An omnibus FIR

Print edition : October 24, 2003

A strategy to deny justice to the riot victims was to file omnibus FIRs without hearing the accounts of victims and witnesses.

BY the time I heard Yunusbhai's story I had heard hundreds of tales of sorrow and hopelessness. But still there is something about a man in tears that makes you stop and listen. This man had lost so much. His wife. His son. His parents.

In Kalol, the remains of Muslim houses that were blasted with LPG cylinders during the communal violence of 2002.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

He asked me if I could help him lodge his complaint with the police. He, like all the other Muslims of his village in Dehlol, had fled during the riots on March 1, 2002. They clambered onto a van to escape the mob. They did not get far. The van was stopped, overturned and attacked near Ambica Society in Kalol. Thirteen human beings were killed in cold blood. Some old, others young. Yunusbhai, who was hiding, saw it all. He recognised the killers. He even knows their names. Half dead with fear, terror and shame for surviving the onslaught, he walked to the nearest relief camp. A month later, the officer in charge of the Kalol police station told him that a first information report (FIR) had already been lodged. Yunusbhai had no idea how the FIR was lodged without his or any other eyewitnesses having visited the police station before. He was refused a copy of the FIR. He repeated his visits to the police station hoping that someone might recognise his pain and record his complaint. But luck was not on his side.

I met Sultana at the Kalol police station. She said she was raped by three men on March 1, 2002. She was one of the many ill-fated persons who boarded the van that was attacked at Ambica Society. As she tried to flee, she was caught. She has three eyewitnesses to her gang-rape; but the police would not register her complaint. Each time she went to the police station, she had to tell her story one more time. There was no quiet corner, no policewoman to listen respectfully, no trauma room or counselling. She was forced to recount intimate details of the rape to a gawking crowd of constables. One policeman even told her to forget it and that there was going to be no separate report filed for "simply rape". An FIR that dealt with the Ambica Society `incident' already existed and, at the most, she could get her testimony attached to it. So be it. Sultana's statement was attached to the FIR.

Idris' brother Imran was also killed in Kalol on March 1, 2002. As they were trying to flee the murderous mob, Imran was caught, dragged into the Rabbani Masjid, hit with sticks and swords, rolled in a carpet and burnt alive. Police personnel from the Kalol police station witnessed the incident. They did nothing to save him. Instead, from a distance they fired in the air. Some bullets were aimed at the rioting mob but somehow managed to hit only Muslims. Idris also went to the Kalol police station to lodge his complaint. He was told that an FIR had already been lodged.

March 1, 2002 was unlucky for Ibrahim as well. He was a victim of the police firing in Kalol. He was trying to flee, run away from the riotous mob, to save his life. The bullets were targeted at the mob but somehow managed to injure Ibrahim seriously. Ibrahim's nephew Hussein rushed him to hospital in a van but the mob followed it. Hussein fled. The van was set ablaze. Half-conscious, immobilised and bleeding, Ibrahim could not save himself. A month later Hussein went to lodge his complaint at the Kalol police station. He was told that an FIR had already been lodged.

Unable to unravel the raw facts from the pain and suffering in which they were steeped, I decided to find out what was contained in the "mysterious omnibus FIR" which took account of crimes without needing to hear the witnesses. What investigations could have been done? What evidence discovered?

Yunusbhai, Sultana, Idris, Hussein and I decided to go the police station together. At the station the routine was repeated. They told their stories again. The response was the same. No fresh complaints would be taken. "An FIR has already been lodged." This time we got a copy. It was just one single FIR for all the different grievous offences that had happened in four different places.

In the Sub-Inspector's version of events in the FIR, faceless mobs of the majority and minority communities were held responsible for the violence in Kalol. Muslims were trying to flee, but the FIR notes that there was a face-off between the two communities. There was no mention of the murder of Imran, instead there was the very obvious and unavoidable mention of the destruction of the Rabbani Masjid. The FIR records that one of the Muslims injured in the firing was moved to the hospital in a van. The mob followed. And in the hospital premises set the van ablaze with the injured Muslim inside. No mention of the name of this Muslim. Once again there is no individual to blame - just that faceless mob of Hindu fundamentalists responsible for the murder.

The Ambica murders, registered in the same FIR, were recorded in the same negligent way. Instead of 13 murders, which Yunusbhai says took place before his eyes, only 10 were recorded. No names of the murderers and rapists in the mob were mentioned in the FIR. Sultana's rape found no mention. Maybe it was not important enough. Or maybe it just did not matter.

I could see the anguish on their faces. This was not a record of what they had said. This was not their story. They were eyewitnesses who had seen at close quarters specific people killing their loved ones. The FIR did not name those specific individuals who had killed, raped or burned them or their loved ones at different times in different places. Since an FIR dictates the direction of the investigation, the more vague it is the more likely it is to obfuscate the issue and draw attention away from individual investigation of a single crime. The only thing that was common to all the four incidents was the day on which the crimes occurred and that they came under the same police station. We argued with the police officer that the FIR had not recorded facts correctly. Yunus, Idris and Hussein were pleading. Sultana was standing by the side trying to hide her pain behind her dupatta. She could barely speak. The policeman was not interested. With the whole might of the state behind them, maybe the policemen at the station knew how best to handle the crimes. It was just that what was in their best interests was not in the best interests of Yunus, Sultana, Idris and Hussein. There was no level playing field. A display of the poor pitted against the powerful.

