Partners in battle

Print edition : January 16, 1999

THE assertion by Niloufer Bhagwat, wife of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, that the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) communal biases led to his dismissal as Chief of the Naval Staff has provoked sharp responses. In part, reaction to Niloufer Bhagwat's intervention stems from the curious cultural world of the armed forces. Many in the Services have always been uncomfortable with rebellions against the quaint conventions deemed appropriate for a "Navy wife". As a successful civil rights lawyer and a woman with strong and independent public positions, Niloufer Bhagwat outraged chauvinists inside and outside the forces. But her track record on combating communalism suggests there may just be more to her claims than most people imagine.

It is of some significance that it was not Niloufer Bhagwat but Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh who introduced the subject of her political orientation into what should have been a debate on competence in the matter of Naval appointments. In a "redressal of grievance" petition filed against Admiral Bhagwat in March 1998, Harinder Singh had described Niloufer Bhagwat as, among other things, a "half-Muslim" and a "card-carrying Communist", presumably understanding those terms to constitute insults. Harinder Singh further alleged, quite outrageously, that Admiral Bhagwat's Staff Officer A.A. Lone, had terrorist connections, and that Admiral Bhagwat himself harboured anti-Sikh biases. While these charges were frivolous, they fit neatly into a discourse that began when Niloufer Bhagwat appeared as counsel for the Communist Party of India (CPI) before the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the anti-Muslim pogroms in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The first threats came early. Two years ago, shortly after her husband had been designated Chief of the Naval Staff, Niloufer Bhagwat told the Commission that he had received anonymous calls warning that he would have to suffer the consequences of having married someone with "Muslim blood". The calls came as she was cross-examining Shiv Sena MP Madhukar Sarpotdar. Sarpotdar, among other things, propounded what the Commission described as "an interesting theory of 'retaliation' adopted by the Shiv Sena, namely that because innocent people were attacked in (the suburban slum of) Jogeshwari, other innocent people could be attacked in (downtown) Colaba."

Niloufer Bhagwat's lawyerly work before the Srikrishna Commission was deeply embarrassing to the Shiv Sena. Affidavits from a group of her clients, 75 riot survivors from Wadala, named their attackers as members of the Hindu fundamentalist organisation. Although lawyers for the Shiv Sena attempted to show that these witnesses had been tutored to name the party, they were unable to prove their allegation. Then, Niloufer Bhagwat's cross-examination of police officers forced several of them to concede that the Shiv Sena's ostensibly religious ghanta naad (ringing of temple bell) programme in Mumbai on December 6, 1992, was in fact political in character.

In one specific instance, Justice Srikrishna found Sub-Inspector Nikhil Kapse guilty of the killing of six innocent Muslims at Hari Masjid on the basis of testimony provided by witnesses called by Niloufer Bhagwat. During cross-examination, Kapse's Senior Police Inspector admitted that although the police claimed to have opened fire only after property owned by Hindus came under arson attacks on January 10, 1993, no such attack had actually taken place. Justice Srikrishna concluded in paragraph 24.23 of the second volume of his report that "Sub-Inspector Kapse is not only guilty of unjustified firing but also of inhuman or brutal behaviour."

Niloufer Bhagwat meets the press on December 30. Her secular and Left-wing views appear to have identified Admiral Bhagwat as a figure hostile to a Hindu-chauvinist regime.-RAJEEV BHATT

This evidence, and a mass of additional evidence provided by lawyers representing other organisations, led Justice Srikrishna to his severe indictment of the Mumbai Police apparatus and the Shiv Sena and the BJP (Frontline, August 28 and September 11, 1998). Unsurprisingly, the fiery Niloufer Bhagwat became a key target of attack by the Shiv Sena, through its lawyers inside the Commission and a campaign of innuendo and smear outside it. In the event, however, they did not need to force her out. Incensed by what he believed was her use of a raised voice at both him and at witnesses, Justice Srikrishna issued her a warning. In September 1996, Niloufer Bhagwat withdrew from the Commission as Sarpotdar's cross-examination was under way.

HOW plausible is the theory that Admiral Bhagwat was chosen as a target as a result of his wife's politics? As former Defence Minister Sharad Pawar pointed out in an exclusive interview to Frontline, the question is impossible to answer with certainty for all relevant facts have not been made public. On the one hand, though Niloufer Bhagwat was an important figure in the Commission, she was by no means the sole or most visible secular voice in Mumbai during the period. At once, she was without dispute closest by association to the establishment, a discomfiting fact for the BJP-led coalition Government. Whether or not Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was targeted for communal reasons, his wife's secular and Left-wing views certainly identified him as a figure hostile to a Hindu-chauvinist regime.

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