In pursuit of truth

Print edition : August 29, 1998

By being scrupulously fair and judiciously temperate in his comments in his report on the Mumbai riots, Justice B.N. Srikrishna has restored credibility to commissions of inquiry.

IN the accolade so deservedly due to Justice B. N. Srikrishna of the Bombay High Court, one aspect has been overlooked. He has restored the credibility of the Commission of Inquiry as an institution and as a mechanism for the discovery of the truth in a matter of high public importance. For over a decade and a half, successive commissions of inquiry had brought the institution into disrepute. They included the Kudal Commission on the Gandhi Peace Foundation, the Ranganath Mishra Commission on the Delhi riots (1984) (Ranganath Mishra is very appropriately a Congress member of Parliament now), the Thakkar Commission on Indira Gandhi's assassination, the Thakkar-Natarajan Commission on the Fairfax affair, the Commission consisting of K. K. Mathew, E. S. Venkataramaiah and D. A. Desai that went into the Punjab-Haryana boundary issue, the J. S. Verma Commission that went into the security aspects of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, and the Milap Chand Jain Commission, the most disreputable Commission of all time, which went into the conspiracy aspect of that tragedy. The Srikrishna Report on the Mumbai riots appeared just as one had put down the last volume of M. C. Jain's report.

It reminds one of Mark Twain's regret that he was obliged to write a long letter since he did not have the time to write a short one. The Srikrishna Report, a work of devoted labour, is admirably brief, concise and readable. This is perhaps the only Commission of Inquiry on a riot that was genuinely interested in understanding the factors that run deep. It appointed, on June 24, 1993, a Committee of Assessors comprising senior and retired police officials to study the policing system in Mumbai. The Committee submitted a report on June 23, 1994.

The Commission appointed, on September 13, 1993, a Committee of Expert Assessors from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to "study the political, socio-economic, demographic and other factors contributing to the riots." Its report has received praise from the Commission. This document (Exhibit 2680 (C)) is of great relevance and deserves to be read widely. But it is too much to expect the Maharashtra Government to publish it separately for the benefit of the public when it is out to suppress the Srikrishna Report itself. This report was submitted in February 1998. Although written in English, an unusually small number of copies in English were printed. The copies are not available in shops that sell government publications, unlike the reports of earlier commissions. This is not mere miserliness. It is suppression from the public, which is wilful and illegal.

A vigil near a mosque in a curfew-bound area in Mumbai in January 1993.-

Section 3(4) of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 was amended in 1971 in order to obligate the government to lay the report before the legislature. Underlying this formal requirement was the understanding that it would, thus, be made available to the public. The entire object is defeated if only a restricted number of copies of a commission's report are printed (in this case, reportedly, 1,000 copies in Marathi and English together) and the public is denied access to it. The Supreme Court has ruled more than once that implicit in the citizens' fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression is their right to know. It binds the state with a corresponding duty to impart the information. A writ of mandamus has been filed to compel the Maharashtra Government to publish a reasonable number of copies. There is a precedent for this. The report of the Justice A. C. Gupta Commission of Inquiry on the affairs of Sanjay Gandhi's Maruti enterprise was submitted in mid-1979. The Janata Party Government fell in July. The Charan Singh regime did not publish the report. Indira Gandhi returned to power in January 1980 and sat on the report until a writ petition was filed in the Delhi High Court. The report was published and for a while copies could be bought in government bookshops. However, they were withdrawn soon thereafter, a fact which the press reported.

THE Srikrishna Report is of enduring relevance. The Judge is scrupulously fair and judiciously temperate in his comments. Indispensable as it is to an understanding of the grim tragedy that engulfed Mumbai in December 1992-January 1993, the report is very useful on three topics of wider interest - the role of hate groups, the integrity of the police force and the evolution of a "riot theory" on which the eminent scholar Paul Brass has written extensively (Frontline, September 19, 1997 and April 17, 1998).

The report is in three parts. Volume I (48 pages) provides a concise answer to the terms of reference - the circumstances, the events and the causes; group or individual culpability; adequacy of measures taken by the police preceding and following the riots, including justification or otherwise of police firing; and preventive measures for the future. To these were added the circumstances and immediate cause of the serial bomb blasts on March 12, 1993, and the question whether they had "any common link" with the riots and whether they were "part of common design". Volume II (188 pages) comprises a summary of the evidence "police stationwise" and the depositions by senior police officers, mediapersons and politicians.

