Cause and effect

Print edition : August 21, 2015

The Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt at the special TADA court that was hearing the Mumbai blasts case, on July 31, 2007. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Although the police were able to quickly unravel the conspiracy behind the Mumbai bomb blasts and arrest many of those involved, the masterminds behind them are still at large.

“It was by chance that we uncovered the plot,” Rakesh Maria, Commissioner of Police, told Frontline in March 2013 about the Mumbai blasts in 1993. He was a Deputy Commissioner of Police at the time of the blasts. “This was the first time RDX was used in a bomb blast in India; we did not know what to look for,” he said.

Mumbai was just recovering from the violent communal riots of December 1992 and January 1993 that erupted in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, when on March 12, 1993, 13 serial bombs exploded at regular intervals across the city. Official estimates say that 257 people died and over 700 were injured. The city went into a state of shock again. There was a furious cry to find the perpetrators of the violence. Under pressure, the Mumbai Police pulled off a major coup by unravelling a massive conspiracy within 48 hours of the bombing. It took a few fluke leads and some instinctive moves by astute policemen to discover that the blasts were orchestrated by the underworld dons Dawood Ibrahim based in Dubai and Tiger Memon in Mumbai. The attacks were apparently a retaliatory action against the communal violence a few months earlier.

Within a year, the investigation was complete. Hundreds of people were interrogated and arrested. The trial would be the longest running in India’s history. It took 12 years for a special Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) court to convict 100 of the accused, including Yakub Memon. It would take another eight years for the Supreme Court to pronounce the final judgments in the bombing cases. It remains to be seen whether the saga has ended with Yakub’s hanging. It cannot be emphasised enough that the real culprits are still at large, and it does not appear that a serious effort is being made to bring them back and close this gruesome chapter in India’s history.

1993: The conspiracy

Reports and investigations reveal that Dawood, who had jumped bail in India and was living in Karachi and Dubai, was distraught during and after the 1992 riots. Hundreds of Muslims from his neighbourhood of Dongri in Mumbai had been butchered by rioters. Each day he would receive reports of immeasurable violence inflicted on Muslims. A self-proclaimed leader of the community, he felt helpless for not protecting his people. The story goes that the tipping point came when he received a parcel with a box of broken glass bangles and a message that read: “A brother who cannot protect the chastity of his sisters receives this gift.” Using the resources and infrastructure provided by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Dawood enlisted trusted soldiers Mohammed Dossa, another gangster in Dubai, and Tiger, a smuggler based in Mumbai, to plan a terror attack, train the participants, and finally execute the attack. Tiger, through his network of criminals, managed to land a massive consignment of arms and ammunition in Mumbai, which included 7,000 kilograms of RDX, 300 AK-56 rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition and several crates of hand grenades. Tiger also allegedly sent a group of men to Pakistan for training in handling arms and explosive devices. Meetings were held in several locations, mainly at the Memon family residences.

The bombing was supposedly planned for later in March 1993. However, when the small-time crook Gul Mohammed, who was to be involved in the placing of bombs, was arrested, Tiger decided to strike on March 12. The first bomb exploded at 1:30 p.m. at the Bombay Stock Exchange. Another 10 were set off at regular intervals at Kalbadevi, Shiv Sena Bhavan, the Air India building in Nariman Point, Century Bazaar, Zaveri Bazaar, Katha Bazaar, Hotel Sea Rock, Plaza Cinema, Hotel Juhu Centaur and Hotel Centaur at Santa Cruz airport, and hand grenades were thrown into Fisherman’s Colony in Mahim causeway and at a location in Sahar Airport. All these are extremely crowded areas, and this resulted in the huge death toll. It is interesting to note that the placement of bombs was mainly in wealthy business areas and in trading neighbourhoods, a trend future terrorists have followed.

