The Gujarat government's U-turn on filing of a criminal appeal seeking death sentence for former BJP MLA Dr Maya Kodnani, Bajrang Dal leader Babu Patel alias Babu Bajrangi and eight others in the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre case is a calculated move to wash its hands of a controversy that pitched it against right-wing groups.
Not only that, the Narendra Modi administration is angling for a legal validation to justify its decision to withhold consent now, so that it can argue it had no role to play in the matter.
The decision to allow the Special Investigating Team probing the case to file an appeal in the high court seeking death for Kodnani, Bajrangi and the eight others was taken by the state government sometime in February. In April, it appointed three special public prosecutors to move the appeals. It was only after this, in the second half of April, that the news came out, inviting strong anti-Modi reactions from right-wing organisations.
Following the outcry, Finance Minister Nitin Patel, virtually Modi’s No. 2, specified that the decision was not the government’s and its role was limited to giving its consent to what SIT proposed.
With the right-wing groups still not pacified, the Gujarat government has now taken steps to distance itself even further from the issue. While asking the special prosecutors not to move the appeals seeking death yet — although drafts were ready and sent to the concerned department for filing before the court — it said it needs to obtain the advocate general’s opinion.
However, not many will buy that theory. For one, the Modi government never sought the AG’s opinion on two similar cases relating to the 2002 Ode massacres. There too, the government moved criminal appeals seeking death for convicts who were sentenced to life imprisonment. The two cases were investigated by the SIT, like Naroda Patiya. SIT officials speaking in private have called the Modi government’s U-turn illegal and indicated that they would approach the Supreme Court for a redressal. One senior officer said the court may even reject the same as there is no precedence of taking the AG's opinion in such a matter.
However, as other experts point out, the Modi government is unlikely to have overlooked this aspect — that all it is aiming for is for the message to reach the right quarters.
Parimal is an assistant editor based in Ahmedabad