2002 Gujarat riots: Bias and passivity of police led to uncontrolled violence, says retired Lt. General

New Delhi: The Army put an end to the mayhem during the 2002 Gujarat riots within 48 hours (March 4) by “resolute, firm and fair action”, says retired Lt. General Zameer Uddin Shah in his upcoming memoir, but holds the “bias” and “politicisation” of the police responsible for the uncontrolled violence.

“The partisan attitude of police lay exposed when I observed that when minority-populated localities were surrounded by mobs, the police did not fire at the rioters laying siege, but into windows of surrounded homes of minorities, instead ostensibly to ‘keep the two rioting communities apart’, as sheepishly explained to me,” Shah says adding that the police, initially armed with ‘lathis’, were passive bystanders since orders for issue of rifles had not been given.

Shah, who led the army in quelling the riots, even challenges the “official figures of deaths and damage” and maintains in the memoir “The Sarkari Mussalman”, a copy of which is with IANS, that they “do not reflect a true picture of the actual extent of the carnage”.

The book is being published by Konark Publishers, and will be launched on October 13 at the India International Centre here by former Vice President Hamid Ansari.

Mentioning that he expressed his disapproval at the “contemptible and partisan attitude” of the police, Shah states that they stood as passive bystanders while the “mob was setting fire on streets and houses”. There was tardy reaction of the civil administration, according to him and selective imposition of curfews, which indicated partiality and politicisation.

He notes that at one stage, he “seriously considered recommending imposition of Martial Law”, but was discouraged as it could be “construed as overstepping” his “mandate”.

Recalling his visit to Godhra along with then Defence Minister George Fernandes, he writes that he advised the Railways to remove immediately the burnt coaches of the Sabarmati Express that had triggered the riots. “But the coaches remained in situ for many months — grim reminders and symbols of human hatred — triggering revulsion and heightening passions among those who saw them,” he recalls.

On being asked in confidence by Fernandes about what steps needed to be taken immediately, he recommended “an immediate overhaul of the police hierarchy and a police Director General (DG) from outside the Gujarat cadre”, he writes. “He (Fernandes) agreed with me, saying ‘You have taken the words out of my mouth.’ We waited but there was no change,” writes Shah, who retired as the Deputy Chief of Army Staff in 2008.

In describing the scene when the Army moved into cities and towns, he says that the situation was highly tense and communally charged. “Armed mobs were roaming unrestrained, committing arson and murder. In the urban areas, a curfew had been ordered, but not enforced. When the Army columns reached the towns, unruly mobs were freely burning and rioting. At a number of locations people were trapped in buildings and places of worship and were being attacked by mobs,” he writes.

In revealing the tardy reaction, he writes that “no civil officials could be contacted on the night of 28 February-1 March 2002”. He maintains that the civil administration “appeared to lack resolve to stem the violence”, adding that they were reluctant to enforce curfew as it was politically unpopular.

He further states that the higher police hierarchy was totally politicised and virtually divided along political lines. “There had been an erosion of authority of senior officers with undue importance being given to Station House Officers (Junior Commissioned Officer equivalent). These junior police officers had become a law unto themselves taking directions from ‘up’ instead of their chain of command,” he adds.

He does not explain in his book what “up” meant, nor was he willing to elaborate on this in his interview to IANS saying only that he did not want to “reopen old wounds”.

Shah reveals in the book that police stations were manned by IG-level officers and young army majors and captains were in a quandary dealing with them. “The worst blot on the police was targeting minority members of the (police) force itself,” he adds.

He notes that what 110 companies of the Para Military Forces and police could not do, was done in 48 hours by six Army battalions (24 companies), contending that he is “convinced” that the police forces had become “progressively communalised and un-representational”.

“In case they had more members of the minority community it would shame them into taking a more fair and unbiased posture,” he argues, before mentioning that minority representation is “even lower” in the Army but there has never been a case of bias and the Army columns have always instilled confidence in all communities.

In a “Herculean airlift effort”, the Indian Air Force — flying 60-odd flights of IL-76s and AN-32s — had ensured the timely arrival of 3,000 army troops in Ahmedabad on March 1, 2002 but they were stranded at the airbase without transport for a day as the state government was still “making the necessary arrangements” despite being promised earlier and a request being made directly to the then chief minister Narendra Modi in the presence of defence minister Fernandes.

Shah maintains, as reported by IANS on Friday, that February 28 and March 1, 2002 were the “crucial hours” when “most damage” was done. The “road columns” reached the Army on March 2 and by “resolute, firm and fair action”, the Army put an end to the mayhem within 48 hours, he says.

Shah is a decorated Army veteran and has been conferred the Param Vishisht Seva Medal, Vishisht Seva Medal and Sena Medal for his distinguished services to the armed forces. His book has been endorsed by at least two former chiefs of army staff, including General S. Padmanabhan, who was the army chief in 2002.