The Shiv Sena indicted

Print edition : August 15, 1998

The Srikrishna Commission Report, released at long last, underlines the Shiv Sena's malevolent role in the communal riots in Mumbai in December 1992-January 1993, and points to the contribution of the BJP in the build-up to the violence.

THE Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission's verdict on the Shiv Sena's role in the communal violence that rocked Mumbai in the wake of the December 6, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, riots of a magnitude and ferocity unparalleled in the city, is perhaps the most severe official indictment ever of the Sena.

"From January 8, 1993 at least," says the Commission, "there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organising attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders" from the level of shakha pramukh to that of Sena chief Bal Thackeray. It describes Thackeray as the "veteran general commanding his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims."

The Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Government in Maharashtra has rejected the core of the report, which was presented before the two Houses of the legislature on August 6 along with a memorandum of action to be taken thereon. The Action Taken Report (ATR), seeks to establish that the report is one-sided. Going further, Chief Minister Manohar Joshi termed the report "anti-Hindu, pro-Muslim and biased." Just over a week earlier Thackeray had accused Justice Srikrishna, an eminent and respected sitting Judge of the Bombay High Court, of bias.

Bal Thackeray.-VIVEK BENDRE

The rejection of the report was foreshadowed by months of evasiveness by the Government on the question of when it would be made public. The report was submitted to the Government on February 16. Nine days later, Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde announced that the report would be made public within a week. But the schedule kept undergoing changes until there was very little scope for further postponement: statutorily, reports of commissions of inquiry have to be tabled within six months of submission.

The report also mentions speeches and slogans at BJP rallies seeking to intimidate Muslims from or about July 1992 as part of the campaign for the construction of a temple at Ayodhya. It also takes note of the "strident clamour" of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar for a temple at the disputed Ayodhya site growing louder by the day between October and November 1992, when preparations for kar seva at Ayodhya got under way.

The Commission notes that some of the speeches and slogans aimed at the Ram paduka processions, chowk sabhas and meetings organised by the BJP from or about July 1992 as part of the Ayodhya temple campaign were "downright communal, warning the Muslims that dissent on the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute would be an act of treachery for which the Muslims would be banished from the country. Slogans like 'mandir vahin banayenge' (we will build the temple only there) and 'is desh men rahna hoga, to Vande Mataram Kahna hoga?' (You must utter Vande Mataram if you are to stay in this country) rent the air."

The report also observes that the "clashes and minor cases of rioting" which took place along the route of BJP leader L.K. Advani's rath yatra were "the distant thunderclaps portending the storm to come."

Nine hundred people died in the December and January riots, says the Commission, and the causes include police firing, stabbing, arson, mob action and "private firing". The injured numbered 2,036. In all, the Commission recorded the depositions, running into 9,655 pages, of 502 witnesses, and took on record as exhibits 2,903 documents (about 15,000 pages). Five hundred and thirty-six orders were passed.

Twenty-eight months after the Commission was appointed by the Sudhakarrao Naik Government on January 25, 1993, the Shiv Sena-BJP Government added the terms of reference pertaining to the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai on March 12, 1993. The Commission says the blasts claimed 257 lives, left 713 people injured and caused property damage worth about Rs. 27 crores.

On the serial blasts, the Commission had at its disposal the affidavits of six high-ranking police officers. It observes that the blasts seem to be a reaction to "the totality of events" at Ayodhya and in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993. There is no doubt, it says, that "the major role in the conspiracy... was played by Muslims." But were the Mumbai riots and the blasts part of a common design? The Commission says that nothing of the sort is indicated by the material placed before it.

The riots took place in two phases - the December 1992 phase, lasting for five days to a week, and the January 1993 phase, which occurred between January 6 and 20. The Commission says there is no material to show that the riots in Mumbai after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 were anything other than "a spontaneous reaction of leaderless and incensed Muslim mobs, which commenced as peaceful protest but soon degenerated" into violence. "Hindus must share... the blame for provoking the Muslims by their celebration rallies, inciting slogans and rasta rokos (road blocks during demonstrations), which were... organised most by Shiv Sainiks, and marginally by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activists."

There is no material on record, says the Commi-ssion, "suggesting that even during this phase any known Muslim individuals or organisations were responsible for the riots," though several individual Muslims and Muslim criminal elements "appear to have indulged in violence, looting, arson and rioting." The Commission also mentions some "insensitive and harsh" handling by the police of the mobs, "which initially were not violent".

