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Reporter’s Diary

Voyager Between Two Worlds

Having been undercover on the shadow lines between sanity and mayhem,
ASHISH KHETAN retraces a quest for truth

I HAD JUST finished breakfast and was settling down to the newspaper when my cellphone rang in the next room. Before I could reach it, the caller had disconnected and left an SMS. Call me, it read. The sender was Tarun Tejpal, my editor. I had returned from Gujarat only a couple of days ago, having completed a sting operation on Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s involvement in a spate of fake encounter killings. The story had exposed, fairly conclusively, that the Gujarat cops — more hitmen than cops — had made quite a practice of killing Muslims in these “encounters”. I wondered why Tarun wanted to talk to me so early in the morning (it was almost 11, but that, for most journalists, is an early hour). Maybe it was about the story’s fallout. Maybe those exposed had sent a legal notice.

I dialled Tarun with questions crowding my mind. “Ashish, have you heard about the vandalism in Baroda”, asked Tarun. Of course I’d heard. For years, Gujarat had been in the news for all the wrong reasons — this was one more instance of a few lunatics, doped out on “Hindutava”, going on a rampage. This time their target was the Fine Arts Faculty of Vadodara’s Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU). “It’s appalling,” said Tarun. The hooligans had already been on more than one TV channel, articulating their twisted ideology, announcing loudly to the world how the “obscene” portrayal of Hindu deities had hurt their religious sentiments. But there seemed a larger motive behind the targeting of a few Fine Arts students and professors, Tarun argued. Find out who these people are, what they do and above all what their views in private are as opposed to their public postures.

As I put the phone down, I felt a sense of melancholy enveloping me. Three back-toback investigative reports (we had also exposed Sanjay Dutt for his involvement in the 1993 serial bombing and Maharashtra DGP PS Pasricha for his illegally-gotten wealth) had made me a bit battle-weary. But there I was, within a few hours of that call, packing my bags to leave for Gujarat, a place that evoked foreboding every time I went there.

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhury

My first visit to Vadodara had been in the winter of 2004, after Zaheera Sheikh — the prime witness in the Best Bakery massacre — had made yet another retraction in court, playing yet again into the hands of her tormentors. As the autorickshaw took me from Vadodara airport to Alkapuri, the city centre where all the hotels are, I passed places I’d visited then — the station, the roundabouts, the restaurants. I remembered how incredible that visit was. But the familiarity of the place, half-blackened by shadow, half illuminated by streetlights, only made me the more sombre. Now, as in 2004, I had set out for a story, armed with nothing more than a couple of spycams and some daredevilry.

Now, as then, the biggest question was where to start? And, now as then, I knew nobody, not a soul in this alien land. A magic, perhaps divine intervention had seen me through my 2004 visit — within a fortnight of my arrival, I’d been sitting right before Zaheera’s chief tormentor, BJP MLA Madhu Srivastava, the local ganglord, in his own front garden, he on a swing, I on a shabby plastic chair, with a spycam on my lap. Then, as now, my brief was simple. Nothing was adding up in the Zaheera episode, Tarun had said. I was to join together the scattered pieces and complete the picture. And when completed, it added up to a nice round figure: Rs 18 lakh. The sum Srivastava had paid Zaheera to buy her silence. But that was then. Miracles don’t happen everyday, I told myself. Still I had to give it a shot.

After a frantic search for a reasonably priced hotel room, I checked into Hotel Aditi International, Room No 506. Except for its name, there was nothing grand about the hotel. The peeling paint and the murky light of the bare room, did little to cheer me up. Maybe a few cigarettes would bring some clarity. Then, an idea floated up, above the plume of self-doubt and nicotine. Since I didn’t know where to go, why not take a few small steps on every lane that opened up? And then see which road would lead to my goal?

I hastily made a few calls to rights activists protesting the events at MSU; I also got in touch with a contact in Mumbai who had friends in Gujarat. I told him to put me in touch with people in the BJP’s Vadodara unit without telling them I was a journalist. “Tell them I’m Piyush Aggarwal, a research scholar from Delhi University, writing a thesis on Hindutva in Gujarat.” He said he’d give me a few references in the morning. The next day, I called him at 10am. He did not respond. I called several times, to no avail.

I then decided to line up meetings with a few activists. Later in the day, one of them put me in touch with Prof Iftikhar, who was among the few at MSU to come out openly against the saffron hooligans. Iftikhar spoke of how the BJP had crowded the MSU senate and syndicate — its two governing bodies — with men affiliated to either the RSS or the VHP. One’s appointment, promotion, even authority in the university all hinged on which side of the ideological divide — Right against Centrist and Left — one was.

My Mumbai contact finally answered my call. He gave an excuse for not having been available earlier. I was more interested in getting the names and numbers of local BJP men. He obliged with a few. “I hope you’ve told them I’m a research scholar, not a journalist,” I said. My contact assured me this was exactly what he’d done. I called up Mr A. He was a bit probing, asking questions about the nature and purpose of my research. He didn’t sound like I’d convinced him, but he put me in touch with Mr B., who in turn put me in touch with one Dhimant Bhatt who, I was told, was personal assistant to the Vadodara BJP MP and would introduce me to the right people.

