This is a tale of two speeches. One was delivered by Rajiv Gandhi, barely a fortnight after the pogrom targeting Sikhs had subsided. The other was recorded by Narendra Modi, on the first day of the post-Godhra carnage targeting Muslims. The first speech, a video of which has recently been discovered after a lapse of 31 years, justified the massacres in Delhi, while the second discriminated between the killings in Gujarat on the basis of religion.
Rajiv Gandhi’s speech was at the first rally addressed by him as Prime Minister: it was at Boat Club near India Gate on November 19, 1984, the birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi, whose assassination avenging Operation Bluestar had triggered the mass violence.
Narendra Modi’s speech was a “peace appeal” officially admitted to have been recorded in Ahmedabad for Doordarshan around 6 pm on February 28, 2002, which was a day after 59 people, mostly kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, had been burnt alive in a train following a clash with Muslims at the Godhra station.
In an old government compilation of Rajiv’s speeches, his infamous Hindi metaphor on the reverberations caused by Indira Gandhi’s assassination is translated as follows:
“But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.”
Though he was speaking in a city where thousands of Sikhs had just been orphaned, widowed, raped, grievously injured or rendered homeless, Rajiv Gandhi did not spare a thought for their plight anywhere in his speech. Instead, he was focused on empathising with the “krodh” (intense anger) of the mobs that had perpetrated the violence. Far from condemning the crimes committed by them, Rajiv Gandhi commended the mobs for ending the violence and thereby showing to the world that “India has become a genuine democracy”.
Much in keeping with the precedent set by Rajiv Gandhi, Narendra Modi’s speech too faulted only the original sin, which in his case was the Godhra violence. While condemning the Godhra incident, he said he would ensure that its culprits got “full punishment for their sins” and set such an example that “nobody, not even in his dreams, thinks of committing a heinous crime like this.” There was no such denunciation of the post-Godhra violence or threat to its culprits.
This was despite the fact that the speech was recorded at Circuit House Annexe, barely three kilometres from Gulberg Society, where the first massacre of Muslims had taken place more than two hours earlier. And an even bigger massacre was by then drawing to a close at Naroda Patiya, again in Ahmedabad. Yet, Modi did not deem it fit to acknowledge either of these post-Godhra massacres, although the death toll in each of them was greater than that of Godhra. Instead, he hinted at certain “disturbing” incidents and urged people not “to take the law into (their) own hands”. Repeatedly expressing empathy for their “sentiments”, he appealed to them to maintain “peace and self-restraint.” In contrast to his response to the Godhra case, Modi refrained from expressing any condolences for the many killed in the post-Godhra violence, let alone promising justice for them. The import of his differential treatment of victims depending on their religion could not have been lost on the public at that sensitive moment.
Since there was nothing overtly offensive about them, it may be debatable whether those speeches by Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi, however discriminatory, fit the criminal law definition of hate speech. They stayed under the radar as the errors were more of omission than of commission. From what was glossed over by them, the speeches in different ways betrayed the motives of the authorities on whose watch the two most egregious instances of mass violence had taken place. Diverting attention from allegations of political instigation or administrative complicity, they attributed the attacks on minorities entirely to public anger.
Despite his secular pretensions, Rajiv Gandhi’s failure in his November 19 speech to decry the violence committed in his mother’s name set the tone for an unabashedly majoritarian campaign run by the Congress party in the 1984 Lok Sabha election, which it went on to win with the largest ever margin. Besides, the disdain displayed at the highest level for the concerns of the affected community served as a signal for the police to carry on with their subversion of the rule of law, blocking all efforts to bring culprits to justice. The Justice Ranganath Misra Commission absolved Rajiv Gandhi of all responsibility for the 1984 carnage without even going through the motions of questioning him.
As Modi’s speech of February 28 was recorded at the height of the post-Godhra killings, the only way he could justify his failure to make any mention of the Gulberg Society and Naroda Patiya massacres was to claim ignorance about them. Asked when exactly he had been informed about the mob attack on Gulberg Society and what action he had taken in the matter, Modi told the Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team in 2010 that he had, “to the best of [his] knowledge”, heard about the Gulberg Society and Naroda Patiya massacres only “in the night” at a meeting which was found to have been held at 8.30 pm.
While exonerating Modi of all charges, the SIT made no reference to his claim that he had been unaware of the Gulberg Society massacre, for instance, for almost five hours. The suppression of this glaring contradiction allowed the SIT to pat Modi for holding a series of meetings with the police and home department apparently to track the violence as it unfolded. A day after his Doordarshan address, Modi came up with a Newtonian variant of Rajiv Gandhi’s big tree metaphor. In an interview to a private TV channel, he alleged that the Gulberg Society massacre was a “reaction” to the firing at the mob by one of its fatal casualties, former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri. Rejecting Modi’s victim-blaming, the SIT “clarified” that if at all Jafri had opened fire, it could only have been “an immediate provocation to the mob, which had assembled there to take revenge of Godhra incident from the Muslims”.
The video of Rajiv Gandhi’s speech is a chilling example of the dog whistle politics employed in the wake of the 1984 carnage. It is also a reminder that such coded language was used by Modi in the thick of the 2002 carnage. Since this and other such crucial pieces of evidence have fallen through the cracks in the SIT report, the video has far more than just archival value. The ideological posturing exposed by it is more relevant than ever before.
Manoj Mitta co-authored When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath and authored The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra