On September 12, 2011, when the Supreme Court had sent the complaint filed by Zakia Jafri against then chief minister Narendra Modi and 62 others back to the Metropolitan Magistrate’s court in Ahmedabad without issuing directions, Modi had tweeted “God is Great”. A few days later, on his 62nd birthday, he launched the ‘Sadbhavna’ fasts, meeting people from all faiths in different districts.
As Prime Minister, Modi has chosen not to react to the verdict of a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court on the same complaint, which upheld the clean chit to his administration for an alleged role in “the larger conspiracy” related to the 2002 Gujarat riots.
However, the BJP has been in celebratory mode. All its top leaders almost issued statements welcoming the judgment, while condemning the role played by activist Testa Setalvad, retired DGP RB Sreekumar, former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt and others in “defaming” Modi who was the then CM of Gujarat. State chief CR Paatil called Setalvad a “Congress puppet”, and accused the three of “fabricating evidence” to “frame” Modi.
A day later, Union Home Minister Amit Shah gave an interview to ANI Centrald around the Gujarat riots, repeating the charges against a “triad of media, political parties and NGOs”, and suggesting even the courts had been “swayed” due to their campaign. Hours later, Setalvad and Sreekumar were arrested on charges of forgery, criminal conspiracy etc, on an FIR that is extensively quoted the Supreme Court order. Bhatt, who is serving a life term in another case, was also booked on the same charges.
While the BJP’s stand publicly is that the riots order won’t be made a poll issue, the party is set to celebrate it as “a moral victory”. A lawyer actively associated with the BJP, who also represented some of the accused in the 2002 riot cases, said: “As a lawyer, I knew how witnesses were being tutored and many innocent people were framed and faced jail terms. This judgment will pave the way for justice, against those who framed Modiji.”
The lawyer added that the court order as well as arrests of Setalvad and Sreekumar would also send out a message to those party supporters “falsely” accused in riots. “Back then, the party was unable to check their persecution,” he said.
The BJP especially expects a boost for those BJP leaders closely tied to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The Godhra train burning, in which kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya as part of the campaign were killed, is seen as the trigger for the 2002 riots.
For those in the Ram temple campaign, this is the second big Court endorsement after the Supreme Court in 2019 gave the go-ahead for the shrine in Ayodhya.
Only one big BJP leader was convicted in the riots, who was also acquitted later. Maya Kodnani was awarded for the Naroda Pat violence, one of the biggest massacres of 2002, by a Supreme Court-appointed special court. Since she was acquitted by the High Court, Kodnani is again a presence at the party office at Shree Kamalam.
Trial is on in only one more 2002 case under the apex court’s scrutiny, the Naroda Gam deaths. Kodnani is also on trial in this apart from Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi. In its order, the Supreme Court set aside the Tehelka sting operation that had caught Babu Bajrangi bragging about the killings.
The Congress’s half-measures on the Supreme Court order – first choosing chosenness, then speaking out after criticism – won’t help the party’s cause in a state where it is in a direct fight with the BJP.
Since 2002, the Assembly elections in Gujarat have been largely polarized on communal lines, with the BJP winning one election after another. Only in 2017 did the Congress show some revival spark, though that is now also seen as snuffed out in the face of the AAP’s fledgling competition.
The BJP has further put the Congress on the defensive over the Supreme Court order, by alleging the hand of Congress president Sonia Gandhi in propping up Setalvad.
Asked how important the Supreme Court judgment was for the BJP, CR Paatil told The Indian Express: “The judgment is important not only for Gujarat, but for the entire country. It is very dangerous in a democracy that some political party hatches such conspiracy or gets it hatched or supports it, by which its rival can get capital punishment.”
On whether it will help the party electorally in Gujarat or not, Paatil said: “It is the biggest victory for us that Modi saheb has got a clean chit after such a long struggle. If you ask electorally, we are going to win (the state Assembly elections); it does not matter whether the judgment came now or afterwards. We are going to win because we are doing people’s work, we are connected with the people.”
A senior BJP leader, who did not want to be identified, said: “Our party will definitely gain from this development. Narendrabhai and the party as a whole have faced a lot of stress due to these false claims. Now, sympathy will be in favor of Narendrabhai among people. They will realise that he (Modi) was personally targeted and the entire state of Gujarat was defamed.”
According to this leader, the order has ensured that the coming Assembly elections are fought on the issue of development. Narendrabhai has set the tradition of fighting elections on the issues of development. Coming elections will also be fought on the same lines,” said the leader.
Indicating the line the party is set to take, one also adopted by Shah in his interview, a senior office-bearer said: “Narendrabhai has always respected the law. He did not act against any of these people who hatched conspiracies (against him). Being the Chief Minister, he could have easily got an FIR registered against them. But he has set a benchmark for respecting the process of law.”
The party leader also said that the cases against Setalvad, Sreekumar and Bhatt’s had been registered by the Gujarat government as per the direction of the Supreme Court. “The only gain for our party due to the Court order is that our stand has been vindicated. Our party is not going to make it an election issue and will stick to the politics of development.”