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Sanjiv Bhatt

Sanjiv Bhatt

The Criminal Procedure Code was originally drafted by the British in the latter half of the 19th century. The much-maligned Macaulay had a major role in its drafting. The code was comprehensively amended in 1973 and set in motion in 1974. 

Both versions of the law have a provision which protects officers from criminal prosecution while performing their official duty. This was to give them freedom from fear. 

Human rights activists have always been opposed to this freedom which allows the government employees, especially police officers, to take the law into their own hands. It is a separate subject that merits a closer look. Many encounter specialists in Gujarat escaped prosecution and punishment because the government of the day refused permission to prosecute them. 

For instance, MPs are protected from prosecution for anything that they say in the House. They can make wild allegations against anybody in the House but they cannot be prosecuted under the law of defamation. That is a privilege they enjoy.  Ministers also enjoy the same kind of protection. The CBI can investigate a case only if the concerned state gives its permission. These checks and balances were introduced for the smooth functioning of the government. It is a different matter that they are violated for political purposes. In the case of Sanjiv Bhatt, this protection was denied to him in a case which is 29 years old.

While the government proclaims its commitment to One Nation, One Election, One GST etc., it chooses One Law, Two Applications when it comes to Sanjiv Bhatt and officers like DG Vanzara. This is a miscarriage of justice.  It is not that Bhatt was not given this protection. In fact, it was withdrawn from him after the government found him a thorn in the flesh. The case dates back to 1990 when there were riots in several towns in Gujarat following the arrest of LK Advani, who was on his Rath Yatra to Ayodhya, as soon as he entered Bihar. The VHP had given a call for a Bharat Bandh. Gujarat was slowly becoming a laboratory of Hindutva.

Bhatt was a young 1988-cadre IPS officer posted in Jamnagar district at that time. In one police station area — Jamjodhpur — the police arrested 133 persons who were involved in riotous acts. Many of them were activists of the VHP and they belonged to the powerful Patel community to which the then Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel belonged. That did not deter the police from invoking major criminal charges against them. All the arrested persons were produced before the magistrate who sent them to judicial custody. It is significant that Bhatt did not interrogate them. If his wife is to be believed, he was not even present at Jamjodhpur when the 133 were rounded up.

Eventually, they received bail. One of them, who was a VHP leader, died in hospital 10 days after he was released. He was in judicial custody for nine days.  The brother of the deceased filed a case against Bhatt that his brother died because of the third-degree methods applied against him by the police. The case could not gather momentum as the government refused permission to prosecute Bhatt, who was trying to prevent riots.

Things changed all of a sudden when Bhatt deposed before the Nanavati-Mehta Commission about the involvement of Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the 2002 Gujarat riots following the Godhra incident. Later, he also submitted a similar affidavit before the Supreme Court.  Bhatt deposed that Modi had allowed Hindus to vent their anger over the killings in the Sabarmati Express at Godhra. It is significant that though Godhra is close to Madhya Pradesh, there was no riot in the state, while Ahmedabad, which is hundreds of miles away from Godhra, burnt in anger. It was proof of orchestration of retribution.

The day Bhatt made the deposition, the government of Gujarat withdrew the protection from prosecution that it had extended to him. It was a retaliatory action that was unethical and unexpected. For once, Bhatt found himself like Karna without his protective gear in the Kurukshetra war. He was denied permission to question important witnesses like the doctor who performed the post-mortem. His wife Shweta Sanjiv Bhatt alleged in a statement that the court gave only a few hours to summon the doctor while it knew that he lived in another town in another state.

Finally, the court hearing the case has found Bhatt guilty and has awarded him life imprisonment. Bhatt is facing another case that he planted drugs to implicate an accused. Why is this case significant?  It is, perhaps, the first time in the history of the Indian Police that a police officer was punished 29 years after the death of a person, allegedly because of injuries he sustained three weeks before his death. That is only one curious aspect of the case. The more serious aspect is that the government’s attitude to Bhatt changed the moment he made certain disclosures against Modi. If the protection from prosecution was not withdrawn from him, the case would have been dismissed long ago.

In Gujarat, there are many police officers who remain protected from prosecution in riot-related cases but why was Bhatt singled out? A recent report in the Times of India said, quoting official figures, that "as many as 180 custodial deaths took place in Gujarat between 2001 and 2016, the last year for which numbers were available. However, no police personnel have been punished for any of these deaths during this period. "The countrywide numbers are even worse — only 26 policemen have been convicted for 1,557 custodial deaths, mostly from Uttar Pradesh".

