By Amulya Ganguli
Five years after the communal riots in Gujarat, during which a secret collusion between the Narendra Modi government and the police against the Muslims was suspected, several police officers of the state have again been accused of killing Muslims in cold blood.
And just as the Supreme Court had to intervene to bring justice to the riot victims, the court has had to step in again to ensure that the guilty officers do not go scot-free.
The fallout from the latest events involving the killing of a small-time Muslim criminal, his wife and a Hindu accomplice in 'fake encounters' is that Chief Minister Modi's much vaunted 'Vibrant Gujarat' campaign has taken a severe beating.
Although he tried to turn the nation's attention away from the tension-ridden aftermath of the riots to industrial development, the killings show that Gujarat remains as unsafe as ever for the minorities and that there is little difference between the police and such thuggish elements.
Acting in the belief that offence is the best form of defence, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to retrieve the situation by claiming that the criminal, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, was actually a terrorist. But it doesn't look as if the party will be able to prove the charge.
Sohrabuddin was initially labelled a terrorist supposedly on a mission to kill Modi. That was stated to be the reason why he was gunned down in 2005 after an 'encounter' (an official euphemism for a shootout) with the police.
But ever since the Gujarat Police itself admitted during a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) investigation at the Supreme Court's behest that the original claim was a lie, the Modi government and BJP leaders in New Delhi are very much on the back foot.
What have made the matter more complicated is first the disappearance of Sohrabuddin's wife Kauser Bi, and then the subsequent discovery by CID that she too was killed. But her body hasn't been found because it was believed to have been burnt by the policemen.
After so many untruths, the BJP has again had to change tack by saying that instead of blaming only the Modi government for fake encounters, all such incidents should be probed, including the recent ones in Kashmir.
The party's stance recalls a similar demand by Modi in the aftermath of the 2002 riots that the Supreme Court should inquire into all the incidents of riots over the last several decades, instead of focussing only on Gujarat where, as Modi claimed, only a few "stray incidents" had taken place though nearly 2,000 people had died.
The most shocking aspect of the Gujarat killings is the involvement of several senior officials of the Indian Police Service (IPS), an elite corps of men and women belonging to the all-India service who are expected to adhere to high standards in their personal and professional conduct.
Yet, from the time of the riots, it has become evident that the Modi government has succeeded in eroding the moral and professional fibre of the force to an extent where it is ready to carry out the orders of ruling party politicians even if they violate all norms and conventions.
While the more moderate sections of the BJP are saying that the arrested policemen are rogue elements who acted on their own, the support which these officials are receiving from the rabid elements of the Sangh Parivar like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal underlines the deep-rooted saffron connection.
It is now being said that one of the three arrested police officers, D.G. Vanzara, a deputy inspector general, had right-wing sympathies and told his subordinates during the killings that they were doing the work of "deshbhakts", or patriots. A media team, which went to Vanzara's village, was driven away by his supporters.
The two other IPS officers – Rajkumar Pandiyan and Dinesh Kumar – are from the BJP-ruled state of Rajasthan.
What is evident, therefore, is that the 2002 riots seem to have convinced the police administration in the BJP-run states that they can act with impunity against the Muslims, whose patriotism continues to be questioned by the Hindutva camp. The recent attack on a Christian pastor in Jaipur by VHP activists is in keeping with this anti-minority atmosphere.
It may be mentioned in this context that the virulently anti-Muslim compact disc issued by BJP during the Uttar Pradesh elections reflected this fascist mindset. The party has since withdrawn the CD, but at least one saffron scribe argued that the "underlying concerns" expressed in it are valid.
After the unravelling of the Sohrabuddin case, the family of a 19-year-old girl, Ishrat Jahan Shaikh, a college student who was killed by the police in 2004, has asked the case to be shifted from Gujarat High Court to Mumbai as they say that they do not have faith in the Modi government.
To be fair, fake encounters were not invented by Gujarat. They first became known in West Bengal during the Naxalite uprising in the late 1960s and early 70s. After that, the police reportedly used such killings in Punjab to quell the separatist Khalistani outbreak in Punjab in the 1980s.
From that time onwards, the policemen have not only found cold-blooded assassinations of this nature the best way to get rid of suspects, but also to amass fortunes by threatening potential victims and their families. Like his victim, Sohrabuddin, who was allegedly an extortionist, Vanzara is also said to have acquired illegal funds through such threats.
What these incidents underline is the need to insulate the police from government control, as the Supreme Court has suggested. But the governments of all hues are refusing to accept the judicial order because of the obvious advantage of having such a powerful tool in their hands for use and misuse.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])