Chaudhury (Congress) who told me that he had “unconfirmed” reports that Gulbarg Society had been attacked and the house in which former Congress MP Ahsan Jafri lived was set on fire. There were several casualties. He added that he had “learnt” Jafri was killed. I stood up and was about to leave for Sachivalaya. Suddenly, I got a return call from Chaudhury. “It’s confirmed. Jafri is killed. His hands were chopped off. And, he was burnt alive.” I was aghast. I rushed to the chief minsier’s office, less than a kilometer away from my office.
The first thing I did was to meet Modi’s secretary Anil Mukim. The activist in me appeared to resurface. I asked Mukim, who sat alone in his chamber, “Why don’t you ask the CM to go on air and appeal for peace? The rioters would understand if he appeals, as they know him. Gulbarg Society has been attacked. Ahsan Jafri has been burnt alive. There is looting and arson all over.” His response was something like, “sure, sure, let me see” type. I thought he was too junior to advise his boss.
I rushed out and just banged into Modi’s principal secretary PK Misra’s room – the same PK Misra, a 1972 batch IAS official, who is currently serving as Modi’s principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s office, post-retirement. I repeated the same words which I had uttered before Mukim to Misra, who was sitting pretty in his chamber, smiling. I didn’t like that smile. It was a nauseating response. “Is that so?,” he asked me looking over his glasses. I told him what Amarsinh Chaudhary had told me and there was reason to look into it, as he is Opposition leader.
I didn’t stop here. I continued: Being an Opposition leader Amarsinh Chaudhary need not be fully relied upon. Hence, I asked Misra to make independent confirmation from the city policy commissioner as what appeared to have happened was indeed very serious. There was looting and arson all around. Jafri had been brutally murdered. Misra looked at me skeptically. I can never forget what he told me next: “You can quote me, if you want, Rajiv. Nothing of the sort has happened. The situation in Ahmedabad is absolutely peaceful and normal!”
In the subsequent days, I was also witness to how two other officials Swarnakanta Verma, who was acting chief secretary (as the incumbent, G Subba Rao, was abroad, apparently on a mission to woo investments for Gujarat), and Ashok Narayan, then additional chief secretary, home. Formerly additional chief secretary, family welfare, Verma had stood firm in the pre-Modi days against a bill that was being planned to penalize those who had more than two children. I found in her a person with clear perceptions.
I admit, I didn’t meet Verma even during the riots, as I thought she didn’t matter. I was right. A couple of years later, before she retired, I asked her, informally, if she knew what may have happened on February 27, the day Modi reportedly asked top cops to allow people to vent their anger. Without referring to the Modi meeting, this is what she told me:
“Arre Rajivbhai, I was sitting in the chief secretary’s chamber on that day. I did not know anything about the burning of the S-6 coach at Godhra till late afternoon. Nobody cared to report to me about the incident. When I came to know of it, it was already too late. Yet, I asked the office to prepare my car. I rushed to the CM’s residence. I met him. I told him that I was sorry, but nobody had informed me. Now I was available for his orders. The CM told me not to worry, and I returned to my office…”
Amit Shah with Nitin Patel
During those days Ashok Narayan would never appeal to me. As head of the home department, I always used to think he wasn’t doing enough. A quiet person, a passionate singer and the author of a book on Bhagwat Geeta, later I found him to be a sensitive man – a person who refused to heed Modi advice, if not publicly, then at least on paper. 
I found this out in the second half of 2002. Modi had declared polls, and had begun his Gaurav Yatra. He had already dissolved the state assembly. The Election Commission sent across its early objections to the Gaurav Yatra, yet Modi didn’t care and continued with it. Ashok Narayan was just back from Modi’s residence. Someone told me he had a tiff with Modi on Gaurav Yatra. I decided to meet Narayan. He was fuming.
I asked Narayan what happened. His response was: “Nothing, Rajiv. It was regarding Gaurav Yatra. Modi asked me whether I was with him or not. I told him, I was not under him but under the Election Commission. I have already ordered the Gaurav Yatra to stop.” So, could I quote him that he was not under Modi? “Of course, you can. I am not under Modi till the polls are over. Quote me,” he didn’t care. Years later, after he retired, I met him at his residence and asked him what he had said in the affidavit to the commission of inquiry on Godhra riots, set up by Modi. He refused to reveal. Mystery still surrounds what he may have said in the affidavit.
