Naroda Gam case: Two Judges and Maya Memsaab
The Naroda Gam case was among the nine major riots in Gujarat following the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra on 27 February 2002
On 20 April, a special court in Ahmedabad acquitted all 69 accused in the 2002 Naroda Gam rioting case, including former BJP legislator Maya Kodnani and ex-Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi. The Naroda Gam case was among the nine major riots in Gujarat following the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra on 27 February 2002. For her role in the riots, Kodnani had received a life sentence. Judge Jyotsna Yagnik, who convicted Kodnani, had also lashed out at Gujarat Police for avoiding to “record certain names”.
In his book Between Memory and Forgetting: Massacre and the Modi Years in Gujarat (Yoda Press, 2020), Harsh Mander recounts all this and more, including Kodnani’s elevation to the cabinet of then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Excerpts:
Special Court judge Jyotsna Yagnik awarded the highest punishments to influential political leaders for leading one of the worst communal attacks in India’s history. In the past, occasionally the foot soldiers of communal massacres have been punished. But this was one of the first criminal cases in the history of the Indian Republic in which a person holding high public office was convicted for leading a communal massacre.
In her ruling, she expresses her compassion for the victims, most of whom were Muslim migrants from states like Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, and belonging to the poor and working class. She describes the massacre as ‘extremely brutal, gruesome, condemnable, inhuman’, ‘a case multiple murders’ and a ‘cyclone of violence, one of the black chapters in the history of democratic India’.
Her judgement, running into over 2,000 pages, recreates the unimaginable horrors that unfolded in Naroda Patiya on 28 Feb 2002.
The events of February 28 which emerge from her verdict are grisly and horrific. She found, based on the evidence presented before her, that around 9.30 am on the morning of February 28, the day when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had called for a Gujarat Bandh, riotous mobs poured into the Naroda Patiya settlement from all directions. These comprised volunteers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal, and were led by local leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party.
They wore saffron head bands, khaki pants, and carried weapons like trishuls and swords. With calls of violence, including “Maaro, Kaato” (slaughter, cut). “Ek bhi miyan bachna nahi chahiye” (Not a single Muslim man should be able to survive) and “Jai Shri Ram” (Victory to Lord Ram).
The crowds swelled further and were driven to fever-pitch after Maya Kodnani arrived in Naroda Patiya and gave a fiery hate speech, inciting the already violent mob to rape, loot, and kill en masse. Maya Kodnani, a gynaecologist and an MLA, was later appointed minister for women and child welfare by Narendra Modi.
According to Judge Yagnik’s findings, the violence thereafter took a steady turn for the worse when angry crowds spread out into Muslim chawls. They set on fire houses that they knew to be inhabited by Muslim families, pelted stones on Muslims, and shouted violent slogans against them. They also stoned and desecrated the local Noorani mosque and exploded gas cylinders inside the mosque.
The rioters were equipped with many cooking gas cylinders, as well as kerosene and petrol cans. They threw burning rags immersed in petrol and kerosene into Muslim houses to set these ablaze. They looted, ransacked and destroyed the properties of the Muslims. The rioters, armed with deadly weapons, including what are called guptis (small knives), sharp-edged tridents, scythes, spears, and swords, ruthlessly attacked the inhabitants, raped and killed women, torched men, women and children, maiming them, and in some cases, burned them to death.
Not only did the police refuse to act, several testimonials established that the police fired upon many innocent men and women while they were desperately trying to escape the mobs. Some terrified Muslim residents tried in vain to seek shelter inside the Noorani mosque. When rioters detonated cooking gas cylinders inside the mosque, the police fired at the terrorised and screaming victims trying to flee. They also lathi-charged the escaping crowds, beating them back with police batons, to deliberately push the fleeing Muslim victims back into their houses. Since the mobs were raiding their houses, they were thrust by the malign police into a death trap.
Based on the testimonies and evidence before her, the most sensational conclusion that Judge Yagnik reached was that the ‘kingpin’ of the entire operation was MLA Maya Kodnani. Eyewitness accounts successfully established that a mob, coming from the direction of Krishnanagar and Natraj Hotel, had gathered between the Noorani Masjid and the ST workshop where Maya Kodnani had come with her bodyguard Kirpal Singh, and had incited and excited the crowd to attack and kill Muslims and also attack and brutalise women.
Encouraged to violence and assured of protection by an elected member of the ruling party in power, members of the murderous mob began their attack on Noorani Masjid and set it on fire while the police watched. It was the confidence and protection afforded by a powerful person in this case, Maya Kodnani, an elected MLA, that emboldened the mob.
This also establishes a chain of command responsibility, from those who conspired and those who physically instigated to those who actually implemented the criminal conspiracy. Those in the mob who successfully carried out the criminal intent carried deadly weapons and inflammable substances like kerosene and petrol.
Several of the violent incidents that are linked to the same act of criminal conspiracy continued throughout the day and again Maya Kodnani and other accused persons had been seen between 12.30 and 1.45 pm coming in a vehicle, alighting, taking out swords from the car and distributing these weapons... Gas shortages for ordinary residences in Naroda Patiya area for weeks before the incident point to a sinister premeditation that precedes even the mass arson of the Sabarmati S-6 coach at Godhra on 27 February 2002.
Significantly, Judge Yagnik found the police investigation shoddy, deliberately inept, ineffective, and biased. Such defective investigation has marred most of the criminal cases filed after the 2002 carnage.
She noted in her judgement that the ‘police was not inclined to record certain names. The court is not sitting in Ivory Tower and it is fully aware and conscious as to what kind of devices and tactics are being played in hiding the real culprits, and more particularly when that real culprit is VIP…’
In a later part of the judgement regarding the culpability of the influential MLA gynaecologist Maya Kodnani, she says that ‘the police took all care to see to it that in all the statements of the eyewitnesses recorded there has to be a common recitation which was to the effect that “I am injured, my family members died or injured, my house and all property were ruined and looted by the mob of the miscreants but I do not know anyone of them”.’
The judge noted and rejected attempts by defence lawyers and certain police officers to project the communal riots as a ‘free fight’ between Hindu and Muslims. The ‘free fight’ theory was rejected on the factual basis that less than 5 per cent of those involved in the fighting were Muslims, and that almost all of the around 125 people killed and injured were Muslims, while the mob was almost entirely Hindu.
At the time of the massacre, Maya Kodnani was a member of the Gujarat legislature. Chief minister Modi thought it fit to elevate her after the massacre to the high office of a minister in his cabinet. Not just this, he gave her the portfolio of women and child welfare. For a woman charged credibly with leading a massacre which took the lives of large numbers of women and children, this was a particularly bitter blow. I cannot tell with surety if the irony was intended, but it was cruel.
As I said, this was the first judgment that I can recall in which a senior political leader has been punished for abetting mass murder since Independence. Judge Yagnik found Kodnani’s role to be so central to the massacre that she punished her with 26 years in jail.
But shortly after Modi was voted to power in Delhi in 2014, Maya Kodnani was granted bail on grounds of ill health. Selfies of her in yoga camps surfaced occasionally. Finally, in April 2018, the Gujarat High Court acquitted her of all charges.
On April 20, 2023 another Special Court judge acquitted Kodnani and 60 other accxused in yet another riot case in which 11 Muslims were killed at Naroda Gam. Excerpted from Beyond Memory and Forgetting: Massacre and the Modi Years in Gujarat, Yoda Press.
Excerpted from Beyond Memory and Forgetting: Massacre and the Modi Years in Gujarat, Yoda Press