Rashme Sehgal began her career as a poet-cum-short story writer in 1970s. She then shifted to journalism and worked with several leading newspapers including The Independent, The Telegraph and The Times of India
The autobiography of Lieutenant General Zameeruddin Shah who completed a five-year tenure as vice-chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), ‘The Sarkari Mussalman’, in which he speaks at length about his years in the army as also about his tenure as AMU chief has been launched in Delhi recently.
Shah believes his tenure at AMU was much more difficult than fighting the enemy in the army because of the large number of vested interests that created roadblocks during his period there. In his book he speaks at length about how he helped restore normalcy when Gujarat was engulfed by riots in 2002 when Narendra Modi was the chief minister.
Genial and candid, Lt Gen Shah in an exclusive interview to Parliamentarian speaks out.
Excerpts from the interview:
When did you land in Ahmedabad?
I was given the marching orders by chief of army command General Padmanabhan on February 28, 2002. He asked me to proceed at the earliest to Ahmedabad. I was then in a village near Jodhpur. We had been mobilised for a repost after the Pakistani-sponsored attack on Parliament in December 2001. I headed straight for Jodhpur from where I took off on the first aircraft to Ahmedabad. While approaching Ahmedabad, I saw the whole city was burning. We landed on a dark and deserted airfield. Before moving, I was assured key logistical support of vehicles, maps, mobile phones and magistrates to accompany the battalions once they fanned out. But the only person to receive me at the airfield was Brigadier Mehra of the Lodger formation. This is a defence formation whereas ours was a strike formation that is why we were in reserve. Ahmedabad had been denuded of all troops. There were no troops. All the defence troops had been moved to Rajasthan to man the border. On my arrival, I asked to speak to the chief secretary. I was told the chief secretary was abroad. Despite all my efforts to connect by phone for the next fifteen minutes to the lady who was officiating in the place of the chief secretary, I received no response. I thought the only way out to resolve the problem was to head for the chief secretary’s residence in Gandhinagar. I landed in Gandhinagar at the chief secretary’s residence at around two in the morning. To my great relief, George Fernandes, the then defence minister, and then chief minister Narender Modi were there. They were both very relieved to see me. I told them again of my requirements which were maps, magistrates to accompany the columns, police guides and communication mobile sets. I was assured I would be provided with all this tomorrow morning. They also had no maps with them there and on a tourist map we marked out the trouble spots. I came back and supervised the arrival of my troops. George Fernandes came and visited the troops. He arrived at 10 o clock in the morning in Ahmedabad and addressed the troops. He told us to ensure fair play and make sure the flames are doused. I again told him we had not been provided any material. That morning the police liaison officer DIG Yoginder Singh arrived but nothing happened. I had to wait one whole day and it was only on March 2, 2002, that the transport started rolling in. One entire day was lost. Had the army had been deployed on March 1, we could have saved around 300 lives. I then deputed three battalions in Ahmedabad, one batallion in Saurashtra, one in Godhra and one in Pachmahal. These were the trouble spots given to me by Chief Minister Modi. We saw horrific scenes of violence in these places. Saurashtra did not witness so much violence and I withdrew the battalion from there. The police were passive bystanders everywhere. In a few places they were actively participating in the riots, especially in the Muslim localities. The less said the better about the home guards. It took me 48 hours to control the rioting. I had given orders that the arsonists be shot at sight. We killed two arsonists and wounded 18 or 19. I stayed in Ahmedabad for two-and-a-half months. I used to meet Modi every ten days or so. I must have met him three to four times. He was always very cordial. He has always maintained a cordial relationship with the armed forces unlike some of his ministers.
How would you explain the behaviour of the police?
I cannot explain the behaviour of the police force, its parochial behaviour. But it is not just the Gujarat police which are parochial. I found this in UP (Uttar Pradesh). I found it in Meerut when riots took place in 1985-86. In Malyana, the police picked up a group of 30-35 boys, shot them and threw their bodies into the canal.
Were you posted in Meerut at that time?
I was in Delhi then. I knew what was happening. Meerut is my hometown. That is why people are always relieved to see the army. There is a flip side to this. I believe there should not be a prolonged deployment of the army in such operations.
As has happened in J&K (Jammu Kashmir)?
Well, in J&K, we have overcome this problem. We have raised Rashtriya Rifle batallions. Earlier an entire battalion would get transferred. Now these battalions do not change en masse, 90 per cent stay on while ten per cent are periodically turned over. This allows the troops to go back to their parent regiment. This way they do not lose their local contacts and their local intelligence. We had unpleasant duties also in Gujarat. In Ahmedabad, Godhra and other places, we had to remove dead bodies from the wells and give them burial. We tried to form peace committees but no one was willing to participate, or to be more accurate, no one from the majority community was willing to participate. You have been quoted as saying getting dead bodies of victims of Godhra carnage to Ahmedabad was a mistake? It was a gigantic administrative folly by the government. They were brought to Ahmedabad in a procession and that whipped up communal passions. You spoke about the communalisation of the police force. I am not a member of the police force but I believe special care has to be taken to ensure that people who are members of communal organizations should not be recruited. In the army, we carry out a check. If a person so much as smells of being part of a communal organisation he is not recruited. The extent of the communalisation of the police force in Gujarat can be understood from the fact that homes of police personnel of the minority community were also burnt. You can imagine the extent of the rift.