Narayan had to pay for his odd behaviour. He was tipped to be Gujarat’s chief secretary. He was refused the chance. A person junior to him was given the post, while Naryan was pushed to the state vigilance commission. For nearly five years he remained there, he fought to make the vigilance commission an effective body with semi-judicial powers, but to no avail. “It’s a toothless body. They don’t give us any powers. What’s the use of these inquiries?,” he told me once.
I was told by a journalist friend how he had approached Narayan at midnight during the riots to stop a frenzied crowd from attacking Chhotaudepur in Vadodara district. “I was pleasantly surprised. In the wee hours next day, jawans from the rapid action force, which was there to control the riots, had already reached Chhotaudepur. If that had not happened, the town would have suffered one of the worst carnages,” this journalist told me.
Years later, before I retired in January 2013 from the “Times of India”, I met a top Modi aide, who served Modi in Delhi for quite some time on his retirement. He gave me, informally, a rather interesting explanation to what may have happened during the riots, especially how government officials behaved. The effort was clearly to defend Modi, which was his job. But this aide, who has partially looked after the state’s home affairs, too, never sought to deny what Modi may have said.
He said the CM then “perhaps lacked political acumen of an administrator”, as he had just taken over the reins of power, adding, “He didn’t have administrative experience needed to direct officials what to do. He didn’t know whom he was dealing with. It was the duty of those who surrounded him to tell the truth.” The aide, who has also been in the midst of several controversies, told this to me, referring to the February 27, 2002 meeting in which top cops were told to allow people to vent their anger:
“Modi may perhaps have been driven by the emotion of any Hindu leader in a given situation, when the train burning led to the death of kar sevaks in Godhra. Obviously, he had his constituency in mind – the Hindu voters. But one should ask as to why IPS and IAS officials, who attended the meeting, did not act the way they should have. As serving officials, they are supposed to act firmly when the situation demands them to. They should not be guided by the political thinking of their bosses.”
The aide blamed things directly on the type of officials who surrounded Modi then. He described at length the characteristics of each of them. He called then DGP K Chakravarthi “the man acted as if he was never in the field”, one who was clearly “incapable” of taking tough decisions. As for the then Ahmedabad police commissioner PC Pande, who has been in the eye of storm for his “indifferent role” in the Gulbarg Society massacre in which ex-Congress MP Ehsan Jaffri was killed, the Modi aide said: “He was too mild. He is known to have never taken any firm decision, either.” He had a similar view of several other police officials as also the then IAS bureaucrats in Sachivalaya, who were in charge of taking administrative decisions
During those days, Amit Shah, now Modi’s home minister and the key BJP political strategist, wasn’t rated highly. I knew him merely as a BJP MLA from Sarkhej constituency in Ahmedabad, not beyond. The riots were refusing to stop. One of those days I found Shah coming out of the chief minister’s office (CMO), situated on the fifth floor of Block No 1 in Gandhinagar Sachivalaya, and I was about to enter. Zealously wanting the riots to stop, I decided to have an informal chat with Shah, to which he agreed. I asked him: “Why don’t you take an initiative in Ahmedabad, especially in your constituency Sarkhej?”
My question to Shah was relevant. The Sarkhej constituency had Gujarat’s biggest Muslim ghetto, shaped as a result of frequent riots, starting with 1969, where above 2.5 lakh Muslims lived. Even today, Shah is seen by many, including some of my near and dear ones in Ahmedabad, as a “great defender” from “unruly” Muslims of Sarkhej. One of them told me, “We would have been wiped out but for Shah.” Indeed, ruling on the Hindu majoritarian sentiment, Shah would win hands down, leaving his weak Congress counterpart far, far behind.
Riddled with frequent, though small, incidents and rumours on both sides, the riots saw unprecedented tension in Sarkhej. Prohibitive orders would be clamped now and on. My first shock was when Shah wondered why I was showing so much concern about stopping the riots. Unable to understand why as a public representative he was posing to me such a question, I decided to tell him what I did not want to – that, though staying in Gandhinagar, I had a flat in his constituency, and the Sarkhej area was constantly under stress.
“Why don’t you take an initiative? Why don’t you call influential Muslim and Hindu leaders across the table and talk over, so that the area becomes tension free? It would raise your prestige”, I quietly told Shah. To this, Shah asked, smiling, “Which side is your house situated? Ours or theirs?” I told him the location, and he replied instantly, “Don’t bother. Nothing will happen to you. Your side has nothing to worry about. Whatever incidents happen, they will take place on the other side of the border.” His reference was clear – the Hindu-Muslim divide in the Sarkhej region is loosely referred to as “Indo-Pak border” by sections of middle classes in Ahmedabad.
---
A version of his article has been published in Bengali daily "Ganshakti" (February 27)

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