A task force and unfinished tasks

Published : Feb 16, 2002 00:00 IST

The Maharashtra government appears set to wind up the Special Task Force that it constituted to act on the Srikrishna Commission Report on the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai.

WHO says the Mumbai Police are not doing their bit to retain the city's secular fabric? They went all out to celebrate 'Communal Harmony Week' in January, organising seminars, meetings and even a pop concert, mobilising the support of film stars, singers, socialites and politicians. But the high-profile public relations exercise could hardly hide the pain and anger of the victims of the communal riots of December 1992 and January 1993. They have a different story to tell.

Some of the persons who allegedly committed heinous crimes during the riots go around scot-free, while those affected by the riots still have cases pending against them. Police officers accused of murder and pillage during the riots have even been promoted since then. This is despite the fact that the Justice Srikrishna Commission, appointed by the State government to probe the causes of the riots, recommended strict action against them.

One such person let off the hook is Assistant Police Inspector Nikhil Kapse. On January 10, 1993, he opened fire on people offering namaz at Hari Masjid on RAK Marg, killing six of them. Farooq Mapkar was one of those who suffered a bullet injury. "We were inside the masjid when they opened fire. A boy had a bullet injury in his leg and was trying to run out when Kapse shot him in the chest at point-blank range," said Mapkar. After that, the 100-odd people at the masjid were arrested and kept in the lock-up for 15 days, without medical treatment. False cases were registered against them. The police alleged that arms were kept inside the masjid. However, no arms were found in the masjid premises. "In our neighbourhood, there was no Hindu-Muslim animosity. It was the police who were against Muslims. They were solely responsible for provoking riots," said Mapkar.

The Srikrishna Commission found Kapse guilty of "unjustified firing", "inhuman and brutal behaviour" and "suppressing evidence". But, the police-run Special Task Force (STF), set up in August 2000 by the Congress(I)-Nationalist Congress Party government to act on the recommendations of the Srikrishna Commission Report, claimed that no criminal case could be registered against him. This was despite the Commission finding sufficient evidence to indict Kapse. Mapkar still has cases pending against him and he has to appear in court at regular intervals. "The police don't hesitate to file false cases against ordinary people. But they turn a blind eye to the evidence when it involves their own staff," said Mapkar. Ironically, the job of punishing the guilty has been given to the same force that committed the crimes.

The police registered cases against only nine of the 31 policemen against whom the Srikrishna Commission recommended strict action for various criminal acts. The others were either let off the hook or subjected to a departmental inquiry. For example, the Commission asked for action to be taken against six constables from the Antop Hill police station who "passively permitted pillaging mobs and sometimes even encouraged and joined them". They "failed to protect the lives and properties of Muslims". The police also did not take action against those involved in the kidnapping of an 18-year-old girl and the brutal murder of a handicapped person, suppressed evidence and sabotaged investigation, the Commission said. Only one of the policemen was dismissed and four others had their pay reduced to the minimum level for three years. No criminal cases were registered against them despite the violent nature of their crimes. "Even the nine cases filed against the policemen are very weak. They are not interested in collecting evidence properly or implementing the Commission's recommendations. It is just an eye-wash," said Shakeel Ahmed, a human rights activist who is part of the Nirbhay Bano Andolan.

The Srikrishna Commission's findings indict the Shiv Sena, the police and powerful politicians for their complicity in the riots, in which 900 people were killed and 2,036 people, mainly Muslims, were injured. The previous Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance government rejected the report since it stated that the 1993 riots were engineered by the Shiv Sena. Now, the Congress(I)-NCP government, without accomplishing much, is all ready to wind up the STF, claiming that it has completed its task. However, it cannot shut shop without the permission of the Supreme Court, before which a petition demanding the implementation of the Srikrishna report is pending.

"Most of the STF's work is over. The court cases will go on," said Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, a Shiv Sena rebel who was keen on setting up the STF seemingly to avenge old rivalries. "Since there is not much left to do, we reduced the number of staff. The existing staff members have been given dual duties in other departments. We cannot keep them idle," Bhujbal added. But the fact remains that the STF's track record in bringing the riot-accused to book has been abysmal.

Around 60 per cent of the riot-related cases (1,358 cases) were closed unlawfully during the tenure of the Shiv Sena-BJP government as being "true but undetected". The Srikrishna report recommended that these be reopened. It also noted that the "police investigations appear to be lackadaisical, arbitrary and crime reports are written routinely without any serious investigative effort being put in". Despite this, the STF reopened only 112 of the 1,358 cases. Of these, all except 15 were closed once again. "It was very difficult to get evidence after all these years," said P.K. Raghuvanshi, Additional Commissioner of Police in charge of the STF. The STF also filed eight new cases, and 27 policemen were charge-sheeted for serious offences in five of these cases.

The STF's main achievement related to netting the big fish - powerful politicians and policemen involved in the riots. The most celebrated case was that of former Police Commissioner R.D Tyagi, who joined the Shiv Sena after his retirement. He was indicted for "excessive and unnecessary firing resulting in the death of nine innocent Muslims in the Suleman Bakery incident at Pydhonie". The STF filed a case against him but he is now out on bail. Cases were also registered against Gajanan Kirtikar, who was Minister of State for Home in the Shiv Sena-BJP government, in connection with inciting riots.

The State Home Department under Bhujbal's charge also initiated action against Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. Although the Shiv Sena-BJP government managed to have most of the charges against him dismissed, two cases dealing with his writings in the Shiv Sena newspaper Saamna were opened in June 2000. Thackeray threatened that the city would burn if he was arrested. The Magistrate Court dismissed the case, but the State government pursued the case in the Mumbai High Court, where it awaits a hearing.

Families of the 173 "missing" persons, whose bodies were never found, were initially not considered eligible for compensation. Then, the Srikrishna Commission recommended that the government pay compensation (Rs.2 lakh each, a lakh each from the State and Central governments) immediately. So far only 44 families have received the compensation - 41 of them from the Shiv Sena-BJP government and three from the present government. "Some have been denied compensation on the excuse that they have re-married and are hence not entitled," said Shakeel Ahmed. Moreover, those given compensation are being asked to deposit a bond of Rs.6,000 - just in case the missing person reappears.

While it is unlikely that the ghosts will reappear, the policemen continue to haunt their prey. Abdul Haq Ansari's workshop in Byculla was gutted in the December 1992 riots. When he called the police to register a complaint, he and his workers were arrested and cases were framed against them. After his release Ansari moved to Dharavi. Subsequently, when he became a witness before the Srikrishna Commission, he was stalked by Inspector Ram Desai, the policeman against whom he testified. Desai was transferred to Dharavi. Ansari received threats on the phone and one night his son was abducted allegedly by plainclothesmen. He was released only after the residents of Dharavi held a demonstration outside the police station.

The departmental inquiry initiated against Desai exonerated him. "If the media had not highlighted my case, I would probably have been killed in an encounter by now," said Ansari. "I am not demanding compensation, only justice. We have given them all the proof, but the case is not presented properly. They are not interested in punishing the guilty."

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