'We will move a higher court'

Published : Aug 05, 2000 00:00 IST

Interview with Chhagan Bhujbal.

Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal is without dispute the man the Shiv Sena hates most. Over the last month, it has also learned to fear him. In this interview to Praveen Swami, given shortly after the prosecution of Bal Thackeray was qu ashed by a magistrate's court, Bhujbal explains the reasons for his campaign to bring the Shiv Sena to book, and its political implications both for him personally and the Nationalist Congress Party. He also discusses his own reasons for breaking with th e Shiv Sena a decade ago. Excerpts:

It has been suggested that the only real outcomes of the effort to prosecute Bal Thackeray have been days of harassment for ordinary Mumbai residents, and egg on your face. In fact, some say your own job is in jeopardy. How would you respond to these criticisms?

I did not sanction Thackeray's prosecution to satisfy my ego. It was done to punish a man responsible for the death of hundreds of people in the riots of 1992-1993. It was done to signal to Maharashtra and India that no one, no one, is above the law. Aft er the order quashing the case, I offered to resign. But MLA after MLA, Minister after Minister, asked me not to, and demanded that we push ahead with our task of ensuring that justice is done.

As for the harassment of Mumbai residents, people know who threatened to burn down the city if he was arrested. They know who threw stones and tried to burn buses. They also know that we, for the first time in Mumbai's history, ensured that the Shiv Sena could not engage in widespread violence.

Why did you act against Thackeray at this time? Was it to cut off overtures by the Shiv Sena and the BJP to dissidents in the NCP?

No, no, these things are not connected. Look, the implementation of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission Report was part of the common minimum programme of the Democratic Front. That matter is before the Supreme Court, and we have every intention of pr osecuting Thackeray and others with a role in the violence for each and every offence. When we discovered there was a case for inciting communal hatred pending against Thackeray, we immediately took action. We cleared the necessary files, and moved to pr osecute him. What has dissidence got to do with it?

People ask why what happened 10 years ago is relevant now.

Only Shiv Sainiks ask this question. It is relevant to the families of the people who were killed, to those whose homes were burned, and the orphans left behind by the riots. Is this a joke? Can you, in a democratic country, murder people and escape puni shment only because you are powerful? Sixteen years after the 1984 riots in Delhi, the BJP is offering to set up another commission of inquiry. It is prosecuting people involved in killing Sikhs. I support this. But then they oppose doing the same thing in Maharashtra, which makes clear that what they are doing in Delhi is because of political convenience, not principles.

Is it true that you acted without consulting anybody?

That is not true. As the Chief Minister has said time and again, the decision to prosecute Thackeray was a collective decision. That is the truth.

What are your plans now to revive the prosecution of Thackeray in this case?

Well, we shall be moving a higher court very shortly. The legal advice we have received, and State counsel P.R. Vakil's own report to the government, are unanimous. We have a good case for appeal. Let nobody think the magistrate's order is the end of thi s affair. And then of course there are the Srikrishna Commission cases, which also we shall file.

Contrary to the fears of many people, the Shiv Sena does not seem to have been able to mobilise against Thackeray's prosecution in any major way.

I don't know what people are scared of. Thackeray is a cowardly man. Like all bullies, he cowers when he is confronted. When we said we would prosecute him, he said Mumbai would burn. He said he would not apply for bail. Then, he saw we were not intimida ted. Then Thackeray started saying he respected the law and called for peace. He became a Gandhian. When the Union government refused to give us additional forces, I said I would withdraw the Maharashtra Police from central installations. I withdrew secu rity to Shiv Sena workers who were not entitled to it. The Maharashtra Police did an excellent job of maintaining law and order. I was under so much pressure from so many people to place him under house arrest, not to oppose his bail application. The fir st thing his lawyers did was to apply for bail. The things that people asked on his behalf!

What you are saying seems strange coming from a man who spent decades in the Shiv Sena, and built it up outside Mumbai.

Look, there is a lot of misunderstanding about this, which I want to clarify. I come from a poor family of vegetable vendors, and grew up in a working class area of Mumbai. I studied hard, and got a seat to study at the VGTI engineering college. At that time, the mills in Mumbai were dying, and educated Maharashtrian youth were finding it difficult to get jobs. Most of the jobs in the new industries, which were coming up, went to outsiders. So, like everyone else in the college, I was attracted to the S hiv Sena. It was only later I realised that the organisation's claims to protect the rights of Maharashtrians were nonsense. One day we'd be beating up Dalits, the next day Muslims, and all the while the so called leaders of Maharashtrians were making mo ney. The Mandal Commission report was the last straw. When the Shiv Sena opposed reservations, I said that I could not stay on in an organisation which was hostile to the kind of background and community I myself had come from. Remember, I did not quit t o become a Minister. I had to suffer. The Shiv Sena even tried to liquidate me.

Finally, what are the political consequences of the magistrate's order? Is this going to strengthen the Shiv Sena?

People do not understand this, but there is a wide anti-Hindutva constituency in Maharashtra. It has just not been tapped properly. In the last elections, let us face facts, Dalits and Muslims did not trust my party. Although we promised to protect their rights, they thought we might join hands with the BJP or the Shiv Sena later. Today we have proved that we are serious about implementing what we say. People from every secular party in the country have been calling to congratulate us on taking a stand. We have a historic opportunity to consolidate and grow. For nine months, people thought this government was a joke. No one is laughing today.

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