The Commission notes that several incidents of violence took place between December 15 and January 5. But it was only on January 6 that large-scale rioting and violence resumed - by Hindus "brought to fever pitch by communally inciting propaganda unleashed by Hindu communal organisations and writings in newspapers like Saamna (the Shiv Sena's mouthpiece) and Navakal. It was taken over by Shiv Sena and its leaders, who continued to whip up communal frenzy" through their statements and acts as well as through the writings of and directives issued by Thackeray.

The Commission also notes the aggravation of communal tension by the maha arti ritual held from December 26, 1992 onwards "ostensibly to protest the namaz on the streets and the calling of azaans from mosques." The Commission says that the maha artis endangered the fragile peace during the interval between the two phases of rioting. "Some of the maha artis were later used as occasions for delivering communally inciting speeches; and the crowds dispersing from the maha arti indulged in damage, looting and arson of Muslim establishments..."

The maha artis, the Commission says, continued throughout January 1993. It says the police erred in treating them merely as religious activity - and, therefore, exempt from the operation of orders prohibiting assembly. "Although the responsibility for dealing with such assemblies on public streets is of the police, the police left it to the judgment of the then Chief Minister, who failed to act promptly and effectively and give clear-cut directives."

A victim of the Mumbai riots of January 1993.-

FOR the undue delay in controlling the January riots, which raged for 15 days, the Commission blames the "effete political leadership" of the Congress(I) Government headed by Sudhakarrao Naik and the police force, whose "built-in bias" against Muslims "became more pronounced with murderous attacks on the constabulary and officers." It says that politics-induced vacillation on the Government's part left the lower ranks of the police confused and hamstrung, besides delaying by several days the effective use of the Army for riot control.

The Commission says that Sudhakarrao Naik reacted in a knee-jerk fashion to adverse criticism of the police handling of the December riots by instructing the police to "go slow". The report says: "A specific broadcast message was issued on December 10 instructing the men not to fire while dealing with communal mobs." The Commission adds that the order was countermanded only on January 10. "This order caused immense confusion among the police ranks." While some officers and policemen persisted with firing regardless, "a large number of officers did not fire, resulting in prolongation of the violent incidents."

Confronted with the broadcast message while deposing before the Commission, Shrikant Bapat, the Commissioner of Police of Mumbai at the time of the riots, denied that he had authorised it. He also asserted that the Government could not have issued the message without informing him. For his part, Sudhakarrao Naik denied before the Commission that he had ever given instructions for issuing the order conveyed by the message. Nevertheless, the Commission says it is inclined to believe that the Police Commissioner received instructions not to resort to firing, which were conveyed to subordinate officers.

The Commission also attributed the Government's failure to take the active aid of the Army "when such use was imperative" to "political dithering". The "dithering" held up the issue of a clear-cut order to the Commissioner on the use of the Army for operational purposes. "The flag marches by Army columns had no psychological effect on the rioting mobs," the Commission says.

While deposing before the Commission, Sudhakarrao Naik attributed the non-utilisation of Army columns for operational duties to resistance by the Army authorities until January 10, 1993. The Commission says that the Chief Minister displayed ignorance about the appropriate authority for issuing orders to an Army unit called in aid of civil authority. The deposition of Sharad Pawar, who was Defence Minister at the time of the riots, throws an equally unflattering light on Sudhakarrao Naik's understanding of the situation.

At a meeting at the Chief Minister's residence on January 8 or 9, 1993, said Sharad Pawar, Sudhakarrao Naik made the point that his Government had already requisitioned the Army. Lt.-Gen. A.S. Kalkat, General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-C), said that the Army units were willing to do the needful if a police officer familiar with the terrain accompanied each Army unit; and secondly, if a District Magistrate accompanied each Army column and gave written instructions.

Lt.-Gen. Kalkat and a fellow officer said that while the Army could act in aid of civil authority, the law said that the latter had to remain in control at all times. It was only after the State Government accepted the Army's conditions, said Sharad Pawar, a former Chief Minister of the State, that appropriate instructions were issued to the Commissioner of Police.

The Commission blames the police, too, for failure to utilise the Army effectively, which it says led to an avoidable loss of life and limb and property. The police "overestimated their ability to control the... riots, or were reluctant to requisition the aid of Army to disperse unlawful assemblies," the report says.

After the bomb blast at the Bombay Stock Exchange building on March 12, 1993.-

The police have also been indicted for a "cynical and indifferent" response to appeals from desperate victims, particularly Muslims, and for their "harsh and brutal, on occasion bordering on inhuman" treatment of Muslim suspects and Muslim victims of the riots. Constables sometimes connived with rioting Hindu mobs and sometimes remained passive onlookers. The bias of policemen was also seen in their lack of enthusiasm for registering offences against Hindus even when the accused were clearly identified. "Even the registered riot-related cases were most unsatisfactorily investigated."

