WHY do the Sheikh family members keep changing their statements? Ever since the vociferous prime witness in the Best Bakery case, Zahira Sheikh, first turned hostile in the Vadodara Sessions Court in May 2003, there was speculation that she had struck a deal. Since then there have been more turnarounds, and suspicions keep amplifying.
Just when the drama in the Mazgaon court (where the retrial is being held) was at its peak, as Zahira began her deposition, the Tehelka newspaper released tapes purporting to confirm that the Sheikh family had been paid Rs.18 lakhs to feign ignorance about who attacked its home and bakery and that the Gujarat government paid it to turn hostile during the retrial in Mumbai and file a case against activist Teesta Setalvad, who had been supporting its fight for justice.
The tapes contain conversations recorded on a spycam with Bharatiya Janata Party Member of the Legislative Assembly Madhu Shrivastav and his cousin Bhattoo Shrivastav, a municipal corporator, who allegedly threatened Zahira, because of which she turned hostile in the Vadodara Sessions Court. The tape shows both politicians admitting that Shrivastav paid Zahira Rs.18 lakhs to go back on her police statement in court.
In a conversation with Vadodara corporator Nisar Bapu (which Tehelka filmed secretly), Madhu Shrivastav said, "She (Zahira) came to my house and cried. None of us had gone to call her... We shouldn't have got into it at all. We have been defamed for no fault of ours, for helping... Rs.18 lakhs. Even after getting her (Zahira's) 18 lakhs, she has been calling me."
Bhattoo Shrivastav also affirmed, according to the tape, that Zahira had been paid the full amount, and it was not because she was not paid the entire sum promised to her that she turned to Teesta. "During the chaos when Madhu met me, I asked him what would he do about the girl (Zahira). There has been so much violence in the area. He said you won't believe it, I have given 18 lakh... the entire amount... It is greed... Why did she run back here? I'm 100 per cent sure money would have been given (by the government). She had gone there for the money as well... She took from there, she took from here." Bhattoo even said that Zahira had contacted Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Tehelka also spoke to Tushar Vyas, head of the Jan Adhikar Samiti, a non-governmental organisation that sponsored her press conference in November 2004 where she alleged that Teesta Setalvad and Raees Khan coerced her to lie in court and kept her confined in Mumbai. "Muslim witnesses like Zahira or Nafitullah know they have to live in Hanuman Tekri (where the Best Bakery is situated). The 1,000 who were destined to be burnt are gone. But they still have to live there and this kind of an incident should not be repeated... It was an understanding that she doesn't want to fight anymore, doesn't want to make much noise. The two wanted to compromise... the local leader calls the two sides. `Don't make a sound. I will tell this side and they won't attack the other; and I will tell the other side and they won't attack the first. Otherwise, I will break your knees'... " He added that Madhu was also at the press conference in a Vadodara hotel where Zahira accused Teesta of threatening her.
Both Zahira and Madhu have refuted the accusations made in the Tehelka expose. Zahira told mediapersons outside the court that she did not even know who Madhu Shrivastav was. Denying that she took any money, Zahira said it was part of a conspiracy hatched by Teesta Setalvad and Chandrakant (Bhattoo) Shrivastav, of the Congress, to defame her.
When journalists in Ahmedabad asked Madhu Shrivastav for his reaction, he said, "I'll pump six bullets into any Tehelka journalist I come across... leave alone Rs.18 lakhs, I haven't even given her 18 paise." (Indian Express, December 24). Shrivastav said he planned to take legal action against Tehelka after discussing it with his party. Bhattoo Shrivastav told the press that what Nisar Bapu said in the tapes was being attributed to him. He denied saying that Zahira had been paid any money.
Speaking about the Tehelka controversy, Narendra Modi said, "We should have full faith in the judiciary and should not do anything to influence it. The law should be allowed to take its own course."
How will the tapes affect the retrial currently under way? Many lawyers feel that even if they are permissible as evidence, the tapes will not help in providing evidence against the accused. At most, they further damage the credibility of the Sheikh family. However, their many contradictory stands have already done enough to erode their reputation. The tapes may, however, be useful if there is a Supreme Court inquiry into Zahira's contradictory statements. Teesta Setalvad has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court asking for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Still, many questions remain unanswered. Why did Zahira turn back on her statement the second time round? Was she paid again and by whom? Why did she lash out against Teesta Setalvad and Raees Khan? If she has been paid off, where did the money come from?
Many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle still have to fit into place.
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