Mukul Sinha

On the side of victims

Print edition : June 13, 2014

Mukul Sinha. Photo: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP

Mukul Sinha (1951-2014), the lawyer who tirelessly pursued cases relating to the 2002 riots, may not have lived to see the end of his fight, but his work touched hundreds of lives.

There is a small band of people in Gujarat who has been fearlessly and relentlessly working towards getting justice for the victims of the 2002 communal pogrom that ravaged the State. The prominent lawyer, trade unionist and civil rights activist Mukul Sinha was one of those crusaders who persisted in the quest to reveal the truth.

On May 12, Mukul Sinha, 63, lost his long battle with lung cancer. He is survived by his wife, Nirjhari, and son, Pratik, both of whom worked closely with him and ensured that the cases he pursued did not lose their tempo because of his failing health. On his demise, his colleagues, supporters and friends issued statements that his legacy would be kept alive by not allowing the movement for justice to die. The reality is that without a force like Mukul Sinha that small, brave group has shrunk even further.

Over the past decade, Mukul Sinha’s contribution to the movement for justice and resistance has been immeasurable. His deposition before the Nanavati Commission, his collection of explosive evidence, and the sheer courage he showed in taking on influential sections have been huge contributions to his mission to expose the guilty. In his quiet and unassuming way, Mukul Sinha has been responsible for bringing many of the culpable to book. Given the well-known stonewalling techniques of the Gujarat government under former Chief Minister Narendra Modi, this is no small achievement.

Mukul Sinha was known to unhesitatingly take on cases pertaining to the riots. He became deeply involved in cases relating to extrajudicial killings, particularly the Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin encounters in 2004 and 2005 respectively. His biggest achievement was to net some big fish, including Amit Shah, former Gujarat Home Minister and Modi’s close aide.

It was largely on account of ground-breaking investigations by Mukul Sinha’s Jan Sangharsh Manch (JSM) that Shah was arrested in 2010 in connection with the Sohrabuddin encounter. The documentation and exposing of damning information, which included thousands of phone conversations that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders had with State police officers, eventually also led to the arrest of half a dozen senior police officers.

Although Shah is currently out on bail and is being celebrated for the BJP’s Lok Sabha election victory, he still faces criminal charges on three counts of murder.

Mukul Sinha and his team revealed the evidence of Call Data Records (CDR), which had been collected by the police officer Rahul Sharma. This information was crucial for bringing to book the people responsible for leading the mob and those who were behind the encounter deaths. The sustained campaign led to the shocking arrest of Maya Kodnani, a Minister in Modi’s Cabinet, in 2009. She was subsequently convicted for her involvement in the massacre at Naroda Patiya.

Mukul Sinha was born in Kolkata but moved all over the country as his father worked for the Indian Railways. After completing a bachelors’ degree in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, he went on to do a graduate programme at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. He then moved to Ahmedabad to pursue a PhD in physics at the Physical Research Laboratory. In 1979, on completion of his PhD, he accepted a research position at the laboratory. This was also the time he met Nirjhari, who was also a scientist. The couple later founded the JSM, a civil liberties organisation that is today spearheading the movement against the injustices suffered by victims of the 2002 riots and the families of encounter victims.

workers’ rights

Within months of joining the laboratory, Mukul Sinha witnessed 133 of his fellow workers being laid off. In spite of his lack of experience and exposure in the area, he immediately formed a labour union and began fighting for those workers’ rights. Not surprisingly, he soon lost his job. According to his family, this was a turning point in his life. He never looked back or regretted not becoming a scientist. Through most of the 1980s, he campaigned in support of labour and acquired a law degree to better equip himself to handle union work.

In February 2002, Mukul Sinha’s office was burnt by rioters, and a member of the JSM was attacked by the mob. But Mukul Sinha’s activism became only more pronounced after this as he started taking on the cases of riot victims.

His most tenacious campaign, according to those who knew him, was when he deposed before the Nanavati Commission, which had been appointed to probe the 2002 riots. Mukul Sinha was adamant that Modi should be examined on the Godhra incident and the subsequent massacres as there was ample evidence to implicate him.

When Amit Shah was arrested in 2010, Frontline interviewed Mukul Sinha about the case (“Planned by the state”, August 27, 2010). He represented petitioner Rubabuddin Sheikh, brother of Sohrabuddin Sheikh who was killed along with this wife, Kauser Bi, in a police “encounter”. It was common knowledge that Sohrabuddin was a small-time extortionist. Mukul Sinha exposed the fact that Sohrabuddin was labelled a terrorist and used by the state. “They [government] scared people and then made them believe that they were being protected.” He said in the interview: “We believe in a secular democracy. Everyone has the right to live fairly. This is not a communal thing we are fighting. It is for justice. These encounter cases were becoming more and more common, so it became necessary for us to take on the fight. When Rubabuddin came to us, we just had to help him.”

Although immersed in post-Godhra issues, Mukul Sinha decided to launch the New Socialist Movement, a political party. He contested the Gujarat Assembly elections from Shahpur in 2007 and Sabarmati in 2012, losing both times. Trade union work had continued through the years and Sinha was elected president of the Trade Union Centre of India (TUCI) in 2010. He held that post until his death.

“Mukul Sinha, apart from the struggle for justice for the survivors of 2002, strove hard for a better world order where the participation of the working class, artisan and agrarian peasantry and their contribution to the political economy was central…. More than ever before, he will be missed today as the struggle for justice and truth in the face of all adversity must continue,” said Teesta Setalvad, civil rights activist, in a statement.

“Mukul Sinha fought against fascism, against Narendra Modi till the last minute. Such courage is rare. It’s a huge loss,” said Kavita Srivastava, general secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

Useful website

Always available and warm towards journalists, Mukul Sinha would patiently explain and provide documentation for the many stories that emerged from the communal violence and encounter killings. He was not a loud man, yet there was a dynamism that surfaced when he spoke or when he needed to mobilise workers and activists. His knowledge of Gujarat, its politics and socio-economic set-up was vast. A few years ago, he set up a useful website called “the truth of Gujarat”. Its mission says the site is “A campaign to stem the subversion of the rule of law, reach justice to the victim”.

A mediaperson said that hundreds of people, including bus drivers, slum dwellers and top bureaucrats, thronged Mukul Sinha’s residence in Ahmedabad’s Paldi on the day he died to pay their respects. Mukul Sinha may not have lived to finish his fight, but there is no doubt that he touched hundreds of lives through his work.

When his body was donated to the Gujarat Cancer Research Institute, workers raised the slogan “Comrade Sinha ko lal salaam”. A fitting tribute to a workers’ man.

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