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My pain is nothing compared to that of the 2002 riot victims: Former Guj cop Rahul Sharma

Soumya Shankar | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:32 IST
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The vindication

  • Central Administrative Tribunal has quashed the Gujarat govt\'s complaint aganinst former cop Rahul Sharma
  • By calling the order \"illegal\". CAT has vindicated Sharma. Here\'s what he has to say

The persecution

  • Sharma was persecuted for acting against rioters during the 2002 Gujarat riots
  • He believes that there was high-level complicity in the riots but the SIT didn\'t do its job

More in the story

  • How Sharma saved around 400 Muslims during the riots
  • What Sharma has to say about Narendra Modi\'s role
  • Why did he choose to take voluntary retirement from the police service?

Just before 27 February, 2002, the day the Sabarmati Express was gutted at Godhra, leading to the Gujarat riots, IPS officer Rahul Sharma was transferred from Vadodara to Bhavnagar as district police chief.

Here, at the peak of communal violence, he saved 380 Muslim children from a mob of about 10,000 rioters. Apparently, this made him an eyesore for many senior politicians and the police top brass in the state. This was reflected in a series of arbitrary transfers, chargesheets and show-cause notices against him till 2015, when he took voluntary retirement after 23 years of service.

In March 2002, Sharma was transferred from Bhavnagar and made DCP (control room), Ahmedabad. While investigating the violence at Naroda Patiya and Gulberg Society, he collected data from mobile service providers of all calls received and made in Ahmedabad during the riots.

This data, containing incriminating call records of senior ministers, police officers, and RSS and VHP members was handed over to the Crime Branch in the form of CDs, which were subsequently reported as "lost". However, while deposing before the Nanavati Commission that was set up in March 2002 to inquire into the riots, Sharma submitted a copy of this data that he had preserved.

Also read: 3 Presidents have rejected the Guj anti-terror Bill: here's why it should be buried for good

Meanwhile, the Crime Branch accused Sharma of tampering with evidence. However, when these charges did not stick, he was served with a departmental charge-sheet in August 2011 that effectively blocked his promotion.

A few days back, the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) quashed these charges. The CAT also termed the government's action of suppressing information regarding the CDs as breach of "its sanctified responsibility under Raj Dharma".

In an evocative statement, the CAT called the chargesheet against Sharma "illegal, coloured by arbitrariness, tainted by mischief and malice as the actual result of suppression of the mobile tracking records in the CD is to benefit the actual perpetrators of brutal and violent crimes through which hundreds of innocents died needless and violent deaths."

This has come as a huge vindication for Sharma. He discussed the CAT decision in a conversation with Catch.

Edited excerpts.

What does this verdict mean to you?

I took retirement in February 2015. This case was coming in the way of some of my gratuity benefits. With this being cleared, hopefully I'll get that.

With the CAT giving you a moral and legal clean chit, do you feel vindicated?

Well, I'm not really perturbed about this chargesheet. I always felt that my case was very strong. The charges were all based on falsehoods. My stand has been vindicated. Till now, as far as my cases are concerned, I have got justice.

Could you tell us about the different chargesheets and notices served to you and their consequences?

I was denied promotion when the departmental promotional committee meeting was held on 7 December 2013. Just a day before, the department had served me with a different chargesheet-a quite frivolous one-alleging misconduct in 2012, while I was DIG at Rajkot. I was the only gazetted officer there, and in my absence, some of the office correspondence was signed by a non-gazetted officer, which was technically against the rules. However, this was common procedure right from 1995 when the Rajkot office was set up and it continued even after my transfer. The whole thing was done out of sheer malice.

Then, in the latest show-cause they accused me of using my official vehicle for private purposes and paying for it after a gap of three months. They could have simply charged interest or imposed a fine, which would have been around ten rupees. So, for ten rupees they served an IPS officer a show-cause notice. With the entire state machinery loaded against me, that is all they could get! Is this a verdict against me or a compliment?

The state machinery was standing against me but all they could get was an offence of Rs 10

Now, as of today, no chargesheets are pending against me.

Can you recount that day in 2002 when you ordered your forces to open fire on a rioting mob and saved around 400 Muslims?

It was 2 March 2002, I was newly posted in Bhavnagar-unlike other places in Gujarat, the riots in Bhavnagar started on 1st of March. At that time we were working on a shift of just 100 men. Around 3 pm, I received a message from one inspector, requesting more forces at a madrassa situated around 14 km from Bhavnagar city. This was unexpected, so I decided to take a look.

When I reached, I saw a mob of 5,000-10,000 people burning rags, tyres, etc. We were almost 20 hours into the riot. Now, when you face a mob, it is the mind that works more than the bullet. So, we first issued a warning, but it was of no use. I was carrying a musket and a 3.3 rifle, but I preferred the musket because it doesn't have the potency to kill, only injure. I didn't want any deaths.

And as a matter of principle, I always take the first shot-to convey to my force that I'm a part of you.