Was this deliberate?
I have seen the communal slant in the police for many years. The police are local, they live there, they get infected by local conditions unlike the army. That is why, I had recommended that in order to ensure that police officers do not get polarised, there should be a central organisation controlling the postings of IPS officers. This should not be in the hands of local politicians. When you were vice chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, you were fighting the case for the minority status of this university. What is the status of the case now? The Allahabad High Court judgment endangered the minority character of AMU. The stay order of the Supreme Court exists. In lieu of the stay order, the AMU continues with its minority status. That is the legal position. It was over this that I had my first disagreement with the then HRD minister Smriti Irani. When I showed her this stay order, she refuted it and said, ‘I don’t agree with it.’ All organisations have some parasites and AMU also has its share. They spoke against me before the then HRD (Human Resources Development) Minister Smriti Irani and she was totally convinced that I was both inept and corrupt. The charge of corruption came about when one of the auditors, unfortunately a Muslim, wanted a job at AMU. When it was turned down, he dug out Rs 120 crores worth of audit objections. The Times of India lapped it up and accused me of swindling AMU off Rs 120 crores. But let me tell you every paisa was accounted for. I ended up getting a bad press. Everyone believed something must have gone into my pocket. Minister Smriti Irani must have been fed with this information. I found her very hostile. This is not the case with only her. The last HRD minister Jadvekar also followed a discriminatory policy. AMU has always faced discrimination in terms of allocation of funds. Although we have the same strength as BHU, we get half the funds. AMU is running centres in Bengal, Kerala and Bihar. The government had to cut off aid to both these centres. I was invited by the chief minister of Kerala to attend this meeting. The meeting was to be at the I&B minister’s office. I landed at the I&B minister’s office fifteen minutes before time. There I was informed the venue had been changed and it was being held at the minister’s house. Obviously, I was late for the meeting. When I entered the meeting room, the minister asked me, “Who are you. Who invited you here?” I replied that I had been invited for it by the Kerala CM (chief minister). The minister asked me who pays you, Kerala or the HRD ministry. I got up and said, ‘Right Ma’am’. I saluted her and left the room. Subsequently, the Kerala CM apologised to me. I asked for time from the prime minister and apprised him of what had happened. When I met HRD minister Smriti Irani and told her I would like to tell you what I told the prime minister. She asked me to visit her office the next day. Several bureaucrats were present for the meeting. After the meeting was over, I told her I would like to have five minutes with her separately. She replied she was a public person. So, in front of her bureaucrats, I told her what I had told Modi about her and how as an army man, I had expected more courtesy.
You met Modi twice regarding the AMU minority case? What did he tell you?
He said the issue was sub judice. He gave no commitment. I gave him a memorandum and stressed how important the AMU was for the minority community. We were disappointed at how the attorney general had taken a U-turn and gone back on the affidavit submitted before the Supreme Court. I had been telling the earlier Congress regime, the then law minister, the chief justice to bring the case for early hearing. But they did not listen to me and put it on the back burner.
What exactly was discussed when you met the prime minister?
I sought the government’s support on restoring the varsity’s minority status because this would have a salutary effect on the minorities who are agitated and apprehensive that their rights are being trampled upon. I also brought to his notice that the BJP when it was part of Janata Party under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani, had in its manifesto promised to restore the minority character of the university. I also mentioned that HRD Minister Smriti Irani had said that the varsity’s three off-campus centres in Bihar, Kerala and West Bengal were illegal, but these are very much legal. Subsequent to this meeting, the HRD minister’s position has changed. From saying these centres are illegal she now stated these centres were not doing the work for which they were created. She informed me that no worthwhile research was being carried out in these centres. I informed her it was very difficult to carry out any research from these temporary buildings. Give us necessary funds and research will be done. There was a change of attitude with the HRD minister. The fact that she acknowledged that research should be done meant that she accepted that the centres were established legally. You are reported to have told Modi that you had not been able to meet the HRD minister. I told him that I had been asking for a meeting with the HRD minister for the last one year. I told him that I was able to meet you twice, but have not been able to meet the HRD minister so far. I also told the prime minister that in all the key subjects including engineering, medicine and commerce, the number of Hindu students in our university were at par with the Muslim students. It was in subjects such as study of Arabic, Persian and Islamic studies that the numbers of Muslim students were higher.