Ali Ahmed


When the army is called in aid of civil authority, robust action taken by the army in a timely manner can prevent civil disturbance from exacting a strategic cost. The recent revelations on army inaction in the critical first 24 hours during the Gujarat carnage in 2002 are examined.


The release of the memoir, The Sarkari Mussalman: The Life and Travails of a Soldier Educationist (2018), written by Lieutenant General Zameer Uddin Shah (retired) was with a degree of publicity not usually associated with autobiographies of military men. Shah’s life story was slightly different from most military men, since it culminated with him heading a leading academic institution, Aligarh Muslim University. But, his significant contribution is drawing national attention to his revelations in The Sarkari Mussalman in the chapter, “Operation Parakram and Operation Aman” (Shah 2018: 114–33), on the Gujarat carnage in 2002.


Shah was commanding the Bison division that was earmarked to respond to the call for aid to civil authority made by the Gujarat administration. The Godhra incident on 27 February 2002, in which a railway coach carrying Hindu kar sevaks(volunteers)—returning from the purnahuti yajna organised by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) at Ayodhya (Hindu 2001)—was burnt and the bodies of the victims were taken to Ahmedabad and handed over to the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, led to an explosive situation. The orders for the handing over of these bodies reportedly originated in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government under Narendra Modi (Hindu 2012).


Under normal circumstances, Shah would not have figured in the story. Shah’s division, which was otherwise based in Hyderabad, was practising its paces in the deserts near Jodhpur as part of the then ongoing Operation Parakram, India’s military mobilisation in the wake of the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. An aid to civil authority call in Gujarat would in the normal course of events, have had the Ahmedabad-based infantry division scrambling, but the division was deployed in a defensive role along the border and could not be spared. Shah’s division, awaiting its marching orders for attack as part of a strike corps, was at hand.


At that juncture, the Indian Army had transited to intensive training to keep up the pressure on General Pervez Musharraf to deliver on his United States’ brokered de-escalatory promise made on 12 January (Krepon and Nayak 2006: 13, 18). Shah, therefore, was keyed up but with nowhere to go. He informs in his book of receiving a call on 28 February from the then army chief, General Sundararajan Padmanabhan. The army chief ordered Shah to take his formation and quell the disturbances in Gujarat (Shah 2018: 115), launching him on Operation Aman, the aid to civil authorities in Gujarat after the carnage had broken out.


An Inexcusable Delay


Shah’s division was airlifted from Jodhpur to Ahmedabad overnight. On arriving on the night of 28 February–1 March, he found that the wherewithal for an aid to civil authority task—magistrates, vehicles, police liaison, guides, etc—that was to be furnished by the state administration was missing. As the book suggests, he rushed to see the chief minister, whereupon, finding the then defence minister, George Fernandes, with Modi, he made his pitch for the assistance required. The revelation in Shah’s book is that the support of the civil administration, though promised by Modi with the defence minister in tow, was not forthcoming through the following day, 1 March. Instead, Fernandes took the opportunity to address troops at the airfield. Finally, on 2 March, 34 hours since the troops had arrived, the vehicles arrived and the troops fanning out in them put an end within 48 hours to the carnage (Shah 2018: 116–17).


Shah’s after action report on Operation Aman is a document calling out for the attention of right to information activists. Shah makes it clear that the absence of civilian administrative support for his division was not merely administrative failure (Shah 2018: 212). He takes care to leave readers with the unmistakable impression that his testimony is yet another piece of evidence that the carnage was one-sided violence at the behest and under the facilitative cover of the state administration (Shah 2018: xvii, 121). It is a sign of authoritarian times that even a general who has “fished in troubled waters” (Shah 2018: xvii) has to remain circumspect.