So, I fired the musket. By that time, the rioters had realized what the Bhavnagar police meant business. So, a lot of them ran away-only the ones obsessed with rioting stayed. As the mob started to disperse, I took control of the situation and told some of the villagers, "If you continue in this way, there will be mourning in your village by evening." I requested them to abstain from attacking the madrassa because then, we would have to open fire.

Meanwhile, Bhavnagar city could not be left unattended for too long. So, I instructed the inspector that if anything happens, do not hesitate to fire. I also told them that I'd like to shift the 380 children and 20 faculty members of the madrassa at night. With these instructions I left for Bhavnagar city. But in the evening, the mob again surrounded the madrassa. This time, my inspector did not succumb to the pressure. It was unfortunate, I don't remember who took the shot, but two people died.

How was the rescue operation of the 400 people carried out?

I started moving from Bhavnagar city around 9 pm. The madrassa had just one approach road. I saw the mob was burning tyres and logs on that road, so there was no way for the police to reach the madrassa. But we reached the place through kacchha roads of the nearby villages. Then, there were two challenges on the way out: one, there would be an ambush waiting for us; and two, we only had 3 buses at our disposal for the 400 people and our men. We somehow sandwiched everyone in, and I instructed the force to avoid any confrontation because our prime motive was to get those people safely to Ibrahim Masjid in Bhavnagar city.

Also read: Meet the 23 cops who embody Gujarat's carrot-and-stick policy

I decided to move along with the buses, because nobody would dare attack if they saw my vehicle going through. I also asked for my wireless to be revved up to the loudest, so that the people hiding in ambush wouldn't realise that I was alone with my gunmen. Thus, nobody got injured and the children were safely taken to Bhavnagar city.

You were then transferred out of Bhavnagar within a matter of days?

I joined as Bhavnagar DIG on 17 of February, and on 26 of March, I was transferred to Ahmedabad where I was placed as DCP control room.

Isn't it strange that you were transferred to an even more powerful position where you were responsible for investigating the riots?

It is by providence they asked me to join the investigations on the Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg Society cases. In Hindi, there's a saying "vinaash kaale vipreet buddhi". When you are bound to suffer, you will take all the wrong decisions.

What kind of organisational machinations did you see behind the riots in Bhavnagar?

In Bhavnagar, I was the senior-most police official. People did attempt to interfere but they knew they wouldn't be successful. On 21 March, a mob tried to riot again. In the morning, we discovered two big barrels of kerosene being transported in a rickshaw. My forces caught it, which led us to 20 people. Once they were arrested, there was much pressure for their release through senior police officers, including the then Deputy General of Police Mr Chakravarthy. They did not come out very openly, but the suggestion from them was clear.

Your work as an investigator in Ahmedabad generated much controversy and counter allegations. Can you spell out the content and the making of the CD that held crucial information regarding the riots?

The CD was a collection of call records that were exchanged on all mobile phones in Ahmedabad city between February and March 2002. Back then, there were just two mobile companies - one being AT&T which is now Idea and the other was Celforce which is now Vodafone. Mobile phones operate on the principle that when you call from any location, it gets recorded. Every phone tower splits its coverage into 3 parts, each spread out in 120 degrees. Having studied engineering at IIT Kanpur, I had a fair understanding of how these systems work.

During the riots, mobile phones were instrumental in maneuvering the mobs. And there was street-level planning-who will go where to burn what and target whom. So, if I had the information that a particular person was controlling a mob, I could track his phone and it would tell me exactly where he was and when. So, the CD offered critical and scientific assistance in determining the truth.

Who were the key people you had tracked?

I would not like to name them, as the investigations are still underway. But I'll give you an example.

A senior IPS officer in Ahmedabad is at Gulbarg Society around 12 pm. Around 12:05, he gets a call from the then Commissioner of Police ordering him to go to Naroda Patiya as there is a lot of disturbance there. Immediately after he moved, there's a message from the Police station in Gulbarg society saying the police has opened fire. Now it can't be that the moment the police fires, they head for the microphone and send a message.

It means that when this officer was asked to leave Gulbarg society, the situation was already so bad that it warranted police firing a few minutes later, or that police firing had already taken place when this officer was there.

At Naroda Patiya, this officer declared a curfew at 12:29 pm, and left at 12:31 pm for Daryapur where nothing was happening. Despite the knowledge that there had been firing in Gulbarg society and that Naroda Patiya was disturbed, he chose to not take command of these places. And within 2 minutes of declaring the curfew, he didn't have the patience to stay and disperse the mob. Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg society reported 97 and 47 deaths respectively.

Does it not warrant an explanation from this officer? Similar incidents happened with other police officers across the state. As a police officer, you're supposed to be investigating in the right manner, which nobody did. Not even the SIT.

What did the SIT do wrong?

Nobody asked the right questions. They did arrest Mayaben Kodnani and a few others, but is that the end? Did the riots occur on the insistence of Kodnani?

I'm sure there was connivance in the SIT. Every step had to be proved to back up our investigation, but they did not do that.

SIT didn't ask the right question. They arrested Kodnani, but did the riots occour at her insistence?