In this connection, the Commission observes: "Classification of offences is being used as a major tool by the police to short-circuit investigations. In the statistics given by the government before the Supreme Court... 55 to 60 per cent of the riot-related cases appeared to have been classified in 'A' summary, meaning 'true but undetected'."

On police firing, the Commission says it appears to have been unjustified and excessive on at least two occasions, with the result that innocent lives were lost. It identifies the occasions as the Suleman Bakery incident in the Pydhonie (south-central Mumbai) police station area and the Hilal (Hari) Masjid incident in the Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Marg (central Mumbai) police station area.

Even after it became apparent that the Shiv Sena leaders were stoking communal fires, says the Commission, the police "dragged their feet on the facile and exaggerated assumption that if such leaders were arrested the communal situation would further flare up... A large number of vituperative and communally inciting writing in newspapers was ignored by the police, emboldening the writers of such material to greater height of abuse, incitement and calumny."

THE Shiv Sena has long asserted that the January riots were triggered by the murder of four mathadi (head-load) workers in a Muslim-dominated part of south-central Mumbai on the night of January 5 and the burning alive of six Hindus during the early hours of January 8 at Radhabai Chawl, a tenement block at Jogeshwari (northwest Mumbai). The Commission's finding is that sections of the print media, particularly the Sena mouthpiece Saamna and Navakal, gave exaggerated accounts of these incidents and contributed to the arousal of Hindu communal passions.

One of the mathadi workers, all of whom were sleeping in the godown of a transport company, was stabbed to death when he went out into the street to relieve himself. The other three, who came out to help him, also met the same fate.

It is admitted by Senior Police Inspector Subhash Kadam that the mathadi workers themselves did not consider the murders to be "communally motivated", says the Commission. "The blame for turning a case of simple murder into a communally motivated murder must... fall on Vaman Lad and Hemant Koli," a former Shiv Sena member of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and a Sena shakha pramukh (branch chief) respectively. The propaganda unleashed by this duo prompted some mathadi workers to stab a Muslim, says the Commission.

At Radhabai Chawl, some Hindu residences were locked from outside and set on fire by arsonists. "One male and three female members of a Hindu family... and their neighbours were charred to death and three other Hindus sustained serious burn injuries. One of the victims was a handicapped girl."

In the context of communally provocative propaganda during the run-up to the January riots, the Commission has also looked at a series of stabbing incidents that took place during the last week of December and the first week of January. Noting that most of them took place in Muslim-dominated areas and that most of the victims were Hindus, it says that Muslim criminals like Salim Rampuri and Feroz Konkani have been identified as the brains behind the incidents - apparently designed to build communal tension. "That they were criminals was underplayed by Hindus," says the Commission. "That they were Muslims was all that mattered, and a cry went up that the Muslims were bent upon a second round of riots."

Justice B.N. Srikrishna.-VIVEK BENDRE

The Commission says such propaganda, reinforced by rumours to the effect that attacks by Muslims using sophisticated arms were imminent, turned some "irresponsible and hot-headed" Hindu elements violent.

"From January 8, 1993 at least, there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organising violent attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders... from the level of shakha pramukh to... Bal Thackeray, who, like a veteran general, commanded... Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims." Statements and acts of Sena leaders and Thackeray's writings and directives meanwhile kept building up communal tension, says the Commission. "The... rioting triggered off by the Shiv Sena was hijacked by local criminal elements, who saw... an opportunity to make quick gains. By the time the Shiv Sena realised that enough had been done by way of 'retaliation,' the... violence was beyond the control of its leaders..."

The Commission attributes Shiv Sainiks' "vigilantism" of that time to the Sena's attitude as reflected in an interview that Thackeray gave Time magazine, its doctrine of 'retaliation' as expounded by then MLA Madhukar Sarpotdar (now a Member of Parliament) and the notion that the Shiv Sena "was the true guarantee of the safety of citizens."

THE Government's ATR proclaims substantial acceptance of the Commission's recommendations on what needs to be done administratively to prevent recurrence of riots, secure communal harmony and improve the law-and-order machinery, but rejects the Commission's conclusions on the events and the immediate causes of the riots and the apportionment of blame for them. It also finds its conclusions on the bomb blasts less than adequate.

Paradoxically, however, the ATR says that all the lapses or inadequacies observed by the Commission will be brought to the notice of the top police officers of the State and the city. "They will be directed to take necessary action..."

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