The Judge's analysis is clinically cool and eminently fair. Mobs of Muslims gathered on the streets on the night of December 6, 1992, the day the Babri Masjid was demolished. "The police mishandled the situation and by their aggressive posture turned the peaceful protests into violent demonstrations during which the first targets of the anger of the mob became the Municipal van and the Constabulary, both visible signs of the establishment. It is significant that the mobs were not armed, not even with stones and sticks, though they were angry and wanting to vent their spleen against anyone in authority. This situation was misdiagnosed, mishandled and turned messier. At this juncture the Hindus had nothing to complain and should have left the matter to be dealt with by the police as a problem of law and order. It is unfortunate that even at this stage the activists of Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena jumped into the fray, and escalated communal passion..." (emphasis added, throughout).

What was a Muslim-police confrontation became a communal riot. In 1972, several cities in Uttar Pradesh witnessed the Provincial Armed Constabulary's repression of Muslims protesting against the Aligarh Muslim University (Amendment) Act, 1972, which robbed the AMU of its autonomy. It did not turn communal, mainly because the Jan Sangh was content to sit and watch.

THE Mumbai riots provided the worst manifestation of a hate group acting against the members of a minority community in a brutally organised manner. This was done during January 8-9, 1993. "The Shiv Sainiks mobilised themselves for retaliating against the Muslims. The Shakhas in different jurisdictional areas turned into centres of local commands. The attacks on Muslims by the Shiv Sainiks were mounted with military precision, with list of establishments and voter's list in hand... From 8th January 1993 at least there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organising attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders of the Shiv Sena from the level of Shakha Pramukh to the Shiv Sena Pramukh Bal Thackeray who, like a veteran General, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims. The communal violence and rioting triggered off by the Shiv Sena was hijacked by local criminal elements who saw in it an opportunity to make quick gains."

The then Additional Commissioner of Police (ACP), Vasant Narsingrao Deshmukh, "has no hesitation in calling Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena as communal parties as the records show that they have been preaching communal hatred." The BJP cannot escape blame merely because its ally, the Shiv Sena, was in the forefront. "It (the riot) was taken over by Shiv Sena and its leaders who continued to whip up communal frenzy by their statements and acts and writings and directives issued by the Shiv Sena Pramukh Bal Thackeray. The attitude of Shiv Sena as reflected in the Time interview given by Bal Thackeray and its doctrine of 'retaliation', as expounded by Shri Sarpotdar and Shri Manohar Joshi (now Chief Minister) together with the thinking of Shiv Sainiks that 'Shiv Sena's terror was the true guarantee of the safety of citizens,' were responsible for the vigilantism of Shiv Sainiks," the report says.

These observations in Volume I are fortified when one reads the details in Volume II of each areas; for instance, the report says: "That the Shiv Sena was spearheading the attack on the Muslims in this area (Antop Hill) comes through from the evidence of witness after witness..."

To this, add the connivance and complicity of the police force and the malaise faces one in all its hideousness.

The report says: "The response of the police to appeals from desperate victims, particularly Muslims, was cynical and utterly indifferent. On occasions, the response was that they were unable to leave the appointed post; on others, the attitude was that one Muslim killed, was one Muslim less...

"Police officers and men, particularly at the junior level, appeared to have an inbuilt bias against the Muslims which was evident in their treatment of the suspected Muslims and Muslim victims of riots. The treatment given was harsh and brutal and, on occasions, bordering on inhuman, hardly doing credit to the police. The bias of policemen was seen in the active connivance of police constables with the rioting Hindu mobs on occasions, with their adopting the role of passive onlookers on occasion and finally, in their lack of enthusiasm in registering offences against Hindus even when the accused were clearly identified and posthaste classifying the case in 'A' summary... (true but undetected).

"The evidence before the Commission indicates that the police personnel were found actively participating in riots, communal incidents or incidents of looting, arson and so on. The Commission strongly recommends that Government take strict action against the following persons ..."

The Shiv Sena-BJP Government's Action Taken Report (ATR) says that a committee under the Director-General of Police (DGP), comprising representatives of the Home and Law Ministries and the Director of Prosecution, "will examine the cases for taking appropriate action" - a solemn promise of inaction.

IN Mumbai, the riots in January 1993, unlike those of December 1992, were an organised affair. The law has proved a frail reed in combating hate groups. But is it powerless to deal with the police as well? By now there exists ample material to show that communalisation is fairly widespread in the police force. The Srikrishna Commission makes several sound suggestions to ensure its de-communalisation. Its reference to the "we-they" syndrome prompts one to suggest that ACP Deshmukh's testimony deserves serious notice. He said that "there were representations made by Muslim organisations for greater representation in the police force and steps are being taken to do it."