This is how it happened. So, mobile phone companies set up towers where each tower has a specific jurisdiction. The first thing that the SIT should have done was to identify that a particular mobile phone was being used by a particular person. The second was to identify the tower. So, if I am to say where this mobile phone was, I have to prove that this tower was at a particular place. Only then will you be able to prove the authenticity of the call.

When the SIT called the mobile phone companies for recording statements, they were asked to prove whether this tower was actually at a particular place where the riots happened. For this purpose, the senior-most people in AT&T and Celforce were called. The statements they gave were, "I do not know whether this tower was there or not." Can you believe this? A telecom company that owns the tower says they do not know whether it was there or not!

Also read: The bizarre FIR against Teesta Setalvad as Zakia Jafri case approaches

So you're saying, the mobile phone companies were also complicit?

What more can I say? You yourself have said it.

At what level did you feel persecuted? Do you feel there was a pattern in the way the authorities went after Sanjiv Bhatt and other upright officers?

Bhavnagar was the only district in Gujarat where rioting was successfully contained in 2002. But the SP who controlled the riot in his area while the entire state was burning was transferred to an outer district where there was no work.

Why were only those officers, who had done sufficiently well in curbing the riots, transferred? Why were they targeted? Not a single chargesheet was filed against any officer in whose jurisdiction the deaths took place.

Not a single chargesheet was filed against any officer in whose jurisdiction the riots took place

Having said that, now I can say I don't really feel persecuted. And I can say the same for Sanjiv Bhatt, RB Sreekumar and many others who stood their ground. It's not a question of persecution. During the riots, people lost their lives, their land, their family members. My pain is nowhere comparable to theirs.

What more could they have done to me? They transferred me to a bad location, I accepted. They stalled my promotion, I accepted. As an IPS officer, if I was able to do anything in service of the people, that's my success.

I am very happy to say that there have been quite a few officers who became shining examples of this. And so many constables and junior police officers I knew put their lives at risk to save people.

So, you feel you have got your due? If you could go back in time, would you do things differently?

Yes, I have got my due. I now have a story to tell. I've been telling you this story for the past hour.

I'm a proud man.

Where were you posted after Surat and when and why did you decide to take retirement?

From 2004 to 2009 I went to CBI on deputation. After CBI, they posted me to the armed unit. In 2015, I took voluntary retirement.

I am an IPS officer, which is what I voluntarily chose to become. My expectation as a police officer was to look after the security of the people. If I wanted to simply head an armed base, I would have rather gone to CISF, which I would have got in any case. I could have been better taken care of, with lesser controversies and lesser political intervention.

But if I've chosen the Indian Police Service over the CISF, BSF or CRPF, it is because I felt this rank would give me better job satisfaction and a better opportunity to serve the people.

From 2009-2015 I was in the armed department, which was worth engaging in for just about 30-50 minutes a day. This is not why I joined IPS. Then there were certain personal issues. I decided whatever I have done, is done. I'm still young and can make a life for myself in the legal profession. I've joined the Bar and am practicing as an advocate in the Gujarat High Court.

When you were in Bhavnagar during the madrassa episode, did you feel you were doing something larger than your immediate duty, something great and heroic?

It didn't sink in at that time. I still feel, with all humility and respect for all men who stood by me - I am tall because they made me taller. I had assured the Muslims in my district that even under the gravest of provocations, they must not riot. See the Muslim community in Bhavnagar was largely quiet - which was a big asset-- at least one section was not rioting.

I assured them that I would reach wherever they are within 5 minutes of giving me a phone call.. If I don't come personally within this time, I told them they could go ahead and riot. I also assured that my mobile phone was never switched off. With the grace of God, I did not fail them.

In one such incident, they called me. I went there and saw two of my constables, at a chauraha lying on the ground with fully cocked guns. When I asked them what happened, they got up and told me there was a mob of 500-1000 people but as they heard the sounds of rifles they ran away. Then one of those constables asked the SP, why have you come here? I still feel moved when I think of that incident.

This constable had the courage to tell me, "I trust you, you trust us with our job". That gave him the courage to ask me, why have you come here? I had no answer. I just kept my hand on his shoulder and left the place.

In many ways, I was only the lucky chief, the battle was won by my men.

Would you like to say anything on Narenda Modi's alleged role in the riots?

No. But then those are questions that he should answer. Whatever clean chit he claims, I have doubts about the impartiality, fairness and completeness of the investigation. I explained to you how the CDs were investigated. A retired Director of the CBI was heading the investigation under SIT. That such a small point could be missed, cannot be unintentional.

Now that you are in the legal profession, you are more empowered to take further steps concerning the riots. Do you intend to do that?

This entire issue has been so politicised that it goes beyond the realm of clear activism. The moment you take a step, there will be so many charges, allegations and counter allegations. There are in fact many sincere people working in this field. I don't think I can add much to their already great efforts.

Edited by Aditya Menon

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First published: 30 January 2016, 6:19 IST
 
Soumya Shankar @shankarmya

A correspondent with Catch, Soumya covers politics, social issues, education, art, culture and cinema. A lamenter and celebrator of the human condition, she hopes to live long enough to witness the next big leap in human evolution or the ultimate alien takeover of the world.

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