It was a day of mixed fortunes for Gujarat’s chief minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. On the one hand, a Gujarat court accepted a clean chit to him in the 2002 Gujarat riot case. On the other, in a move BJP called illegal, the Cabinet approved setting up of an inquiry commission to probe alleged snooping by his government.
The clean chit
In a major relief to Modi, a metropolitan court in Ahmedabad rejected a petition of Zakia Jafri, the widow of former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri who was among the 69 people killed in the Gulbarg Housing Society massacre in 2002. The petition had challenged the closure report of a Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) that had on February 8 last year absolved Modi of complicity in the conspiracy behind the carnage.
With the quashing of Jafri’s plea, there are no pending cases relating to the 2002 communal riots against Modi. Jafri has the option of filing a review petition or appealing in a higher court. Her lawyer told the media she would contest the court decision within a month.
“According to the SC order, now every step will take place according to the Criminal Procedure Code and the complainant is free to appeal against it,” said SIT counsel R S Jamuar.
Welcoming the court order, BJP leader Arun Jaitley said: “Modi goes into the 2014 campaign untainted by any propaganda.” The verdict had proved propaganda could never be a substitute for truth, added Jaitley, also the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
Modi posted on microblogging website, Twitter: “Satyamev Jayate... Truth alone Triumphs.” Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he said in another tweet: “Truth by nature is self-evident. As soon as you remove the cobwebs of ignorance that surround it, it shines clear.”
The snooping probe
On Thursday, the Union Cabinet approved setting up of an inquiry commission to probe incidents of physical and electronic surveillance in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi, allegedly by former Gujarat home minister Amit Shah, a close aide of Modi’s.
The commission, expected to be headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, will file its report in the next 90 days.
In November, two investigative news websites — Cobrapost and Gulail — had claimed Shah had misused the state police and other surveillance machinery to illegally snoop on and stalk a young woman on behalf of a mysterious ‘saheb’. The allegations were based on audio recordings of conversations in 2009 between Shah and IPS officer G L Singhal, then a superintendent of police in Gujarat’s anti-terrorism squad.
The Cabinet decision was taken after the home ministry floated a proposal to set up an inquiry commission. The ministry had argued, since the alleged illegal surveillance was not limited to Gujarat, the state government had lost its jurisdiction to conduct an inquiry on its own. On Wednesday, Gulail had claimed it had another set of 39 tapes that showed the snooping extended beyond Gujarat.
The Gujarat government has resisted any attempt by the Centre to constitute an inquiry panel. It has argued that the state alone could pursue the case, since law-and-order is a state subject.
In November, soon after the tapes were made public, the Gujarat government had appointed a two-member commission, headed by a retired woman judge of the Ahmedabad High Court.
The Cabinet’s Thursday decision drew strong reaction from BJP, which said the Congress had indulged in “witch-hunt” and “political vindictiveness”.
“It is a clear case of political vindictiveness... it is witch-hunt... It is the fascist Congress with its emergency mindset that has taken such a decision,” said BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman.
Jaitley questioned the legal standing of the commission. “The commission is legally suspect and will be challenged in court,” he tweeted.
The Congress, on the other hand, welcomed the move. Its leader Digvijaya Singh said: “It should have happened much earlier because there was an open violation of Indian Telegraph Act and Information Technology Act.”
Legal experts said phone-tapping was a measure of last resort and required to be authorised by a notified government body. Unless there is an issue of public safety or grave crime, such methods cannot be resorted to. The penalty is defined by the Telegraph Act and, in the event of conviction, carries a three-year prison term.
“Tapping phones is rampant, ranging from blackmail to corporate espionage. One can file a writ petition against it or approach the Human Rights Commission for invasion of privacy,” said senior advocate Aman Lekhi.
The Congress welcomed the decision of the Cabinet. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said, “It should have happened much earlier because there is an open violation of Indian Telegraph Act and Information Technology Act,” he said.