Riot-affected women and children at a refugee centre in January 1993.-

The great judge Lord Scarman's report on the Brixton riots (April 10-12, 1981) recorded: "There is widespread agreement that the composition of our police forces must reflect the make-up of the society they serve. In one important respect at least, it does not do so: in the police, as in other important areas of society, the ethnic minorities are very significantly under-represented." This was written in November 1981. Moves in this direction intensified in Britain as well as in the United States.

Even S. B. Chavan accepted the logic underlying them when, as Union Home Minister, he established the Rapid Action Force. But on July 15, 1998, in the Rajya Sabha, Home Minister L. K. Advani, ruled out any policy to give greater representation to the minorities in the paramilitary forces, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Border Security Force (BSF). He admitted that of the five minority communities recognised by the Minorities Commission, the percentage of representation in these forces was less only in the case of Muslims. But what redress can one expect from a Minister who justifies the Maharashtra Government's substantial rejecton of the Srikrishna Report and can see nothing wrong happening in Gujarat, its DGP's admission to the contrary notwithstanding?

Justice Srikrishna judiciously refrains from propounding a comprehensive riot theory. He makes sharp comments on the vitiation of the atmosphere by the BJP's adoption of the Hindutva plank with Ayodhya as its centre-piece. That was done in 1989 at the Palampur session just on the eve of the elections. The issue "smouldered in Courts, till the Nineties when the Bharatiya Janata Party revived it to regain lost political mileage. The Rath Yatra of Shri L. K. Advani, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, refocussed attention on the Ram Janma Bhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. The inevitable clashes and minor cases of rioting, which took place along the route of the Rath Yatra, as reported by the newspapers, were the distant thunderclaps portending the storm to come."

Next comes this disturbingly accurate assessment: "Originally confined to the forward (sic.) caste, the middle class in Bombay, Hindutva has recently gained currency and fashionableness and its appeal cuts across economic strata and linguistic divisions." The BJP won "respectability", the demolition of the Masjid notwithstanding. It is its incompetence in government, its corruption and ready acceptance of lumpen elements that have now shaken its middle class supporters.

INVOLVED in any riot are three players - the hate group, its lumpen ally, and the regime of the day. The All India Congress Committee(I)'s Committee on Minorities (1961), headed by Indira Gandhi, said; "In case a riot continues for more than 12 hours, the immediate local officers should be taken to task. If it is not controlled within 24 hours, the Home Secretary, the Chief Secretary and the Inspector-General of Police should be held responsible and if the violence goes beyond 48 hours the responsibility must be placed squarely on the State Government." The splendid record of the Jyoti Basu Government in West Bengal proves the point.

No Government can possibly predict the actual eruption of violence. But, as the Jaganmohan Reddy Commission on the Ahmedabad riots pointed out, "what could be expected from law-enforcing and governmental agencies is a proper appreciation of the communal atmosphere prevailing in a State, in a town or in any particular place or locality; to anticipate trouble and to take steps to nip it in the bud or to deal with it firmly when such a situation does arise." Once communal tension is created in a city, all that is needed is "only a match to set it on fire and a fan to fan the city ablaze."

This is where hate groups like the BJP and the Shiv Sena, which vitiate the atmosphere, come in. It is glib to trace the cause to Partition. A Home Ministry review presented to the National Integration Council in 1968 noted: "From 1954 to 1960 there was a clear and consistent downward trend, 1960 being a remarkably good year with only 26 communal incidents in the whole country. This trend was sharply reversed in 1961." That was when riots erupted in Jabalpur - thanks to the Jan Sangh. India has not "looked back" since.

Mumbai knew riots even in the last century. It had Parsi-Hindu riots in 1832, inter-Khoja riots in 1850, Parsi-Muslim riots in 1851 and 1874, Shia-Sunni riots in 1872, 1904 and 1908 and Hindu-Muslim riots in 1893. In 1984, the Shiv Sena staged a communal riot in the city. In each case lumpen elements did the job for the hate group. So it is with the Shiv Sena and the BJP. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh goons are aided by lumpen elements.

S. M. Edwards, an Indian Civil Service officer, was a scholar who enjoyed his work as Commissioner of Police. His report of March 8, 1911 on the Muharram riots is a neglected classic: "There is no question of religion or religious fervour here. The tolis (groups) are irreligious rascality let loose... an excuse for rascality to burst its usual barrier and flow over the city in a current of excessive turbulence." That has been the modus operandi of the RSS-BJP-Shiv Sena under the banner of Hindutva, which is directly opposed to Hinduism.

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