Book Review: Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover By Rana Ayyub.
A shorter version of this review was published in Literary Review , The Hindu
In 2010, Rana Ayyub then working for Tehelka magazine, spent eight months undercover in Gujarat pretending to be Maithili Tyagi, a filmmaker. Ms Ayyub conducted a sting operation and met with bureaucrats, and senior police officials in Gujarat, who held key positions in the state between 2001 and 2010. Her self-published book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up, contains previously unpublished transcripts from the sting operation which Tehelka withheld from publication. Ms Ayyub had offered tapes from the sting operation to various media and publishing houses, who she states have refused to publish its contents. Till the writing of this review, the tapes themselves remain untested by the forensic labs.
The transcripts presented in the book chronicle the violence that cleared the ground for consolidation of power in Modi’s Gujarat in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002, and the numerous fake encounters that were carried out between 2002-2006. What becomes amply clear is the role of the bureaucracy and the police, who through their complicity, tacit collusion, and silence drove forward with ever-lethal precision, and ideological radicalization the policies of lawlessness.
Writing about Rajan Priyadarshi, Gujarat ATS Director-General in 2007 Ms Ayyub states, “Details of the time when he was posted as the State ATS head, of his clandestine meetings with the then Home Minister Amit Shah late at night at his bungalow and who once asked him to kill an accused in custody.” Later in the transcript, Priyadarshi is quoted sayings, “… Amit Shah, he never used to believe in human rights. He used to tell us that I don’t believe in these human rights commissions. And now look at this, the courts have given him bail too.” Priyadarshi’s comments and their implications raise serious questions about the nature of power, politics, corruption and the use of unconstitutional violence by the State. If these transcripts are validated, they present serious legal, and ethical repercussions about how Amit Shah, one of the most powerful men in Modi’s Gujarat, ran the police force as his personal assassination squad, and the bureaucracy as his fiefdom, acting as a judge, jury, and the executioner.
The cornerstones of democracy demand that the State, its leadership, its bureaucracy, and its policing force occupy no position greater than the law and the people it is obligated to serve. Writing the dissenting judgment in Olmstead v. the United States, Justice Brandeis argued what has come to embody the fundamental relationship with State, society and consequences of abuse of the law for the ends of the State ideology. “In a government of laws, the existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.” What does the anarchy and the lawlessness unleashed by Amit Shah teach us?
The 600-page SIT report dated 12 May 2010 ordered by the Supreme Court of India implicated the Gujarat State under Narendra Modi on many counts. First, the police officers who prevented riots were transferred by the Gujarat government to “insignificant postings” (SIT Report, Pg 7-8 of chairperson’s comments). Second, the government appointed its ideological foot soldiers (VHP and RSS-affiliates) as public prosecutors in riot cases that adversely affected the outcomes of justice (SIT Report, Pg 77). Third, the state police had carried out deliberately substandard investigations and intentionally disregarded evidence against Sangh Parivar members and BJP leaders involved in the riots — prominent among them was BJP minister Maya Kodnani. (SIT reports Pg101-105 &; Tehelka, 2011). Fourth, many officers found guilty of deliberate dereliction of duty, were not prosecuted, but post-retirement these were rewarded with “lucrative postings" (SIT Report Pages 48-50 & Tehelka, 2011). Ms Ayyub’s book reinforces and confirms many of these finding from the SIT report and other investigations through the voices of powerful men and women. The book corroborates, but does not provide new evidence.
However, there are two important questions that the book raises that require further investigation, understanding, and analysis. First, Ms Ayyub points to the use and co-optation of Dalit officers like Rajan Priyadarshi, and other officers belonging to lower castes like D. Vanzara, Rajkumar Pandian, Amin, Parmar as agents of state violence and articulates the policy of “use and abandon”. In a candid moment, Rajan Priyadarshi states, “I mean a Dalit officer can be asked to commit cold-blooded murder because he (apparently) has no self-respect, no ideals. Upper castes in the Gujarat police are the ones in (everyone’s) good books.” These insights if explored from the perspective of the sociology of the state can shed light on the functioning of a government that is not only communal but also deeply casteist. It can help us better understand how mechanisms of co-optation that often turn members of marginalized communities, even when they become stakeholders in State power, into objects of their own subjugation.
Second, towards the end of the book, Maharashtra police officer Daya Nayak, encounter specialist eulogised by Bollywood tells Ms Ayyub, “The biggest political murder in the country(…), had happened in Gujarat, that of Haren Pandya, Modi’s arch rival.” Haren Pandya, former Home Minister of Gujarat, was murdered in 2003. All the accused in his case were acquitted by the Gujarat high court eight years after, and the court concluded that the CBI had “botched up and blinkered” its investigation. Later in the chapter, Y.A.Shaikh, the first investigating officer in the Haren Pandya murder tells Ms Ayyub, “You know this Haren Pandya case is like a volcano. Once the truth is out, Modi will go home. He will be jailed, not go home. He will be in prison.” Soon after this conversation, the chapter ends abruptly raising more questions than it answers. After thirteen years there are still no answers, and the pursuit of justice remains elusive for the Pandya family and the thousands who have perished in the hands of the State sanctioned violence.
Gujarat under Modi and his trusted ally Amit Shah has witnessed a terrible mutation in state and civil society. To characterise the violence in Gujarat as either the anarchy of the mob or the recurring outbursts of ancient hatreds is intellectually dishonest, and historically and analytically incorrect. Similarly, labelling police and bureaucratic complicity as a “few bad apples” is a gross refusal to acknowledge the regimes of impunity that have been cultivated by the State for its means and ends. Instead, what we need to understand is how an elaborate system of control has been perfected and put in place, that reduces the individual to a manipulatable, politically usable and disposable commodities.
We are in need of a narrator, an interlocutor and a fearless voice that can articulate the transforming nature of our society and state. It is precisely here that the courageous Ms. Ayyub’s book could have been the intervention; that answered and explained some of these questions. But Gujarat files, as it stands today remains an unfinished book, waiting for an editor who can rethink its narrative, and challenge the structure and strengthens its arguments. The transcripts by themselves remain unfinished conversations, waiting for context, and analysis.