A welter of evidence

Published : Aug 05, 2000 00:00 IST

How Thackeray & Co. figure in the Srikrishna Commission Report.


SOME of the most damning evidence of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray's role in the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993 is tucked away between pages 172 and 176 of Volume II of the Report of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry.

On the evening of January 8, 1993, as Mumbai burned, reporter Yuvraj Mohite ran into the city's Mayor, Chandrakant Handore. The Mayor decided to take Mohite along with him for a series of meetings that evening, which ended with a visit to Thackeray's res idence, Matoshri. There, the Srikrishna Report records, he found Thackeray "directing the Shiv Sainiks, Shakha Pramukhs and other activists of the Shiv Sena to attack the Muslims, to ensure that they gave tit for tat and ensure that 'not a single land ya (a derogatory term for Muslims) would survive to give oral evidence'." Shiv Sena leaders Ramesh More and Madhukar Sarpotdar, who arrived at Matoshri later that evening, were given similar instructions. A caller from Jogeshwari was asked to catch h old of Additional Commissioner of Police A.A. Khan, and "send him to 'Allah's home' at once".

Shiv Sena lawyer Adhik Shirodkar did his best to discredit this testimony. Mohite was cross-examined about everything, from the layout of Thackeray's home at the time of his visit to his political convictions. Nothing worked. "The Commission," Justice Sr ikrishna concluded, "sees no reason for not accepting the testimony of this witness."

Justice Srikrishna ended the first volume of his report with a brief quote from the Ramayana. "Persons pleasing in speech are easy to find," it reads, "it is difficult to find one who speaks or listens to the bitter, but wholesome, truth." On July 21, tw o years after Justice Srikrishna submitted his findings, a Supreme Court bench consisting of Chief Justice A.S. Anand and Justices R.C. Lahoti and K.G. Balakrishnan finally made clear that someone, at least, is giving them a hearing. "When the report had given certain findings and held certain persons prima facie responsible for the riots," the judges said, "the logical corollary should be to prosecute them." Thackeray, who has been busy celebrating his triumph in a Magistrate's Court, could find his problems are just beginning.

Much of the Supreme Court's fury was focussed on the Union government, which had argued in its affidavit that it had no role to play in the affair. Union Law Minister Ram Jethmalani had, however, been vocal in his criticism of the Maharashtra government for initiating proceedings against Thackeray, while Sena representatives in the Union Cabinet had demanded the dismissal of the Democratic Front (D.F.) regime. "It is distressing that comments are made by Cabinet Ministers while a petition seeking implem entation of the Commission's report is pending before the highest court in the land." "Telling something to the Court and playing to the gallery by saying something else to the public," the judges noted, "hardly behoves a person in a civilised society." It was almost as if, they concluded, the concept of collective responsibility was "not known to this government".

Faced with this extraordinary, but well-deserved, judicial critique, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was left with no option but to remove Jethmalani from the Union Cabinet. Jethmalani's observations against the Chief Justice of India and the charges he directed at Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee, have had obvious political consequences. As important, however, is the fact that Justice Anand's bench has reversed a long and disturbing history of judicial quiescence in the Shiv Sena's objectives. After the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power in Maharashtra, the State began to withdraw more than a dozen cases pending against Thackeray for inciting communal hatred through the Shiv Sena newspaper, Saamna. The lower courts went along, with no sign of discomfort.

Matters did not improve in the High Court. Dealing with a 1994 petition asking that the State government be compelled to prosecute Thackeray, the High Court found his writing perfectly acceptable. On December 8, 1992, for example, Thackeray wrote that "M uslims should draw a lesson from the demolition of the Babri Masjid, otherwise they will meet the same fate as the Babri Masjid." "Muslims who criticise the demolition," he concluded, "are without religion, without a nation." The High Court, however, hel d that "these articles do not criticise Muslims as a whole, but Muslims who are traitors to India." Another article, authored on January 9, 1993, the Court held, did "not create feelings of ill-will, spite and hatred." It read: "The ugly and violent form of Muslim traitors was witnessed in the city yesterday... Our prophecy has come true. A Muslim, whichever country he belongs to, whatever position he occupies, is first a Muslim."

THE Srikrishna Report is clear just where the blame lies for the 1992-1993 riots. On the basis of the welter of evidence before him, the Judge concluded that "the communal passions of the Hindus were aroused to fever pitch by the inciting writings in (th e) print media, particularly Saamna and Navakal." "From 8th January 1993 at least," he concluded, "there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organising attacks on Muslims and their properties from the level of S hakha 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." He blamed "effete political leadership, vacillation for political reasons and conflicti ng orders issued to the Commissioner of Police" for the State's failure to contain the attacks on Mumbai's Muslims.

Justice Srikrishna's observations were based on the mass of evidence before him. Dozens of witnesses before the Commission identified Shiv Sainiks as those who attacked them. Reshma Umar Makki, who converted to Islam when she married Umar Makki, had to h ide her husband when a mob of Shiv Sena workers attacked her home on January 9, 1993. Two days later, another vigilante group broke into her home, and "abused her as to why she got married to a 'landya', and whether all Hindus were dead." "She ide ntified the mob," the Report records, "as comprising inmates of Andhra Chawl, out of whom she clearly recognised Umesh, a Shiv Sainik living near Sundar Hotel. He and three to four other boys entered her house, placed a chopper on her head, and threatene d her that, if she spoke up, she would be stripped, raped and killed."