Coming as Shah’s testimony does, closely preceding the developments in the case related to the custodial killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh—in which links have surfaced (in a witness testimony) between the killing of a former Gujarat home minister, Haren Pandya, and the cover-up of the Gujarat carnage—it is pertinent in kneading truth into the narrative. According to a witness deposing in the Sohrabuddin case, Gujarat police officer D G Vanzara, known for having links with Modi and Amit Shah (once home minister under Modi in Gujarat), allegedly conspired to have Pandya killed (Times of India 2018a). Pandya, a Modi rival in the BJP, who supposedly had the goods on the role of the state administration in the Gujarat carnage, was proceeding to spill the beans (Anand 2002) and, therefore, had to go (Wire 2018).


The right-wing propagated narrative is that the fire on Sabarmati Express was a planned Muslim-perpetrated one and was followed by riots, implying Muslim-provoked two-sided violence in which the Muslims, being short on numbers, ended up being on the losing side. In the counter-narrative, largely based on the testimony of dissenters in the state administration, Modi, in a meeting on the night of 27 February 2002 at his official residence, allegedly told the civil authorities and police not to interfere with the letting-off of steam by the incensed majority over the following 72 hours (Anand 2002). Feeding the BJP narrative, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) mandated by the Supreme Court has a sanitised version of the late-night meeting (SIT 2011: 57–58, 392), one under challenge in the Supreme Court in the Zakia Jafri case (Setalvad 2018).


Shah also disputes as a “blatant lie” the version of the army’s deployment in the SIT’s closure report on its investigation of Modi’s role in the Gujarat carnage (NDTV 2018). The SIT had credited Modi with alacrity in calling out the army, dating the decision to call the army to 1 pm on 28 February (SIT 2011: 429) and the provisioning of logistic support by 2.30 pm on 1 March (NDTV 2018). The SIT reports the deployment of the army beginning 11 am on 1 March (SIT 2011: 447–48), which is disputed by Shah in his book and can easily be verified by the war diaries—day-to-day records—of the units involved.


The dissenting narrative stands strengthened by Shah’s testimony that his force, some 3,000 troops, remained inactive all through 1 March 2002 on the Ahmedabad airfield as they failed to be speedily vectored on to the areas of violence. It was only at the end of the 72-hour forced inaction between 27 February and 1 March that the state administration bestirred itself on 2 March.


The implications of Shah’s reopening of the widely suspect popular narrative on the Gujarat carnage are far-reaching. Politically, it puts a shadow over the rise of its then chief minister, Narendra Modi, to a national stature relying on a strongman image. A facet of this image that appeals to his ideological followers is his alleged boldness in the overseeing of the pogrom. Today, Modi is bidding for an extension to continue being in power. The concern in the BJP in the run-up to the elections is that the reality behind Modi’s development plank has been exposed. This may push the BJP to make an ideological appeal (Times of India 2018b). Political dividend from polarisation is sought to compensate for the damage from a succession of policy failures such as demonetisation, joblessgrowth, farmer suicides, the decline of the value of the rupee, the challenge by stone-pelting youth in Kashmir, and the numerous volte-faces in India’s Pakistan and China policies. Polarisation is seen as the trump card to carry forward Hindutvavadis (cultural nationalists) for another 50 years in Amit Shah’s estimate (Hindustan Times 2018), with the national security adviser, Ajit Doval, in his pitch on national security, calling for strong leadership—presumably under Modi—for another 10 years (Indian Express 2018). An extension for Modi in power shall prove an irreversible blow to India’s plural national ethos, democratic political culture, and inclusive social sphere.


The Army’s Response


It is also timely to revisit the army’s manner of responding to calls for aid to civil authority. Shah’s going public with the incongruous image of soldiers attending an impromptu sainik sammelan (a town hall with troops) called by George Fernandes(followed, according to an army officer and as told to this writer, by an ad hoc barakhana [collective breaking bread with troops] in which Fernandes reputedly joined the soldiers sitting cross-legged on the airfield’s tarmac), begs the question as to the role that Fernandes played with respect to the army’s response. While Shah credits Fernandes with persuading the state government to be forthcoming with the support for the army, that Fernandes could only manage this after the 72-hour period of bloodletting by cultural nationalists suggests both powerlessness and complicity. The charade on the tarmac, as a diversion till the 72-hour period of impunity for mass-killing perpetrators ran out, makes for plausibility of the latter.


