A searing indictment

Published : Aug 29, 1998 00:00 IST

The Srikrishna Commission's findings are a searing indictment of the roles played by Bal Thackeray and other Shiv Sena politicians and the Mumbai Police during the riots in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993.

The role of Bal Thackeray and other Shiv Sena politicians

SHIV SENA leader Bal Thackeray, along with other key party officials, are indicted in the Justice B. N. Srikrishna Commission Report for what can only be described as directing a well-organised programme of violence against Mumbai's Muslims in December 1992 and January 1993. Although Thackeray maintained a safe distance from the actual violence, his writings in the Shiv Sena-affiliated publications Saamna and Navakal were found to have played a key role in inciting organised violence against Muslims. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi and Sena MP Madhukar Sarpotdar, too, played a central role in legitimising and shaping the actions of Shiv Sena vigilantes. Ground-level workers of the Shiv Sena executed their orders, acting along with criminals and lumpen elements.

Justice Srikrishna's understanding of Thackeray's role in the riots emerges from his rejection of the belief that the second phase of rioting in Mumbai, from January 8, 1993, was some form of spontaneous Hindu reaction to violence by Muslims. "There is no doubt," the report records, "that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organising attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders of the Shiv Sena from the level of Shakha Pramukh to the Shiv Sena Pramukh Bal Thackeray who, like a veteran General, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims." One important medium for disseminating the senapati's commands were Saamna and Navakal, publications that Justice Srikrishna found had carried "communally inciting propaganda", a criminal offence. On January 1, 1993, Saamna carried an article entitled 'Hindunni Akramak Vhayala Have' (Hindus must also become aggressive now). Later, exaggerated and lurid accounts of the Radhabai Chawl and Mathadi workers' killings helped fuel Hindu aggression.

Discussion of the evidence before the Commission, contained in Volume II of the Report, contains interesting insights into Thackeray's role in the riots. Most important is the evidence of Mahanagar journalist Yuvraj Mohite, whose eyewitness account of a meeting between Thackeray and Mumbai Mayor Chandrakant Handore the Commission accepted as true. Mohite is cited as hearing conversations between the Sena chief and his subordinates from which "it was clear that Thackeray was directing the Shiv Sainiks, Shakha Pramukhs and other activists of Shiv Sena to attack the Muslims, to ensure that they give tit for tat and ensure that 'not a single landya (circumcised person) would survive to give oral evidence'." Similar orders were given to party leaders Ramesh More and Sarpotdar. Mohite also heard Thackeray tell someone to send Additional Commissioner of Police A.A. Khan "to Allah's home". The thrust of Mohite's testimony was borne out by that of Time magazine journalist Anita Pratap, who had interviewed Thackeray on the riots. In the interview, published under the caption "Kick them out - No compromise with Muslims: the rhetoric of hatred from Shiv Sena's Bal Thackeray", the Shiv Sena supremo justified violence against Muslims, and advocated forcing them to leave India for Pakistan. Although Anita Pratap could not produce a tape of the interview, Justice Srikrishna found circumstantial evidence adequate to believe her account.

Justice Srikrishna followed the letter and spirit of his legal obligation to give Thackeray a fair opportunity to rebut the allegations made by Mohite. The Commissions of Inquiry Act mandates that no adverse inference can be drawn against a person who has not been issued notice to appear under Section 8B. Legal notice was issued and served on Thackeray on December 9, 1996. Thackeray, however, filed no reply. When Mohite's evidence was taken up in June, the Shiv Sena filed an application objecting to his deposition, and asked for six weeks' time to obtain instructions from Thackeray. The time was granted. "Presumably after obtaining appropriate instructions," Justice Srikrishna records of later developments, "this witness was extensively cross-examined by (Shiv Sena counsel) Shri Adhik Shirodkar on the next date of hearing. There is no contrary evidence adduced by Shiv Sena or Bal Thackeray. The Commission sees no reason for not accepting the testimony of this witness."

Manohar Joshi and Madhukar Sarpotdar were the two key witnesses of the Shiv Sena. Sarpotdar, famous for having been arrested by the Army for possession of an illegal firearm on January 11, 1993, claimed that the Shiv Sena had no role in the maha aartis other than participating in them, and that the inflammatory street gatherings had taken place "spontaneously". Joshi, however, admitted that the maha aartis were "organised by the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party". Then, Sarpotdar made the assertion that it would be legitimate to respond to attacks by Muslims in one area by attacking other unconnected co-religionists elsewhere in the city. Joshi distanced himself from this inflammatory position. Such contradictions in evidence were symptomatic of their depositions before the Commission. Sarpotdar was also examined on his role in a procession to reinstall a Ganesh idol on December 27, 1992, which led to violence. Justice Srikrishna found his evidence "unreliable and contradicted by other evidence on record."

