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Spot the difference between media cover-up of the 1984 and 2002 riots

Vivian Fernandes

Updated: April 6, 2014, 9:11 PM IST
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Reverence in the media to those in authority and a tendency to fall in line, allows those indulging in political mass murders to escape justice and investigators to engage in cover-ups, says Manoj Mitta, author of books on the 2002 and 1984 riots.

Institutions have evolved since the 1984 riots. The National Human Rights Commission was set up in October 1993. The judicial conscience now stings; it does not merely prick. The NHRC under the late Justice JS Verma visited Gujarat's riot-affected areas and gave a report (31 May 2002). Under its new chairman, Justice AS Anand, it took the unusual step of moving a special leave petition in the Supreme Court, when Baroda's Best Bakery Case (fourteen killed) collapsed and all seventeen accused were set free by a trial court (in June 2003). The reason: the baker's daughter and the complainant and her family had turned hostile. They could recognize none of the accused persons. The NHRC's intervention resulted in that case and eight other egregious ones being handed over to the Special Investigation Team and moved out of Gujarat for trial. (In February 2006, the Mumbai trial court convicted nine of the Best Bakery accused but six years later, the Mumbai High Court would set free five of them, because of legal infirmities, caused by the Supreme Court once again entrusting investigations to the Gujarat police. So for the murder of fourteen persons, four were sentenced. The baker's daughter was convicted for perjury).

Though the Supreme Court said 'institutional integrity' was a key factor while appointing persons to high office, its attitude to the pursuit of politically-motivated crime has not been consistent. While Chief Justice VN Khare and Justice Arijit Pasayat inveighed themselves against the miscarriage of justice, Mitta says, lax monitoring of the SIT probe by a bench headed by Justice DK Jain allowed suspects in high positions to escape. This is in contrast to the tough line the Supreme Court has taken in issues like bonded labour, environmental damage and economic scandals (all 123 2G telecom licenses were cancelled).

While the conviction rate for 2002 riot cases has been estimated at five percent (by the Centre for Equity Studies, set up by Harsh Mander, an IAS officer who quit after the 2002 riots) on the basis of Right to Information filings, it has been 39 percent for cases tried outside Gujarat (according to Vinay Sitapati, a lawyer and PhD candidate at Princeton University). This was because of protection given to witnesses by central forces - another innovation.

Media coverage of riots has evolved with technology. In 1984, there were no 24x7 TV channels. The Gujarat riots happened under the glare of TV cameras. Curiously, none of them recorded any of the massacres. Is it possible TV channels were under-equipped? At a press conference of Chief Minister Narendra Modi on 28 February 2002 between 4.30 pm and 5.45 pm at Circuit House in Ahmedabad's Shahibaug, there were no questions from the media about the Gulberg massacre (sixty-nine people killed, including former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri), which had got over in forty-five minutes by 3.45 pm, just a few kilometers away. Mitta thinks the journalists perhaps did not know. He does not allege a conspiracy. But he wants to know why the media never asked Modi to explain why his police officers had kept him in the dark, despite knowing that a disaster was waiting to happen at Gulberg, and not punishing them for letting the tragedy happen.

Mitta commends the Editors Guild of India for sending a fact-finding team of editors Dileep Padgaonkar, BG Verghese and Aakar Patel to Gujarat. They find some Gujarati newspapers quite incendiary in their reporting and commentary. For example: Sandesh on 28 February, 2012 had a front page headline: Avenge Blood for Blood. It said fifteen Hindu girls were dragged out of the train at Godhra (burnt the previous day, and the provocation of the riots). Some of them were mutilated and burnt. This was an utterly false report. The Gujarat Police had denied any such thing.

Sandesh's Bhavnagar edition, the fact-finding team noted, reported in its March 1, 2002 edition: 'Hindus were burnt alive in Godhra and leaders in Bhavnagar did not even throw a stone in the name of bandh (on February 28). Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Rajkot partly avenged the killing of Hindus in Godhra. In the case of Bhavnagar, the gutless leaders are hiding their faces under the guise of non-violence.' Far from taking action as recommended by the Editors' Guild team, Chief Minister Modi gave Sandesh, Gujarat Samachar and fourteen other Gujarati newspapers letters of appreciation on 18 March 2002. The letters said: 'I am happy to note that your newspaper exercised restraint during the communal disturbances.'

In the 1984 Delhi Sikh riots (2,793 people killed, officially) there were great acts of journalism. It was the tenacity of Indian Express journalists Rahul Bedi and Joseph Malliakan, and Jansatta's Alok Tomar that resulted in the biggest single act of massacre at Block 32 in East Delhi's Trilokpuri resettlement cluster being reported. In that one incident 400 Sikhs were killed (more than Jallianwala Bagh's 392).

Otherwise, the media was quite unquestioning. Mitta says, it allowed former Supreme Court sitting judge, Justice Ranganath Mishra to 'perpetrate a whitewash' by holding his commission's hearings in-camera. The media was not allowed in. The witnesses signed affidavits exonerating Congress leaders like HKL Bhagat. They were deceived into doing so because they believed they were signed affidavits for compensation. When reporters buttonholed the witnesses outside the commission premises and exposed the cover-up, Mishra passed an order that such reportage would invite contempt action. The media 'prostrated before the commission'. It did not question the commission's lack of contempt powers.

When the report was tabled in Parliament, no discussion was allowed. Two of the accused, HKL Bhagat and Jagdish Tytler, were made ministers within weeks of the riots. When Parliament paid tribute to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi there was no mention of the thousands of innocent killed in the riots. 'None of these oddities were reported in the media,' says Mitta.

The media has been quite unquestioning even in the 2002 riots. Was there a conspiracy to burn the train coach at Godhra carrying Kar Sevaks? None of the passengers or Kar Sevaks corroborated the act of petrol being sprinkled. But the trial court said the passengers were perhaps too dazed in the morning to recognize the faces. The identity of the arsonist was secondary; the question is whether arson happened in the manner the prosecution had alleged.

Even though Modi had said that the Godhra arson was a terror attack (false), his administration did not made use of cell phone data records, unlike in the 2001 Parliament attack when call data records were used to crack the case. (CDRs ultimately nailed minister Maya Kodnani who got 28 years for her role in Ahmedabad's Naroda Patiya case (ninety-six killed) and also Babu Bajrangi of the Bajrang Dal).

Mitta says the media response to his book on the 2002 riots (Fiction of Fact-finding) is telling. Despite having exposed a massive cover-up based on evidence presented to and inferences drawn by the Justice GT Nanavati Commission and the SIT, the book has been cold shouldered. (The timing was fortuitous. The documentation became public when the SIT's report was filed in a trial court in 2012). This is unlike the response to his previous book on the 1984 riots (When a Tree Shook Delhi) which was published in 2007, twenty-three years after the event (again when documents were made public in 2005). The difference is that in 2014, the media is scared of annoying a leader whom it expects to come to power.

(This is a report based on Manoj Mitta's lecture at the Press Club of India on 5 April, 2014 organized by the Foundation for Media Professionals)
First Published: April 6, 2014, 9:11 PM IST
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