George Fernandes keeps his date with Gujarat carnage martyrs
At a time when plaudits are pouring in on the departure of George Fernandes to meet his maker, it appears churlish not to join the chorus. Here a departure is made from the cultural practice of speaking good of the departed. Here Fernandes is not extolled; instead he is damned.
Readers of this publication would already be acquainted with the recent book by General ‘Zoom’ Shah. Shah in his book, The Sarkari Mussalman, recounts his challenges as the commanding general of the formation earmarked by the army chief to respond to the outbreak of the Gujarat carnage. In his book, Shah recalls receiving a telephone call from the army chief on 28 February 2002 ordering him to proceed to Gujarat with his troops and quell the violence there. Taking the aircraft positioned by the airforce at Jodhpur, where Shah’s division was deployed during Operation Parakram – the army mobilisation in wake of the terror attack on Parliament – Shah landed by night on 28 February – 1 March at Ahmedabad. As his plane landed, he saw fires burning across the city.
Even as the rest of his troops were ferried in by night aboard the aircraft from Jodhpur, Shah proceeded in a jeep he had got along with him on his plane to the chief minister’s residence. Along the route he observed the mobs at work, with the complicit police standing by if not actively participating in the ongoing pogrom. Arriving sometime at 2 AM on 1 March at the chief minister’s residence, Shah was ushered into the presence of Narendra Modi, the then chief minister. Alongside Modi in the room was George Fernandes, the then Union defence minister.
It is clear that Fernandes had asked the army chief to have the army deployed to Ahmedabad and proceeded to Ahmedabad himself, whereupon he was in a position to receive Shah. Invited to dinner with the two – who were about to sit down to dinner – Shah used the opportunity to apprise the two on his arrival and request the usual support from the civil administration when the army deploys for aid to civil authority. He brought out that though his troops were fetching up, there was no one from the police or state administration on hand to liaise with and provide the briefing and vehicles necessary for the troops to get on with the task at hand. Assured of all help and reassured that his defence minister was at hand to ensure the same, Shah returned to the airfield to muster his troops.
Needless to add, the promised support from the civil administration under Modi did not turn up. Instead, on the following day – 1 March - a curious scene played out on the tarmac at the airport. George Fernandes turned up at the airport to address the troops in what is termed in army parlance as a Sainik Sammelan. This was followed by a ‘bara-khana’ or repast with troops in which reportedly old ‘George’ – as it now turns out he was known affectionately – squatted with the troops at lunch instead of sitting on a stately table with officers. All this within some seven kilometers from the Gulbarg Society, where in a massacre some 69 Muslims had been done to death; their leader, former parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri, killed in a particularly gruesome manner.
George has been ill for some years so his record of his days in Ahmedabad is not known. Perhaps he has shared it with Jaya Jaitley, who may have put it down in her aptly titled autobiographical book, Life Among Scorpions. It is not impossible that George was in the know of the indulgences by the supporters of his host in Ahmedabad, Narendra Modi. It is plausible that he had been put wise by Modi himself or else by the intelligence bureau and ministry channels. Modi may even perhaps have offered an alibi for not responding with due alacrity to the numerous calls Jafri placed even as he faced off against the mob, including to Modi himself. This is not an unreasonable conjecture. It is impossible to imagine that India’s defence minister, out to supervise the Union government’s response to an unfolding national shame, was unaware of the dimension of it. And yet, George went about the ‘tamasha’ at the airport the following day.
Asking ‘Why?’ is a fair question; even if the best person to answer it is now no more.
To be fair to those writing up his obituaries, he is described as a different George during his time in the Vajpayee administration from the George he was as a young man. This is with good reason. Apparently, George was dispatched by Vajpayee to oversee the Centre’s support to the Modi-led state government in its response to the Gujarat violence. Modi had precipitated matters in allowing the right-wing extremist organizations take the bodies of the victims of the Sabarmati Express fire in a procession all the way from Godhra to Ahmedabad. It was in flagrant violation of rules which say that dead bodies may be released only to the next of the kin. Predictably, it inflamed passions, as no doubt it was designed to. Allegedly, the decision on this and a corollary decision calling on the police to lay off the ensuing violence was taken at a meeting at the chief minister’s residence at night on 27 February. The next day – 28 February – mobs took over the streets across Gujarat, some say as per a premeditated design.
George arrived in the midst of this, in time to prevail on Modi to do his constitutional duty – which no doubt was the message Vajpayee may have sent his defence minister to convey in no uncertain terms. Perhaps Vajpayee had an inkling of what was to unfold. After all, the intelligence bureau reports to the prime minister and he knew the chief minister rather well, having appointed Modi chief minister only in October the previous year. While George failed spectacularly on his errand, at the cost of some 1000 lives by the official count, this was not his failure alone. In India’s cabinet system of collective accountability, it was the failure of his prime minister and cabinet colleagues.
However, George fails on two further counts. Shah recounts that he at some point in the ordeal considered declaring martial law. Apparently, this is a little known provision in military law that enables the military to step in and clean up things the hard way in case the situation is getting out of hand. While Shah admits to being a bit confused on the provision, George – knowing the scale of what was unfolding – could have ordered him to proactively put down the perpetrators. George did no such thing. Instead, he whiled away the time on 1 March. Clearly, he too was waiting for the 72 hours that was allegedly given to the perpetrators of mass violence by powers that be to finish. Dot on time, the next day – 2 March – the state administration swung into action and let the army, that had twiddled its thumbs on the tarmac of the airport, have the requisite support – briefing, guides, transport, logistics etc – promised by George and Narendra Modi some 36 hours earlier.
Second, since George was the cabinet representative on ground and an eyewitness to the national shame, did he go back and brief his boss accordingly? It is possible that he did, since - as may have been established in this telling by now – he was complicit along with the Government of India in looking the other way. Shah informs of tendering a detailed report of his formation’s work in restoring order through its launch of Operation Aman. It is unlikely that the Army Headquarters sat on the report. Good staff work would have entailed passing it on to babus under George’s supervision. George could not have but received it. Even if Vajpayee could not sack Modi for dereliction on rajdharma - since Modi got away with his mentor, Advani’s help - he could have proceeded to have Modi in the dock if George – leader of a coalition partner in government - had made an issue of the report. George did not, keeping silent instead.
Worse, the file was also not shared by the ministry with the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) that went into the accountability aspect of the Gujarat carnage. Consequently, its report over the turn of the decade gave Modi a respite and virtual impunity to perpetrators. Calling the SIT report an eye-wash, Shah wonders in his book which ministerial cupboard his report is collecting dust. It required the general to spill the beans on this after finally retiring some 16 years since the tragic events. In the interim, Mr. Modi was deposited in New Delhi by an eponymous wave.
George Fernandes must not only be remembered for his showing in the pre-Emergency and Emergency days. He must bear the cross for the Gujarat carnage when, as the defence minister, he had 3000 troops on hand and not only failed to employ them, but played an active role in diverting them from their task. George Fernandes must now settle with those he is culpable - through acts of commission – of dispatching to their maker. Others involved will no doubt do so in their turn, Amen.