Witnesses under duress

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

WHEN the city was in flames, they turned their backs on people's cries for help. Now, in a strange reversal of roles, officers of the Vadodara police are knocking on the doors of riot victims, seeking their help to save their own skins. They landed up at Aminaben's (name changed) house at 10-30 p.m. "Two policemen came and asked me to report to the police station the next morning. They told me to attend the hearing of the Shah-Nanavati Commission (inquiring into the 2002 communal pogrom)," said Aminaben.

The next day, they took all potential witnesses to the district police headquarters. There was a meeting attended by a fairly large gathering. The government's lawyer Arvind Pandya addressed it. "He told us, `Forget what happened in the past. You should keep good relations with everyone. If you support or don't support the police, you will need their help later. So it is better if you speak in their favour. Tell the commission how they helped you and rescued you during the riots. Don't do what I say, but what you feel is best.' He spoke sweetly but with an underlying tone of coercion," Aminaben said.

Yet, Aminaben did not testify before the commission. "They took us to the circuit house, where the hearing was being conducted. But I left before my name was called. Why should we be the police's advocate? They did not help us when our houses were burned. They allowed the mobs to kill and loot. This commission is totally one-sided," she said.

The Shah-Nanavati Commission's three-day hearings in Vadodara created a stir. The local media flashed reports about witnesses being tutored by the police. The State government responded by ordering a home department inquiry. Riot victims did not turn up for the hearings. Most of the witnesses who testified were brought by the police. Local human rights groups boycotted the hearings. They were upset about Justice Nanavati's earlier remark that there was no evidence yet of the Sangh Parivar and the State government's involvement. Most riot victims don't have much faith in the commission. "I boycotted the commission hearings. They are on the side of the BJP government. What is the point in beating drums in front of a deaf person?" said a witness whom the police brought to the hearing, but left without testifying. "Those who spoke before the commission were mainly friends of the police. They are locals whom the police enlist for help. Many are police informers. The riot victims are too scared to speak. I testified before the commission to make sure the police wasn't given a clean chit," said Mohammed (name changed), a witness.

The local media were very critical of the commission. "The Nanavati Commission is a banavati (fake) commission," said Jitubhai Pandya, the owner of Newsplus channel and a local Shiv Sena leader. "Almost all the witnesses were brought by the police. It was stage-managed. People from the worst riot-hit areas spoke as if nothing had happened there. Then how did more than 100 people die? Did they commit suicide?"

Although several witnesses told Frontline that the police had called them for the meeting with the government lawyers and then to the commission hearing, Vadodara's Police Commissioner Sudhir Sinha denied that any such meeting had been held within the premises of his office. "I am not aware of any such meeting. State government officials will arrive shortly to inquire into the matter," he told Frontline. "Witnesses may have changed their stand because they have reached some settlement with the accused. Those who want to testify against the accused may be waiting for the criminal trial. They may not want to jeopardise their case by testifying before the commission, since contradictions could arise in their statements."

The Commissioner felt that witnesses who testified in favour of the police were not doing so out of fear. "Whatever deficiencies may have been in the police handling of the riots, victims are more interested in putting the real accused behind bars rather than blaming the police." He also said that there was nothing wrong if a policeman asked a witness to give a positive testimony. "Police personnel also have the rights of a citizen. If an individual police officer has approached some witness to highlight some good work done by him, it may not amount to misconduct. But I have not heard of any such incident."

Of the 204 witnesses examined from Vadodara Urban and Rural, 201 spoke in favour of the police, according to police sources. "Where were all the people who filed affidavits? Why didn't the commission call a single police officer for questioning? The commission allowed all the big police officers and government officials to attend the hearing. The place was packed with 50 police vans. Every single senior police inspector was standing outside. How can you expect any witness to speak against them?" asked Jitubhai Pandya, one of the few witnesses who spoke against the police's role during the riots.

Refuting criticism about the functioning of the commission, Justice K.G. Shah told Frontline: "I don't know anything about the police tutoring witnesses. Now, we are only examining witnesses who have come forward on their own. That's why we did not call any police officers at this point. Later, we will call people to depose before us." The Judge dismissed allegations that sufficient efforts were not made to publicise the hearings. "We issued press notes. It was announced in the media. We can't go to every single house."

Speaking about the progress of the inquiry, Justice Shah said that hearings had been conducted in almost all riot-hit districts except Ahmedabad and Bhuj. "Sometimes hearings get delayed owing to circumstances beyond our control. We need the help of the local administration. It depends on their other duties too," he said.

The Vadodara police has been criticised for failing to prevent communal flare-ups. "Just when Vadodara was returning to normal, the police lifted the curfew to allow the VHP's Ram Dhun rally on March 15. Although they had imposed a ban on public meetings, the rally went on uninterrupted with full police security. The participants sparked trouble while passing through Machipeeth, a Muslim-majority area. This disturbed peace in Vadodara for several months. The police could have prevented it," said Jitubhai Pandya.

Chinu Srinivasan, a member of the People's Union of Civil Liberties, puts it succinctly: "Riot victims have great fear of the police. When police officials knock on people's doors asking them to testify before the commission, it is like a rapist asking the victim to defend him." With the government launching an inquiry into the charges of police tutoring, it is a most unusual situation - a government inquiry is being conducted into the working of a judicial commission of inquiry. Now, whose door will the police knock on next?

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