From the news, I already had the name of Neeraj Jain, the BJP office bearer who led the ruckus at MSU. I called up Bhatt and told him I wanted to meet Neerajbhai Jain (bhai is an essential suffix to most names in Gujarat). At the appointed time, I walked into the high-ceilinged reception room of the Vadodara BJP party office. Half an hour later, Jain walked in, a short man in his late 30s with a newly-acquired paunch. He was fixated with Muslims, whom he evidently considered the root of all evil. But his hatred for Muslims did not seem to flow naturally — it seemed more a matter of political expediency, of routine. From ordinary Bajrang Dal worker to Vadodara BJP general secretary, Jain had travelled a long enough path to know that Hate Muslims was his ticket to political success. Vandalising paintings in the name of Hinduism had only enhanced his reputation.

JAIN’S MUSLIM phobia did not make a story for me. A day passed before I decided to meet Dhimant Bhatt who, besides being a BJP man, was the MSU chief accountant. At 11:30am on May 19, I walked into Bhatt’s second floor office in an administrative block on the MSU campus. Struggling between perusing files and answering a near-incessant string of phone calls, he was most hospitable, offering me water, then tea, then showing me the way to the toilet (where I switched on the two spy cams I was wearing). Fifteen minutes into the conversation, after Bhatt was convinced I was as staunch a Hindu as he was (love for Hinduism being displayed on both sides by heaping abuse on Muslims), he uttered a few lines which would not only redefine my story but also, I believe, the way the nation sees the Gujarat riots. “I was involved in burning down the houses of Professor Bandukwala and the bureaucrat, Peerzada… Disguised as a peacekeeper, I supplied weapons during the riots… We should put the Sangh’s lathis aside and take up AK-56s instead.”

My head began to reel. Bhatt might be an accountant by day, but his true vocation lay in tormenting religious minorities. Destroying paintings was, for him, a small skirmish. The real battle had been fought and won five years ago, in 2002. And five years ago was where the real story lay, I told Harinder Baweja, known also as Shammy, my immediate boss. Both Tarun and Shammy agreed, and told me to go after the story. Resources and time were no constraint, said Tarun. “Let your story be the last word on the Gujarat riots,” Shammy said. And thus began a sixmonth journey. A journey that would take me back in time, looking to rewrite the history of the year 2002. A journey in which my only companions would be fear and hope — hope of finding the truth and fear of being consumed by it; hope of hunting down the murderers and fear of being hunted myself. Hope, which is so rare for so many in Gujarat. Fear, a permanent shadow, almost an extension of your being, always lurking at your shoulder.

I set out to meet as many VHP, BJP and RSS men as I could. I asked Bhatt for a few introductions to members of the ‘Parivar’ — all the Hindu organisations are known collectively as ‘Parivar’ or one single family — in Ahmedabad. He readily agreed. And the journey continued, In Ahmedabad, one man would put me in touch with another, another with a third. A pyramid of contacts rose and kept rising. A few days later, I asked a BJP man if he could send me to Godhra — a small town that had leapt out of obscurity to become one of the most important words in the Indian political lexicon, a tragic conundrum yet to be solved.

Next day, I was in Godhra, sitting before Kakul Pathak, a BJP man and an eyewitness to the Sabarmati Express fire. He referred me to Haresh Bhatt, former Bajrang Dal president, now a BJP MLA from Godhra. Bhatt was an extempore speaker, a man who preferred being heard to having a discussion. For a journalist, such men, particularly if they have things to reveal, are a blessing. After 45 minutes of tiring discourse on Hindutva, I edged a question in. “We” (meaning the Hindus; Bhatt was convinced I was an adherent of the militant religiosity he had preached all his life) “never keep arms. How then could we manage to kill so many Muslims in 2002?” “If I tell, do you promise it won’t be in your book?” (I had said I was writing a book to propagate the VHP’s brand of Hindutva.) “I made bombs, rocket launchers, swords, and distributed them across Gujarat. Firearms and swords were smuggled in from other states as well. It’s the first time I’m telling anyone this outside the party circle,” he said. For a moment, I was numbed with fear.

That was June 1, 2007. Over the next few months, I would meet many who had been charged with rioting and killing and many who had worked behind the scenes. Along the way, I negotiated dead ends, spells of despair, moments of sheer terror. I was travelling once with Bhatt in his car from Ahmedabad to Godhra. Mid-way, he received a phone call. After disconnecting it, he turned to me and said he had just been informed that a journalist from Delhi was carrying out a sting operation on the Sabarmati Express incident and that he had been told to be careful. Oh, really, I said, with a straight face.

A FEW MINUTES later, Bhatt’s driver steered the car off the main road and turned into a narrow, deserted, kutcha road. As the car stopped outside a desolate, one-storey house, another car pulled up and two men got out. Bhatt and these men went into the house and told me to wait. I had two spy-cams on me and all it needed to blow my cover was a body frisk. I prepared myself for the worst. Twenty minutes later, Bhatt returned and we set out for Godhra again. The two men went off in a different direction. Bhatt told me he’d had been doing business with them.

On another occasion, Bharat Bhatt, a Sabarkantha public prosecutor, became suspicious about my identity. Having told me how he’d threatened and bought off Muslim witnesses, Bhatt called me as soon as I’d taken his leave and said he had serious doubts I was an RSS man. Within a few minutes, another VHP man I’d stung a few days earlier called and asked for my location. However, I survived these close shaves and kept sailing. Whenever the tension became too much, I’d make a quick trip to Mumbai, to my wife and daughter, my home, my cocoon.

For six months, I remained a voyager between two worlds — my world, where I was Ashish Khetan, a journalist with a host of Muslim and Christian friends. And then there was the other world, where I was Piyush Aggarwal, a member of the “Parivar”, a Hindu zealot, a religious fanatic, with only murderers and rapists for friends.

Nov 03, 2007

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