The reason is obvious. Bhatt became a headache for the government because of his disclosures. What did he gain by doing so? He gained life imprisonment. What else? 

Whether Bhatt attended the meeting of the police officers where Modi as Chief Minister asked them to let the people vent their anger for some time or not, what Gujarat witnessed was unprecedented in many respects. No less a person than the then Prime Minister, the late AB Vajpayee, was forced to ask Modi to follow Raj Dharma in the state. Why did Vajpayee say so? He obviously found that the Raja was not following dharma in his state? It was the greatest indictment that he suffered.

What the Sanjiv Bhatt case highlights is that it is foolish to swim against the current. There was another IPS officer, Rahul Sharma, who also took a courageous stand against the political leadership of the state which he believed was complicit in the 2002 riots. He was forced to take voluntary retirement from service.

Ask any police officer whether he would be able to function without the protection from prosecution, I am sure, they all will say in a chorus that they cannot. Yet, no police body has come out in support of Bhatt. The message has gone to one and all. The state has infinite power to harm you if you speak against the state. The laws are as good as the people who wield them. They can use them the way they like. Selective use of the law is what is worrying.  The other day, I saw a video clip of a lady IPS officer in UP arguing with a BJP leader who was protesting against the fine imposed on a party worker for violating some traffic rule. At one point, she asked the leader whether he knew that he was committing a crime, i.e., preventing a government employee from doing her duty.

It had no effect on the man who was powerful enough to put pressure on Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to transfer her from the district. She had no other option but to accept the transfer order. What was the charge against her? 

She imposed a fine on some BJP members who violated the traffic law. As she told the leader, the police did not check whether the violator belonged to the BJP or not while dealing with him.

What impact would the action against her have on fellow police officers? There are no protectors for you if you take action against those who take the law into their own hands. Few realise that it is calamitous for the state if the government officers are prevented from doing their duty without fear or favour. Was it Voltaire who said that it was wrong to be right when the state was wrong. This is true in the case of Bhatt who will have to spend the rest of his life in jail in the company of persons he had dealt with or would have dealt with in his capacity as a police officer. He and his family have been suffering in innumerable ways.

First, he was deprived of his security. He was sacked from his job for using his official car while he was on leave. His wife’s car was hit by a truck. A portion of his house was demolished because it was allegedly built in violation of rules. In short, he was being hounded by the various arms of the government.  Had Bhatt not been pricked by his conscience, he could have remained in police and retired holding a very high post like the Director General of Police. Alternatively, he could have got a nicer post like the director of the CBI. 

All he needed to do was to keep quiet like countless police officers who looked the other way when people were roasted alive as in the Best Bakery. Or, when a former MP was killed in his own house, despite his pleadings to the police to save his life. After his conviction, I visited Sanjiv Bhatt’s Facebook page where I found more people abusing him than extending a word of sympathy to him and his wife. How will this affect the body politic? 

Speaking the truth has become dangerous in the country. Conformity, instead of dissent, is now praised. It works in different ways. A revolutionary socialist from Kerala presented a private member’s Bill in Parliament to protect traditions at Sabarimala. 

He did this a day after the President quoted Sri Narayana Guru in his speech to the joint session of Parliament. The Guru did not have a better follower than Kumaran Asan, easily the tallest Malayalam poet. The poet gave a clarion call when he wrote, mattuvin chattangale! allenkil mattum athukalee ningalethan! (Reform, change the rules! Else those very Rules will be your downfall!). Instead, the MP  was pleading for the protection of traditions. 

Sati and child marriages were traditions at one time. If this is the trend, someone in Parliament may take his or her cue from the Bill to present another one to protect all traditions that existed in the country before the British tinkered with them. There are some in the BJP who believe that abolition of Sati was an encroachment on India’s cultural and religious traditions.  On the same day, the Telugu Desam members of the Rajya Sabha who defected to the BJP were received by the Prime Minister. One of the MPs had recently faced a raid by the Enforcement Directorate. Now everything will be all right for him. 

The BJP is like the Ganga which cleans every one of his dirt. In the process she herself becomes dirty, requiring thousands of crores of rupees for cleaning the river. Remember how Sukh Ram, from whose prayer room crores of rupees were unearthed, became clean the moment he quit the Congress to join the BJP. The punishment for Sanjiv Bhatt should not be seen in isolation. It is doubtlessly a warning to everyone who fancies himself or herself as a dissenter or crusader. They can either conform or perish. There is no middle path. The good days that Modi promised are already here. Let there be no mistaking about it. Satyameva Jayate! 

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 24th June 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 26)