Retired army boss breaks silence on 2002 Gujarat riots

Shah says he hopes Indian PM confronts people who are trying to spread communal violence

Interview — Lieutenant General Zameer Uddin Shah (retired)


New Delhi: Retired Lieutenant-General Zameer Uddin Shah, who led the Indian army in tackling the 2002 Gujarat riots, has just released his book, The Sarkari Mussalman.

The 70-year-old former deputy chief of army staff, who was dispatched to Gujarat to control the riots, has blamed the state administration for the delays in the army’s operation.

Giving insights into the situation, he writes that, when he reached Ahmedabad on the intervening night of February 28 and March 1, he found that civil vehicles and other logistical support, including police guides and maps, promised to them was not ready.

Hence, the army lost crucial hours before soldiers could be deployed to control the violence. The retired general stresses that if preparations had not been sloppy, they would have saved one day of rioting and several lives.

More than 1000 people, mostly from the Muslim community, were killed in the three-days riots that swept through Gujarat. This was after over 50 Hindu volunteers died in a fire on the Sabarmati Express on February 27.

Popularly known as General Zoom, he accumulated vast experience of managing insurgencies and controlling communal riots in various parts of the country.

He speaks to Gulf News:

Your book, The Sarkari Mussalman, has put a spotlight on the way 2002 Gujarat riots were handled by the state police administration. Please elaborate.

I have noticed the tendency of the police to take sides [in communal conflicts]. They don’t deal with the matter even-handedly and are scared of facing large crowds. I have seen this bias not only in Gujarat, but earlier also during communal riots in Uttar Pradesh. The police need to be correct[ed], because the more you commit the army, the more the danger is of troops getting infected by communal violence.

You mention (in the book) about meeting former defence minister George Fernandes and then chief minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi at the latter’s residence at 2am to assess the situation. What transpired there?

I was deployed in Rajasthan, but when I landed in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on the midnight of February 28 and arrived at Modi’s residence, to my great relief, I found Fernandes there. Both were visibly relieved that I had come. I was assured of all logistics support at the soonest.

What was the reason for the delay of nearly 24 hours of logistics help to arrive for your army division to stem rioting and arson?

I reported this matter in my ‘After Action Report’, which was submitted after Operation Aman, which was meant to ensure peace in the troubled areas. I had supervised the unloading of 3,000 troops in 60 air force flights from Jodhpur (Rajasthan) to Ahmedabad. But we kept waiting on the airfield and no logistics support came in until March 2.

Are you implying the delay was ‘intentional’?

I cannot make such an accusation, as I have no proof. I can only say it was a case of administrative failure. I do realise that impressing civil transport is a major problem. But the emergency situation should have been at par with the effort of the air force. So, we ended up wasting more than 24 hours at the airfield doing nothing but waiting.

What about the report by the Special Investigative Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court to probe the matter?

The SIT never consulted me. I don’t know from where they got all their information. Their report was blatantly false.

So, do you support activist Teesta Setalvad, who has been saying the SIT report was a sham?

I have met her many times and feel that she is a very brave woman. She was trying to stop the riots in whatever way she could. Even though from a majority community, she showed her bravery and had sympathy for humanity.

What are your views on Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a leader in handling the Gujarat riots and how has his response been after becoming the prime minister?

Whenever I asked him for anything, he never said no. In the imposition of curfew, things were tardy, although I am sure he would have given instructions to the home ministry. But then a lot depends on the police. Whenever there were mobs, the police would run away saying they had been called to another troubled area, leaving the army to deal with the situation.

In early May 2014, a journalist asked me if I had apprehensions about Modi becoming the prime minister. I said, ‘I know how it was with St Thomas Becket, who was anointed the Archbishop of Canterbury by the King of England. The moment he sat on the throne, he felt his primary duty was towards the Church and not to his friends. So, my view is that anyone who is made the PM, would be like Becket. He would realise his responsibilities are towards his nation and not to a community.’ But, for these remarks, I was castigated by a lot of people, including the famous historian of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University Irfan Habib, who said I was [trying to] curry favours.

I believe, Modi has qualities of a good leader. He is honest and does not have a chain of dependents milking the system. The only problem is that he has not been able to rein in people who have taken law into their own hands, for instance: cow protectionists and love jihadis. I also hope he [brings under control] people who are trying to spread communal violence.

Do you have political aspirations?

No. I detest politics and politicians. I don’t want to waste my time indulging in politics.

Often people remain silent until they are in service, but pour out their hearts after retirement in their memoirs.

There are certain compulsions and one feels restricted while in service. I too had so much work pressure that I never found the time. After retirement from the army, I was elevated to the Armed Forces Tribunal, a position equivalent to a High Court judge. Subsequently, I was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. So, the only leisure time I found was last year. And the purpose of writing this book was to emphasise on education and encourage youngsters and motivate them to join the armed forces. But what the media has picked up is only from half the chapter on Gujarat.

About the retired lieutenant-general

The former lieutenant general is the elder brother of Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah, who has won numerous honours, including National Awards, Filmfare Awards, the Padma Shri and Padma Vhushan for his contribution to Indian cinema. Sharing an insight into sibling bonding, he said, “We all manage to meet at least once a year. This includes our eldest brother, who lives in Egypt. While he was brilliant in studies, I was OK and Naseer would fail. Naseer and I make a formidable tennis team. He is a great actor and can take on any role and excel in it. His one love is theatre and both he and his wife (Ratna Pathak) are devoted to improving it.

• Rtd Lt-Gen Zameer Uddin Shah was born on August 15, 1948 in Bahraich district, Uttar Pradesh.

• An alumnus of St Joseph’s College, Nainital, he holds a Master’s degree in Defence Studies & Management from the University of Madras and Masters of Philosophy from Devi Ahilya Vishwavidhyalaya, Indore.

• Passed out from National Defence Academy in Khadakwasla, Pune.

• Trained at Indian Military Academy, Dehradun and commissioned with 185 Light Regiment of Artillery — 1968.

• He was later the Colonel Commandant of the Regiment of Artillery.

• He was part of the 1971 operations at Longewala (Jaisalmer sector).

• Sent on a diplomatic assignment as defence attaché in Saudi Arabia — 1994-97.

• Held the position of Deputy Chief of Army Staff.

• Appointed Vice Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University — 2012-17.

• Recipient of the highest peacetime award of Param Vishisht Seva Medal, Vishisht Seva Medal and Sena Medal.

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