Book Review: “Gujarat Files: Anatomy Of A Cover Up” by Rana Ayyub

Contexts have this amazing ability of turning simple everyday acts into acts of resistance. From Mohandas Gandhi at Dandi to Rosa Parks in Montgomery, simple acts like picking up a clump of salt or remaining seated in a bus seat, thanks to the contexts, have become classic symbols of resistance. Rana Ayyub’s book “Gujarat Files: Anatomy Of A Cover Up”, is too an act of resistance, thanks again to the context.

A journalist in her twenties decides to go undercover to find the facts about the handling of 2002 Gujarat riots, a series of fake encounters and the murder of ex-home minister Haren Pandya. Over the eight months of subterfuge, she gains trust, breaks trust, comes hairbreadth close to getting caught, goes through phases of self-doubt and anxiety but in the end comes out with a lot of potentially explosive first hand accounts. So much so that her otherwise supportive editors develop cold feet about publishing it and pull the plug on the sting operation.

She then does the logical thing and tries to publish her account as a book. But no publisher worth its name would touch it, no TV news channel would talk about it and very few newspapers would talk to her. In the India of 21st century CE the reigning context of fear is so absolute and the risk of state reprisal so imminent that a mere act of publishing a book can ruin your business. Which actually is not as bad as getting lynched over what you eat or simply over how you look.

And that’s how Ayyub, forced by this context, turned a rebel.

Circumventing the abbots who decide what gets published and what doesn’t, ignoring the threats and risks, Ayyub decided to self-publish the book.

So far, for an act of resistance, the book has been pretty successful. Sold by LeftWordBooks, the print version is available in India through Flipkart and Amazon.in and internationally through Amazon.com. The e-book is available on Kindle. Going by the frequent out of stock messages and the wrath of the trolls, the book, for sure, has managed to push some buttons.

Spread over 206 pages, divided into 11 chapters, Gujarat Files documents the conversations Ayyub had with various key personnel and the circumstances under which she operated. The book’s language, tone and presentation is reader friendly though could have benefited from a little more editorial supervision. What I liked about the narrative is how Ayyub has refrained from coloring people and has let their layered personalities come out on their own. Be it S.P. ATS, G. L. Singhal, who despite being in a powerful position, laments the discrimination lower caste officers face within the administration (page-44) or ex-DGP P.C. Pande who after suggesting that Supreme Court judges should be “….put against the wall and shot dead” for minority appeasement, claims that “My best friend is a Muslim…..” (page-141,142).

The book, through its various accounts also throw a light on the internal politics and machinations of RSS and how it has completely infiltrated the various arms of Gujarati society, politics and administration.

Through the episodes involving Maya Kodnani and Haren Pandya, Ayyub has done a fair job of highlighting the powers behind the power and how Modi was not in control of everything as his acolytes and media claims.

On a broader level, the book also raises questions about the administrative structures and how easily it can be manipulated to benefit a particular group or individual. While reading, one can’t help but feel sorry for upright officers who, during times of riots and later, decided to uphold the values as enshrined in the Indian constitution. The All India Services officers (IAS, IPS, IFS etc.) at least have some recourse and alternatives but the state service officers are completely at the mercy of the political dispensation. It’s true about all Indian states and reforms in this area are long overdue.

On a different note, Ayyub could have done without multiple references to Ashish Khetan’s earlier sting operation in Gujarat being easier/not as risky as it involved getting foot soldiers to talk and not crafty “diplomats”. Just felt petty in an otherwise heartfelt effort.

The book and the publicity surrounding it is also an ode to social media as how it has become possible to reach out and spread the word without the support of the “mainstream media.” This is just another sign that the elite media is losing its grip over the narrative. Through self-publishing the book, Ayyub also shows a path to people who want to go it alone or just don’t want to toe the “mainstream line.”

A good read for anybody interested in contemporary history and politics of post-liberalization/privatization India.

P.S. The sooner the tapes come out in the public domain the better as it will help people form their own opinions and take the sting out of the attacks. It could be long before the parrot squawks.

(Originally published in TwoCircles.net on 29 May 2016)