One of the immediate provocations for theNYT editorial was the censorship of my sharp and incriminating profile of Amit Shah, the man who is now political second-in-command to Narendra Modi. The column, titled ‘A new low in Indian politics’, was written in response to Shah’s appointment as president of the ruling party. The newspaper website I wrote it for pulled off the piece, allegedly to please the political dispensation.
It has been five months since the episode, and Shah is back in the news. The lower courts have discharged the case against him, giving him a clean chit and absolving him of all crime. If appointing Shah as BJP president was a new low in Indian politics, the dismissal of his case on most frivolous grounds deals another blow to the criminal justice system in India.
To understand the seriousness of the charges against Shah, it is pertinent to look back at the criminal cases against him and try to grasp their exact significance in the present-day context.
In 2010, Shah became the first serving minister of state for home affairs in the history of independent India to be sent behind bars on charges of murder, conspiracy and running a criminal syndicate. He was indicted for the extra-judicial encounters of three individuals—Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauserbi and, a year later, Tulsiram Prajapati, a Hindu, who was to be a key witness in the case. Sohrabuddin’s brother had filed a complaint against the Gujarat police over the killing of his brother and sister-in-law (see box). Rajnish Rai, the police officer working on the case, arrested three top cops from the state in 2007 after being convinced of their complicity. Later, the encounters were proved to be fake by the CBI too.
That very year, Modi was running for a second term as the chief minister of Gujarat. He had won the 2002 election in the backdrop of the bloody Gujarat riots, one that had etched deep polarising lines across the state on the basis of religion. Five years later, campaigning for his second term, the CM made the encounter killings his election plank.
Around this time, Modi was being projected as a Hindu leader under constant threat from jehadi forces. The spate of fake encounters from 2002-2007 did the needful to consolidate that impression. Top police officials under Shah’s leadership would hold press conferences with the bodies of alleged terrorists on display. They were shown as men out to assassinate Modi to avenge the massacre of Muslims during the Gujarat riots.
Modi made much of it in his election campaign in 2007, doing what the hardliners expected of him. Addressing his first election campaign in Gujarat, he stepped on the dais and screamed “What do you want me to do with men like Sohrabuddin?” The crowd screamed, “Kill him, kill him.”
I was part of that crowd. That was when I first came face-to-face with the man who has since become one of the most powerful prime ministers of India in recent times. Wading my way through the crowd with the cameraperson, I approached Modi and asked him if his men and his minister should be shielded despite cold-blooded murder. The response was a 10-second-long cold stare which has stayed with me till this day.
Truth, they say, eventually finds a way out, and it did. In 2010, the CBI made its first arrest of Abhay Chudasama, an ips officer known to have been close to Shah and declared the Sohrabuddin encounter as fake. Post a persistent month-long investigation, I ran into what was the most incriminating evidence that the investigating agencies later used—the call records of Shah who was communicating with the officers charged with the murder of the three victims on the same days and time as they were killed.
I also managed to find my way to an internal note which was the result of an investigation by an intelligence official under the Official Secrets Act of the state. The note was incriminating. It observed, “The calls made by the minister are not part of official decorum. Their frequency is unnatural and uncommon in nature—Gujarat CID report on Amit Shah’s calls to encounter cops.” The calls were monitored by no less than P.C. Pande, the then police commissioner of Gujarat.
The case, which was earlier being investigated by state investigating agency CID, was handed over to the CBI under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court. The apex court came down heavily on the investigating officers of the Modi government, especially officer in charge Geeta Johri, and asked her to look into the larger conspiracy surrounding the encounters.
It was at this stage that my investigation became public, forcing the CBI to hasten its investigation. Within weeks of my expose, the CBI arrested Shah for being the mastermind of the encounters.
In its submission to the SC bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and B.S. Chauhan, the CBI stated that Shah headed a syndicate of senior cops, politicians, underworld thugs and businessmen—essentially an extortion racket—and that he was in cahoots with the seniormost police officials from Gujarat, including Vanzara and Chudasama. Shah was also held a co-accused in the murder of Sohrabuddin’s innocent wife, who was allegedly sedated, raped, killed and her body burnt.
In a rather unexpected and damning ‘admission’ of his crime, Vanzara, Shah’s top cop who headed the anti-terror squad and was jailed for his role in encounter killings, wrote a letter in 2013 to the government, resigning from his services. His letter was revelatory of the criminal-political advantage the Gujarat government had taken of the fake encounters. In his letter, Vanzara wrote, “I realised that this government was not only not interested in protecting us but it also has been clandestinely making all efforts to keep me and my officers in the jail so as to save its own skin from CBI on one hand and gain political benefits on the other. It is everybody’s knowledge that this government has been reaping very rich political dividends, since last 12 years, by keeping the glow of encounter cases alive in the sky of Gujarat (sic).”.. read more:
Very short list of examples of rule of law in
The Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi
Terrifying implications of the Staines judgement
Murder of TP Chandrasekharan 2012