MONTHS passed. Yunusbhai doggedly pursued his case, made countless visits to the police station. Finally the police went with him to the scene of the crime. It had never been secured. Never been sequestered. Never been investigated for forensics. All things that are required to be done immediately and always. Still they did find some remains. A few bones. A lot of ashes. Yunus insisted on giving his statement to the police. He mentioned all the names of the men who allegedly killed his wife, son and others. He would never forget their faces.

Idris and Hussein were losing hope. They gave their stale statements to the police. But did not know what was written on that paper. Sultana too gave her statement. The process was set in motion. Sultana was sent off for a medical examination - two months after the rape. Insult was added to injury - rape was not confirmed.

They all waited patiently for the case to be investigated. Meanwhile, living in camps and depending for survival on charity added to their pain. After eight long months their wait seemed to come to an end. The charge-sheet was filed on November 12, 2002.

The charge-sheet, like the FIR, clubbed different incidents that took place in Kalol. No specific crime was attributed to any one of the accused. The police had, in fact, avoided the responsibility of identifying individual culprits responsible for committing specific crimes.

Till date Yunus, Sultana, Imran and Idris have met with only despair and dejection in their search for justice. All their hopes were pinned on a fair trial. They wanted the machinery of justice to be effective so that every victim benefited from its impartiality and fairness. None wanted compassion. Only justice. They were confident that the state could not possibly turn its face away from their pain or from its primary duty to provide them justice. But the message was clear: it was possible to get away with murder, provided you belong to the right religion, caste, class or power structure.

Imran had died in the riots. He was caught by a mob of Hindu fundamentalists and burnt alive. However, eight months later, in the charge-sheet Imran is listed as an accused who took part in the riots and was killed in police firing. Ibrahim, injured in police firing and then burnt alive by a mob in the premises of the hospital, is also listed as an accused responsible for rioting.

Post-mortem reports should have shown the causes of the deaths. But in every case the cause of death was the same: shock owing to extensive burns. These people were unprotected in life, and for the state they have become ciphers in death. Their families know how they died, where they died. But in death they have become anonymous corpses. No post-mortem report mentions bullet injuries as the cause of death for any of these people. Had Imran died in police firing, his corpse might have revealed bullet wounds during post-mortem.

The panchnama - a record of the situation as it existed when the police first arrive at the scene of crime - says the police recovered the body of a 40-year-old man who was burnt beyond recognition. But Idris knows it was young Imran, who was no more than 18. The panchnama was recorded on March 3. However, the post-mortem report records that the body was received on March 2 and that the examination was conducted the same day. Things somehow do not fall into place here; such instances constitute a major discrepancy in the investigation process.

As for Yunusbhai, the police failed to protect his family from the murderous mob during the days of the riots. Now, the investigation that was conducted into the 13 murders at Ambica Society was so shoddy that there was no possibility of a single conviction. Once again, like the FIR, the charge-sheet takes into account only 10 murders and not 13.

The charge-sheet at least mentions the names of the accused - Sheetal, J.P. Shah, Jaggubhai and Vijay Thakore. But they are all `absconding'. The police are unable to trace the accused despite the fact that they live in the same town, threaten Yunusbhai regularly to withdraw his statement, and Yunusbhai has complained to the police about this.

Another panchnama of March 2 describes the location where the 10 bodies were found near Ambica Society. According to post-mortem reports, all 10 bodies removed from the vicinity of Ambica Society were received at the hospital on the same day. The post-mortem was done, the cause of death was identified and the reports were signed right away. The fact that post-mortems of 10 bodies were done in less than a day speaks volumes. But there is more. Another panchnama was recorded on March 3. It states that all 10 bodies were lying in the vicinity of Ambica Society at various places near the gutted van. If the bodies had been sent for post-mortem on the previous day the report of the panchnama procedure conducted on the March 3 must be treated as unreliable. If it is a reliable document then the veracity of all post-mortem reports is under doubt.

For Sultana, her case was literally an `open and shut' one. Although the charge-sheet does record that she was gang-raped, the charge of gang-rape has not been listed. Sultana's testimony has been merely tagged to the charge-sheet. There is no mention of the identity or names of the rapists. Although Sultana was unaware of their names, she was confident that she would be able to identify them if produced before her. However, the police have done nothing to investigate the case. The minimum that could have been done was to organise an identification parade of all suspects accused of participating in the communal incidents, which would have enabled Sultana to identify the rapists. The delayed medical examination resulted in the obliteration of all physical evidence of rape. The entire investigation was overshadowed by police inaction.

Yunus, Sultana, Idris and Hussein are just a few of the many victims, both men and women who stumble about the blind alleys of the judicial system asking for attention, for justice, for some closure to the torment of mind that they have suffered.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's promise of justice has allowed such gross miscarriage of justice. And can it still be that one must hope against all hope that a secure and well-ensconced popular government like that of Modi's will make a beginning and prove to the world that there is more there than popular demagoguery and the politics of hate?

Navaz Kotwal is a legal activist working with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi.

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