Thackeray's loyal lieutenants, the evidence showed, controlled mobs like the one which attacked Reshma Makki's home. In Mahim, Shiv Sena corporator Milind Dattaram Vaidya was arrested for ordering his cadre to set fire to shops owned by Muslims. The poli tician was accompanied by a police constable, Sanjay Laxman Gawande, who witnesses said had been waving a sword. The Commission noted that Madhukar Sarpotdar, a member of the Legislative Assembly, had played a key role in spreading rumours that Muslims h ad demolished a Ganesh idol in Behrampada. He did not, however, pass on the evidence he possesses to the police, nor did he disclose his sources. Had Sarpotdar "displayed the same zeal in cooperating with the police which he showed in making speculative and unfounded allegations," Justice Srikrishna noted, "probably the miscreants could have been nailed. On January 11, 1993, Sarpotdar was intercepted by an Army column. The troops that searched his jeep found three handguns, two of them unlicensed, and s ome choppers and sticks.

Police officials willing to disgrace their uniforms formed the last element of Thackeray's offensive formations. "The response of police to appeals from desperate victims, particularly Muslims," the Report records, "was utterly cynical and indifferent." "Police officers and men, particularly at the junior level," Justice Srikrishna found, "appeared to have an in-built bias against the Muslims." This bias, he noted, "manifested (itself) in their reluctance to firmly put down incidents of violence, lootin g and arson which went on unchecked." When Makki contacted Senior Police Inspector Vinayak Patil for help, he flatly refused to help. "If a Muslim dies," he said, "there would be one Muslim less." Witnesses before the Commission reported several cases of cold-blooded executions of Muslims uninvolved in the violence.

WHEN hearings on the Srikrishna Commission matter begin again in September, Justices Anand, Balakrishnan and Lahoti might consider the fate of those indicted by the Srikrishna Commission. Put simply, no one has paid for their crimes. Joint Commissioner o f Police R.D. Tyagi was found by the Commission to have presided over the murder of nine Muslims at Suleiman Bakery. Although Tyagi claimed to have opened fire when the victims attacked him, forensic expert Pritam Phatnani held that all of them were in f act shot in the back, probably while attempting to flee. Then, although Tyagi claimed to have been fired upon by at least one Sten gun, not a single shell was recovered from the site, bar an unspent Kalashnikov cartridge, probably police issue. Far from being tried and punished, Tyagi was nominated for election to the Maharashtra Assembly by the Shiv Sena in July 2000.

Milind Vaidya, for his part, went on to become Mayor of Mumbai. Twice targeted by the Shakeel Ahmed Babu mafia for his role in the riots, he was neither charged nor punished, and continues to be an influential figure in the Shiv Sena hierarchy. As in the case of Vaidya, Sarpotdar's political career thrived following his well-documented criminal activities, which led him all the way to a seat in Parliament. As Justice Srikrishna observed, Sarpotdar could have been charged under the Terrorists and Disrupt ive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) for moving in a notified area with unlicensed firearms. No such charge was levelled.

None of the police personnel indicted in the Srikrishna Report has been brought to trial either, let alone be punished. Most of them remain in their posts. The intervention of the Supreme Court now appears to have ensured that this kind of contempt for j ustice can no longer be sustained. The court flatly rejected the Maharashtra government's affidavit, which said it had referred back the cases outlined in the Srikrishna Report to the State police's Crime Branch. "You appoint a High Court judge to head a Commission and this is the way you treat his Report?" the judges asked. Chief Justice Anand made clear in the course of hearing that while investigation was permissible, no re-assessment of Srikrishna's findings would be tolerated. "We're happy with the judgment," says Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal. "When we submit our affidavit, you will see that we are prepared to immediately commence prosecution of all those indicted in the Srikrishna Report."

While firm legal action, along with in-house fissures, might just cripple the Shiv Sena, it will take more than legal action to eliminate the root causes of the spread of fascism in Mumbai. In one of the more interesting passages in his Report, Justice S rikrishna points to the steady decline in the number of organised sector jobs in Mumbai from 1971 onwards, and the growth of a chaotic, exploitative informal sector. The worst hit by the death of Mumbai industry were immigrants from rural Maharashtra. Th e shrinking of economic opportunity provided the foundations for the xenophobic and chauvinist tendencies the Shiv Sena exploited, and finally gave communal shape to. Despite the Shiv Sena's legitimacy being eroded by evidence of massive corruption, the fact remains that Senaism continues to have more than a little mass support.

Mumbai's economic miracle has little space for the concerns of Maharashtra, particularly the State's poor. Most new jobs are technology oriented, and go often to well-educated immigrants from other States. Only poorly-paid informal sector jobs, for which there is bitter competition, are left. The sole avenue open for many young Maharashtrians are the State services, including the lower judiciary and the police, which have emerged as major bastions of pro-Shiv Sena sentiment. The Shiv Sena has also succe eded in establishing deep roots among the Mumbai elite, who find it a useful instrument of protection against working class mobilisation. Just how D.F. intends to engage with this larger problem is far from clear. While Bhujbal's clear-minded pursuit of justice will, in the short term, help build a political consensus against the Shiv Sena's communal fascism, the economic and cultural climate of Mumbai is certain to ensure the ideological battle will be a protracted one.

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