Eyewitness accounts of the bomb sites say few words can describe how violent and tragic the scenes were. The impact of the explosives was so severe that buildings were torn apart and human body parts were flung all over the place. People were running madly about, either trying to escape burning buildings or holding on to a loved one or even looking for one. Hospitals were jammed. Police, fire brigade and ambulance sirens were screaming all over the city. Nobody knew when and where the next bomb would explode. The administration could not control the commotion and hence offered no direction or solace. But the most palpable fear was that of a backlash.

Details of the operation reveal a reasonably sophisticated operation for that time. It was poor planning of the escape, carelessness, and Tiger’s failure to protect his soldiers that eventually led to the unravelling of the plot.

It was the discovery of an explosives-laden scooter in Dadar and an abandoned van at Worli a day after the bomb blasts that took the police to their owners, and this eventually led straight to the conspirators. The scooter was clearly a bomb that did not detonate. Additionally, the police were able to capture two key men (whose identities will never be revealed) who helped them piece together the conspiracy jigsaw.

The police traced the abandoned van to Rubina Suleiman Memon, who lived in Al Husseini building in Mahim. When Maria reached her residence, the neighbours told him the Memons had not been seen for a few days. When he discovered this was the family residence of the underworld don Tiger Memon, Maria took a quick decision to raid the premises in case something showed up. A set of two-wheeler keys were found in the apartment, and Maria decided he would try them on the explosive laden scooter. They fit. Maria had his first breakthrough. The scooter and the van belonging to the Memon family were the first two pieces of the puzzle. In a few days, the Mumbai Police managed to arrest most of Tiger’s foot soldiers, who provided many more pieces to the conspiracy jigsaw. Eventually, every detail of the conspiracy was unravelled. A month after the attacks, the Mumbai Police made their most sensational arrest when they nabbed the Hindi film actor Sanjay Dutt for possessing an AK-56 that was believed to be part of the terror consignment. While Dutt’s name could not be connected to the plot, the fact that he owned a weapon and then attempted to destroy it put him under a cloud of suspicion.

Tiger and his family, including all his brothers—Suleiman, Ayub, Yakub, Essa and Yusuf—had left the country on the morning of the attack. It was said they were in Karachi. While Tiger and Ayub did not return to India, their brothers did as they believed that they were innocent. Yakub was charged with handling the financial transactions of the conspiracy but reportedly had cut a deal with the Indian government to help it with the investigation as he did not want to be a fugitive. The Central Bureau of Investigation has maintained that Yakub was arrested and did not return by choice. It is too late and no point in debating that now.

Police sources say that close to 3,000 people were interrogated in the months following the attacks. Eventually, 129 people were arrested and charged on various counts for their involvement in India’s first coordinated terror attack. A special TADA court set up within the Arthur Road jail in Mumbai as soon as the investigations were complete in 1994 eventually convicted 100 of the arrested. The trial proceeded at a slow pace with regular changes in public prosecutors and defence lawyers. Eventually, in August 2007, a packed court room saw Yakub Memon being given the death penalty for his deep involvement in the monetary transactions and for storing arms, ammunition, hand grenades and detonators. Other Memon family members, Essa, Yusuf and Rubina, received life imprisonment. Suleiman and Yakub’s mother, Hanifa, and wife, Raheen, were acquitted. The trial court judge also pronounced the death sentence for 10 of the convicted, mainly the planters of the bombs. Five others received life sentences and the rest were sentenced to various forms of imprisonment ranging from two to eight years’ rigorous imprisonment.

