05/22/2014 02:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Let Your First Obligation Be Towards Justice


May 16 turned out to be a historic day in the history of India, with the country giving a huge mandate in the favor of Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi and his party, the conservative Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). The mandate also marked the end of the era of coalition politics, as it gave an absolute majority to the man who has fought one of the toughest battles in recent times against an incumbent and rather unpopular regime of the ruling Congress coalition.

While newsrooms buzzed with activity on the day of results, a piece of news that was related to Narendra Modi, also three-time CM of the state of Gujarat escaped most eyeballs and passed off as a ticker on news channels. Five alleged terrorists who had been charged under the draconian law POTA and had been sentenced to life imprisonment and death were acquitted by the Supreme Court of India. The attack took place in 2002 in Gandhinagar at the famous Akshardham temple, which shared a common wall with the residence of Narendra Modi. Top cops of the Gujarat police arrested these five accused and slapped charges of murder, conspiracy, sedition and war against the nation in an attack which killed 33 and injured 85.

Why is this story so important to be told at a time when Narendra Modi's rise in Indian politics, his cabinet and his foreign policy are being discussed in the country and observed by the world over? It is important because days after the country chose him to lead the 1.2 billion population -- the man who has been credited a hardline image by virtue of his alliance with the Right-wing ideological body, the RSS and his role in the 2002 Gujarat carnage broke down in a meeting of his party members, which had gathered to elect him the new PM. It was for the first time perhaps that the country witnessed an emotional breakdown by a man occupying the highest office in the parliament of India. Modi kissed the steps that led to the parliament, a powerful image that demonstrated his respect for the office which houses 545 members chosen by the country to represent it.

As somebody who bears the stigma of the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which hundreds were killed under his watch along with extra judicial killings of innocents, this imagery lent greater accountability to the man who played the development and anti-corruption card in his ascent to the top.

To deny Narendra Modi, who has been elected the PM by democratic process, his due would be an insult to the idea of India -- the constitution of India which gives every citizen of this country the fundamental right to chose its leader. Modi in his victory speech, and later in his address to the parliament, shed his right-wing image and came across as a leader who was willing to leave behind the stains of his past, and who was willing to embrace the inclusive nature of the Indian democracy. It, then, becomes very relevant to address the Akshardham judgement that concerns the man at the helm of affairs who held the attack on the temple as an attack on the Gujarat pride. It is then that the release of these five men acquitted of all charges on May 16 needs to be discussed for gross violation of the fundamental and human rights of the sons of his home state.

In a recent interview to a national daily, one of those acquitted, Mohammed Saleem who was sentenced to life imprisonment, stated that the Gujarat police, which functioned under the Home ministry then led by Narendra Modi, implicated him in a false case, giving him options on the cases he would want to be convicted in. The choices were significant -- The Godhra train burning case, the Haren Pandya case and the Akshardham terror attack. It would be imperative to note that most of the accused in these cases have been acquitted by the highest courts in the country and belong to the Muslim community. Its equally important to note that on the basis of these very cases, Narendra Modi rose to prominence in Gujarat as the Loh Purush -- the iron man, the Hindu right-wing mascot whose life was under constant threat from Muslim radicals who wanted to take revenge for the Gujarat riots. The extra judicial encounters, which took place right under Modi and his home minister Amit Shah's command consolidated his image as the Hindutva icon. There was a wave, a Hindutva wave which Mr. Modi rode on through his stint in the state.

Be it the Godhra train burning, the assassination of his ex-home minister and arch rival Haren Pandya to the Akshardham case, the suspects who were picked up by the police were poor local Muslims, who by virtue of a strong judiciary were acquitted after having served jail sentences.

But Modi has moved on from Gujarat. He has, until now, remained silent on the 2002 massacre, refusing to take responsibility for the riots, holding the media responsible. But now he embarks on a new journey. He is trying to be the new moderate, the inclusive leader, a statesman who sends an invite to Pakistan, the rival country by his earlier admission. His party does not have a single Muslim MP, but perhaps he could undo some damage by promising justice.

As one of the most criticized ministers, Modi could do well by laying to rest the ghosts from his home state Gujarat, which came to hound him ominously the same date as he was crowned the leader of India. Perhaps it's a signal for Modi to reach out to these five men who for no fault had to spend 11 years of their lives in jail with their families being stigmatized each day. These five men, according to his Home Department, were fidayeens who received training in Saudi Arabia, who were enemies of humanity. These five daily-wage workers were alleged to be members of the banned Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist organization whose names they had never heard. They, like many fellow Indians, were working in Saudi Arabia on odd jobs, but Gujarat Home Department and its prosecution called them "dreaded terrorists" who gave instigating speeches, collected funds and wanted to avenge the death of fellow Muslims killed in the Gujarat riots.

Mr. Modi could perhaps start the healing process by reading the judgement of the Supreme Court:

Before parting with the judgment, we intend to express our anguish about the incompetence with which the investigating agencies conducted the investigation of the case of such a grievous nature, involving the integrity and security of the Nation. Instead of booking the real culprits responsible for taking so many precious lives, the police caught innocent people and got imposed the grievous charges against them which resulted in their conviction and subsequent sentencing.

Accordingly, we acquit all the appellants in the present appeals, of all the charges framed against them. The appellants who are in custody shall be set at liberty forthwith, if they are not required in any other criminal case. We also set aside the conviction and sentence awarded to A-1, though he has already undergone the sentence served on him. All the applications filed in these appeals are accordingly disposed of. We intend to absolve accused number 1 of the stigma he is carrying of that of a convict, wrongly held guilty of offences of terror so that he is able to return to his family and society, free from any suspicion.

These men need Narendra Modi's inclusive politics more than anyone else, they need an apology from the state and the Home Department for the torture that was inflicted on their families. Mr. Modi may have left the state of Gujarat for a national role, but the path that he has chosen can only be tread should the mistakes of the past be rectified.

Mr. Modi paid his respects in Varanasi where he smeared his forehead with religious color, paying tribute to the Ganges which carries religious symbolism. He is a practicing Hindu with a good part of his life spent in the service of the RSS -- the right-wing Hindu nationalist group. But the parliament, the temple of democracy to which he paid an emotional obeisance is a symbol of the pluralism India is so proud of. Two years ago, the PM-elect held a sadbhavna (social harmony) meeting in Gujarat to portray himself as a national leader. His journey as the leader of the Indian democracy could well begin with reaching out to the five acquitted who got a new lease on life on May 16, just like he did.