Shah’s chapter on the army’s foray into ending the Gujarat carnage has an interesting aspect. Chapter VII of the Manual of Military Law (MML), “Duties in aid of civil power,” vide its paragraphs 15 to 19 (Indian Army 1987: 109) empowers the army to impose martial law under conditions of extreme disorder when the civil authorities, even with the help of the armed forces, are unable to bring the situation under control. The provisions have it that, in circumstances that preclude obtaining of the prior approval of the central government, a military commander may, on their own, assume supreme authority for the maintenance of law and order (Indian Army 1987: 109). Shah claims that it did cross his mind to recommend martial law, but in the event he did not pursue the idea believing that it was outside his “mandate” and he was confused since there is no other mention of martial law, including in the Army Act, 1950 and the other two volumes of the army’s law manual (Shah 2018: 119). Even so, aid to civil authority provisions empower the army to fire on orders of an officer even in the absence of a magistrate when public order is threatened in a circumstance of breakdown of civil administration.


While Shah confesses to prudence informing his actions, it is not impossible to visualise a divisional commander of a different mould taking the bull by the horns. In military leadership literature, a popular contrast is drawn between commanders who are cautious and those who are bolder, bordering on the reckless. A commander in the mould of the mercurial German general, Erwin Rommel, or of the bold American general, George S Patton (Showalter 2005), would likely have pressed forward undaunted by the absence of the civil administration, and empowered by their chief’s order to stunch the violence.


Shah commanded an infantry formation comprising foot infantry, which is meant to be just that, with its motto being, “to close with and capture and destroy the enemy;” the “enemy” in this case being the perpetrators of mass violence. It isstrange that Shah says, “We could hear gunshots but do nothing” (NDTV 2018). Vehicles are not essential for infantry to have fanned out into Ahmedabad. Proactive action could have served as a deterrent and resulted, by Shah’s own reckoning, in saving “at least 300” lives (NDTV 2018)— a third of those who perished, by cutting short the duration of the violence by a day.


That Shah was not put wise at the airport on landing can be attributed—but only by a stretch—to the local army authorities being themselves deployed in Operation Parakram. The system of static formations, the area and sub-area headquarters that the army has across the country for interfacing with local civilian authorities, was then involved in providing logistics support to formations deployed in Operation Parakram. The army can be faulted for not sparing the concerned commanders and operations staff officers to put Shah’s forces wise on the terrain, on his civilian and police interlocutors, and on developments. Shah functioned under a curious arrangement, answering to the Jodhpur pivot corps commander, who was understandably fixated on

the western front. The operational and area headquarters chain converges at the command level, in this case in Pune. Thus, the headquarters of the Southern Command cannot escape its share of responsibility.


Institutions have been under assault as never before. The recent court ruling on the Hashimpura case which witnessed the largest number of custodial killings in India shows up the susceptibility of the police in the face of illegal orders (Chisti 2018). Saffronisation of governance is striking, with India’s most electorally significant state, Uttar Pradesh, being ruled by a mahant (chief priest of a religious order) known for his anti-minority predilections (Bhowmick 2017). Potential fuses for bloodletting include the Ram Mandir issue, the National Register for Citizens, spillover of the Kashmir issue, and terror provocations from Pakistan. A preventive lesson learnt from the Shah revelations for the army is that it must revisit its powers under Chapter VII of the MML and clear the confusion that stayed Shah’s hand in Gujarat. The ideological impetus in politics today suggests that the sooner this is done the better.


Ali Ahmed ( blogs on national security issues at has references.

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