May 31, 2016

[Courageous Rana Ayyub's Book] Challenging the Gujarat narrative | Jawed Naqvi (Dawn 31 May 2016)

Dawn - May 31, 2016

Challenging the Gujarat narrative
Jawed Naqvi

TENACIOUS individuals are increasingly carrying out the task of investigative journalism in India without the grudging help of newspapers or TV channels. Fortunately, so far, they have succeeded in the endeavour without grovelling before big proprietors. The latter remain too stymied by business exigencies to be committed to the excavation of the truth in a neutral, professional pact with a curious, enquiring citizenry.

Ideological leanings too, usually right-wing, have prodded big and small proprietors to place curbs on the questioning of the state, the government and its agencies be it in the mainstream newspapers or TV channels they tightly control.

Debajyoti Burman with his diligent revelations in the Mystery of Birla House was an early pioneer among investigative authors in the Nehru era. His self-published book on the Birlas disappeared before it could hit the stores, and a solitary copy is preserved in Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Library, evidence that it ever existed.

Another amazing book that vanished swiftly in India and abroad was an account of the Reliance Group by foreign correspondent Hamish McDonald. It seems that an obscure court order had sealed the fate of the book. Former top cop of Maharashtra S.M. Mushrif published two books questioning the official account of the murder of anti-terror police chief Hemant Karkare. The mainstream media buried both books in what Mushrif calls a conspiracy of silence. He had dared to point the finger at Hindu extremists for Karkare’s assassination.

Typewriter guerrillas of yore are turning to websites and books to publish their accounts of the rot.

Intrepid journalists like P. Sainath and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta have published disturbing books on deep-rooted rural and urban corruption that passes for public policy on agriculture and industry. Thakurta is facing a court case for describing a tycoon’s windfall income from a rigged oil and gas policy. Siddharth Varadarajan now runs an invaluable news portal after being made to leave, if I am right, as editor of The Hindu. Seema Mustafa is running a handy news and analysis portal. Others are similarly fighting it out with resolve.

So it is a palpable pattern in India that the typewriter guerrillas of yore are turning to the as yet less restrictive websites, and to books, to publish their accounts of the systemic rot, or to write their engaging exposés of corruption and the darkening shadow of communal fascism. Last week, Rana Ayyub came out with a promising new book — Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. It contains a series of as yet unpublished sting operations Ayyub carried out as a 26-year-old reporter in Modi-era Gujarat.

Ayyub has put together seriously troubling transcripts of filmed and recorded interviews of Gujarat bureaucrats and top cops in the book she has published herself. Why herself? Because, she says, she was turned away by the established publishers she approached and even by editors she had looked up to. Ayyub has thus joined the ranks of the more fearless and risk-taking of her colleagues. That these professionals largely comprise dismissed journalists like herself along with other doughty individuals offers a chance that the Murdoch-like monopoly over news in the Indian media industry can yet be challenged.

Ayyub embarked on her sting mission in the aftermath of the Gujarat massacres. Her parents were sitting in the small packed hall at the Habitat Centre last week where she shared her traumatic findings at a panel discussion. As is the pattern, the mainstream media buried the story. Someone on the panel did not show up too but the brave were there to stand with her.

Ayyub’s naturally curly hair she now sports had to be straightened when she posed as a US-based NRI admirer of Modi. Her mission, she told her Gujarati quarries, was to project the former chief minister’s successes among fans abroad. For that, Ayyub took the name of Maithili Tyagi, which enabled her to get access for many crucial conversations she quietly recorded. At the time her work was a project for Tehelka but later its editors changed their mind about carrying the sting.

In a discussion about the notorious Ishrat Jehan encounter case, taking one conversation she had, she gets a top politician named by his own top cop. It was a renowned standard bearer of Hindutva who was the one who kept Ishrat Jehan in his custody before ordering her liquidation, according to his police chief quoted by Ayyub. The policeman’s contention appears to fly in the face of subsequent official claims about her killing in a so-called anti-terror shootout.

In the discussions with her unsuspecting interlocutors, Ayyub tenaciously strives to establish systemic culpability in the sponsored violence against vulnerable people, elimination of individuals in fake encounters and not the least the mysterious murder of Modi’s home minister Haren Pandya. “The transcripts of the sting operation reveal the complicity of the state and its officials in crimes against humanity.” This is not a small charge.

How will Prime Minister Modi respond? Like his predecessors, he will address the US Congress next week. Let’s say it would be a fraught moment, for it was here, in the hallowed portals of the American promise of democracy, that a Bush-era US official was quizzed closely about the pogroms in Gujarat under Modi’s watch as chief minister.

That grilling produced what Shakespeare would call equivocation. Yes, there was bloodshed. No, all was not lost for Indian democracy since it has a robust legal system and the guilty would be punished. Bereft of the paraphrasing, what Christina Rocca, then US assistant secretary of state, told the senators about Gujarat was that “much action has been taken by the Indian government”, that the “legal system in India is agonisingly slow and that gives the impression that nothing is happening ... they did take action and they are continuing to take action”. If Rocca was right, then the denial of visa to Modi was wrong. The two positions have remained mutually aloof. Ayyub’s book with its many terrifying revelations has a good chance to tip the argument.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.