The writer is a member of Compost Heap, a group of academics and activists working on alternative imaginations.

Dividing Lines: Murder between fiction and fact

Published Mar 20, 2014, 7:07 am IST
Updated Apr 8, 2019, 1:42 pm IST
Without the legal sanitisation of the SIT report, Narendra Modi could not have been launched as PM
Police stand in front of the charred coach of Sabarmati Express | Photo PTI
 Police stand in front of the charred coach of Sabarmati Express | Photo PTI

Everyone loves a good detective story. The beauty of a detective story is that it combines science and ethics to restore a disrupted case of law and order. Usually it begins with a murder, unfolds through a whole list of suspects and then comes the detective who restores truth and justice, law and order. When the murderer is arrested one feels an aesthetic sense of closure, a worldview restored. Detective stories in that sense are therapeutic. They emphasise one’s faith in the system, in the forces of law and order. A detective can be idiosyncratic but it is he who shows that institutions work and can be made to work for the good of society.

We have been great consumers of the detective story from Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie. These books, in fact, have sustained the middle class’ faith in science and the inevitability of justice. If India cannot produce the great detective story with its idiosyncratic hero, it can create a great equivalent, the Commission of Inquiry report. These documents have been elaborations of the rituals of governance, attempts to show that the commissions of inquiry — like the detective story — are great rituals, institutional mechanisms to unravel and label law and justice. As acts of interrogation, they might provide greater pieces of inquiry than the detective novel. One thinks of three great reports in particular. The Hunter Commission on the Amritsar Massacre, the Shah Commission Report on the Emergency, The Lentin Report on the deaths in J.J. Hospital.


During the Hunter Commission, one saw Chimanlal Harilal Setalvad induce General Dyer, to make damaging admissions. In the Shah Commission, one saw how guilt and tyranny can be a chain of being. In Lentin, one saw how everyone from the clerk to the commissioner was implicated in acts of commission and omission which resulted in deaths due to adulteration. Each of these reports in an almost Dostoyevskian sense had the makings of a great novel. Each showed how an inquiry report wrestles in public with the problem of good and evil.

These reports have a surreal side. Instead of becoming acts of detection, of unravelling crime, they often became a travesty of truth, hiding the truth through gross distortions of narrative.


Manoj Mitta, a senior journalist, has produced a book aptly entitled The Fiction of Fact Finding. It explores what happens when commission reports, especially about communal riots, go wrong. What emerges then is a Kafkaesque narrative where the investigator tries to conceal the murder. Mitta X-rays in great detail the Special Investigation Team’s reports on the Gujarat carnage of 2002.

Mitta is a committed professional journalist. His book about the 1984 riots is a first-rate study on how the state mechanism can be used to subvert justice. His second major study on Gujarat is devastating enough to change the old dictum, “the butler did it”, to “the detective did it”. His examination of the SIT report shows that India might have the right institutions but it possesses the wrong people who subvert institutions for other ends. Democracy and the rule of law breaks down when evidence as story telling fails a people. The ritual of inquiry can break our fundamental faith in our institutions.


Background is critical and Mitta begins with the carnage of the Godhra Express to show how innocent Muslims were sent to jail. The contrast is devastating because in the SIT report those responsible for the violence are legally sanitised. Mitta’s message is simple: Without the legal sanitisation of the SIT report, Narendra Modi could not have been launched as PM. A Setalvad could challenge a Dyer, but a R.K. Raghavan actually recreates a Modi.

Yet it is more than the story of Mr Modi. It is the story of the two great characters of the BJP, Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, and their role during the riots. Mr Vajpayee realises that Mr Modi is guilty but becomes too much of a Hamlet to indict Mr Modi. Mr Advani played Macbeth, “screwing his courage to the sticking place” to make sure that Mr Modi survives Mr Vajpayee’s doubt. The brilliance of Mitta’s book lies in showing that these two political siblings were responsible for Mr Modi. By act and by default, they created the Frankenstein who threatens to be our PM. Both give the Vishwa Hindu Parishad a flexibility of power and action, which makes one wonder, what was the ethical quality of these two great political minds.


In fact, it is these preliminary chapters that set the basis for Raghavan as a symptom of modern India. Raghavan is a colourless man in a colourful age, whose every major mistake triggers a fresh promotion. Mitta shows that Raghavan messes up the inquiry into the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, gets promoted to director of CBI. Comes the Gujarat riots and an ironic and cynical age finds its man again. Mitta shows that the Supreme Court had done the right thing, but the wrong man got appointed. And a wrong man can subvert a well-intentioned institution.


As a detective, Raghavan is a travesty of truth. He practices the art of the non-question, the cover up, seeking to sanitise a genocide and create a new and antiseptic Mr Modi.

Mitta’s side stories of cops like Rahul Sharma, who introduces mobile phones as evidence, and R.B. Sreekumar, who stands up to bureaucratic pressure, are poignant. Truth and courage are no match for the Kafkaesque power of an investigator who envelopes facts in silence, ignores evidence as if it is trash.
In an odd way, Raghavan has to be hyphenated with Mr Modi. Between a colourless bureaucrat and a colourful politician, both democracy and the detective story face a dreadful end. That is the sadness of India today. Mitta’s book, thus, becomes a fable of a sickening time when a sanitised evil becomes the prospect of a democratised future. It takes courage to say that.