The following are the 10 who were awarded the death sentence: Asgar Mukadam, Tiger Memon’s accountant, who was found guilty of transporting RDX to the Al Husseini building where the Memons lived; Mohammed Shoaib Ghansar, who parked the RDX-packed scooter at Zaveri Bazaar; Farooq Pawale, who planted the bomb at the Air India building; Mushtaq Tarani, who left an RDX-filled suitcase at Hotel Juhu Centaur; Parvez Sheikh, who parked an explosives-laden scooter at Katha Bazaar and a suitcase bomb at Hotel Sea Rock; Abdul Gani Turk, who planted the bomb that claimed the largest number of lives at a restaurant in Century Bazaar; Shahnawaz Qureshi, who helped Mukadam plant a bomb at Plaza Cinema; Zakir Hussain, who participated in weapons training in Pakistan; and Abdul Akhtar Khan and Firoz Amani Malik, both of whom participated in arms, ammunition and explosives training in Pakistan. Sanjay Dutt was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for illegally possessing automatic weapons that were part of the arms consignment used in the attack. Denied bail recently, it will be another year before he completes his sentence. Of his accomplices who tried to destroy the weapon, Yusuf Nulwalla and Kersi Adejani were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment, while Rusi Mulla was acquitted.

Appeals filed in the Supreme Court saw final judgments in 2013. The apex court said that while Yakub deserved no leniency, the other 10 accused needed to be evaluated differently as they came from poor backgrounds and were really “arrows” used by the mastermind “archers”. The court commuted their death sentences to life imprisonment. The plot also involved the participation of local officials. It sentenced to life the customs officer Somnath Thapa and the policeman Vijay Patil. It gave six- to eight-year imprisonment terms to R.K. Singh, Mohammed Sultan Sayyed, Jaywant Gurav and S.S. Talwadekar for felicitating the movement of arms and ammunition in return for bribes.

During the course of the trial, several accused died, some turned approvers, and some were killed in encounters. A closer look at the bunch of men involved shows a sorry group of poor, uneducated and misled men who got involved for the sake of money, in some cases for an amount as low as Rs.10,000—although that was a fair sum in 1993. Many could not afford a defence lawyer, which lawyers say led to their downfall. Not a single non-governmental organisation came forward to help. In fact, lawyers have often commented that if Yakub himself had had a better defence, he may have avoided the noose.

Yakub and many others paid for Tiger and Dawood’s crime with their lives. Until India’s establishments bring back and tries the main culprits, one cannot say that justice has been served.

In 1993, a commission of inquiry, headed by Justice B.N. Srikrishna, was constituted to look into the Mumbai riots after the Babri Masjid demolition. The commission’s report says categorically: “One common link between the riots of December 1992 and January 1993 and bomb blasts of 12th March 1993 appear to be that the former appear to have been a causative factor for the latter. There does appear to be a cause and effect relationship between the two riots and the serial bomb blasts.

“Tiger Memon, the key figure in the serial bomb blasts case, and his family had suffered extensively during the riots and therefore can be said to have had deep-rooted motive for revenge.... Apart from these two specific cases, there was a large amorphous body of angry frustrated and desperate Muslims keen to seek revenge for the perceived injustice done to and atrocities perpetrated on them or to others of their community, and it is this sense of revenge which spawned the conspiracy of the serial blasts. This body of angry frustrated and desperate Muslims provided the material upon which the anti–national and criminal elements succeeded in building up their conspiracy for the serial bomb blasts.”

For a while, the saffron brigade, particularly the Shiv Sena, claimed that Pakistan’s ISI was behind the riots and the bomb blasts. Not only does the report debunk the ISI bogey, but it states clearly that the first stone was cast by the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine.

“… nationwide and in Mumbai particularly, the Shiv Sena-RSS-BJP combine kept the atmosphere on the boil through provocative and incendiary speeches from July 1992 onwards in preparation for the demolition in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. Following these preparations, it was Hindus led by the Shiv Sena who first came out on the streets on December 6, 1992, to celebrate their ‘victory’. During the processions and celebrations, provocative and threatening anti-Muslim slogans were shouted. The Mumbai police allowed this to happen before, on and after December 6, 1992, unchecked.”

Sadly, the report, which systematically names the men and groups responsible for the carnage, went into cold storage. To date, no politician has had the courage to implement the recommendations, which include dealing with the bias of Maharashtra policemen towards minority communities. A day after Yakub was hanged, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury, quoting from the report, demanded stringent action against those responsible for the 1992 riots in the western metropolis, saying these communal incidents were a “causative” factor for the blasts.

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