Evidence of the Shiv Sena's complicity in the riots was available to the Srikrishna Commission in plenty. On January 4, 1993, for example, the Commission found that Shiv Sena leaders Ramesh More and Gajanan Kiritkar led a mob which "attacked Chacha Nagar Masjid and the Muslims in the vicinity". On January 6, Hindus who attacked Muslim pockets in Mahim were "led by Shiv Sena corporator Milind Vaidya and a Police Constable Sanjay Gawade, openly carrying a sword." "The Shakhas in different areas," Justice Srikrishna records, "turned into centres of local commands... The attacks on Muslims by the Shiv Sainiks were mounted with military precision, with list of establishments and voter's list in hand." Justice Srikrishna further observes: "The communal violence and rioting triggered off by the Shiv Sena was hijacked by local criminal elements who realised in it an opportunity to make quick gains. By the time the Shiv Sena realised that enough had been done by way of 'retaliation', the violence and rioting was beyond the control of its leaders, who had to issue an appeal to end it."

Legal action against the Shiv Sena, from the Srikrishna Commission's account, has been minimal. The best case, by way of illustration, has been that of Bal Thackeray. Of 24 cases filed against the Shiv Sena supremo for communal offences since 1988, sixteen could not proceed as Government sanction for prosecution was not granted. In six cases, the sanction was granted and charge-sheets filed, but the Shiv Sena-BJP government withdrew them in August and October 1996. Only two cases against Thackeray are now pending. No action was initiated against him on the basis of Mohite or Anita Pratap's evidence.

* On the role of Bal Thackeray, the ATR says: "The Government totally disagrees with these totally distorted statements of the Commission as no concrete evidence has been presented before the Commission which can warrant such an inference, let alone conclusion." It adds: "The Government has also noticed that provocative statements made by many Muslim leaders were ignored by the Commission."

* On the Sarpotdar-Joshi 'retaliation principle', the ATR says "... the call given by S/Shri Sarpotdar and Joshi for self-protection was proper and justified. The Commission has made elaborate comments on the 'retaliation principle', but it has not even cared to take note of the call of 'Jehad' given by the Muslims. The call to 'Jehad' was clearly an act of sedition."

* On the maha aartis, the ATR says: "The Maha Aartis started as a spontaneous and natural reaction of the Hindus who were inconvenienced and irritated because of the action of Muslims to read Namaz on streets."

* On the Radhabai Chawl and mathadi workers' killings, the ATR says : "The Government is of the opinion that the large number of stabbing incidents of Hindus, ghastly murders of Mathadi workers and blood curdling and horrifying incident of Radhabai Chawl led to a spontaneous reaction of Hindus and to the second phase of riots." "Government is surprised as to how the Commission does not acknowledge this incident with sufficient gravity, and, on the contrary, blames some parties for inciting religious frenzy and alleges that some Marathi newspapers gave exaggerated reports and sensationalised the issue. Government cannot accept these conclusions because the news items were indeed based on facts."

The role of the Mumbai Police

NOWHERE is the Justice Srikrishna Commission Report so harsh as on the conduct of the Mumbai Police throughout the riots. Though Justice Srikrishna carefully rejects fanciful charges against the force, he emphatically condemns its evident communal bias and subversion by the Shiv Sena. Perhaps most important in the long term will be his recommendations for force modernisation, the ending of political interference, and the putting in place of schemes for monitoring of, and intervention in, communal disturbances before they acquire the proportions of riots.

Justice Srikrishna's general findings underline the seriousness of the communal malaise in the Mumbai Police. He points to a "built-in bias of the police force against Muslims, which became more pronounced with murderous attacks on the Constabulary and officers." This bias, the report found, "manifested in their reluctance to firmly put down incidents of violence, looting and arson which went on unchecked." "The response of police to appeals from desperate victims, particularly Muslims, was cynical and utterly indifferent. On occasions, the response was that they were unable to leave the appointed post; on others, the attitude was that one Muslim killed was one Muslim less."

Volume II of the Report contains horrifying illustrations of Justice Srikrishna's point. In one incident, which Justice Srikrishna describes as "cold-blooded murder", Shahnawaz Wagle, the 16-year-old brother of Yasmin Wagle, was dragged out of his home by policemen. As he was being pushed into a police jeep, a constable shot him from behind at point-blank range. At the Commission's instance, an official enquiry into the death was conducted by the police, but it degenerated into a cover-up operation, and came up with what Justice Srikrishna described as legally "atrocious findings". Another witness, Reshma Ummar Makki, a Hindu Maharashtrian woman who had married a Muslim, described the police reaction when she went to complain of intimidation and threats from Shiv Sena workers. Inspector Vinayak Patil, later sacked for association with communal organisations, responded that "If a Muslim dies, there will be one Muslim less."

Communal bias in the police was so deeply entrenched as to render the force operationally incompetent. Justice Srikrishna devotes a separate section to the Suleman Bakery incident. Here, acting on information that terrorists holed up in the bakery on Ibrahim Rahimatula Road were firing at constables on security duty, Joint Commissioner of Police R.D. Tyagi launched a commando operation. The police claimed they were fired at when they entered the bakery, and attacked with other weapons. Nine people were killed in return of fire. But, as the Commission has discovered, the police version was a fabrication. No firearms were recovered from the Bakery, except one assault rifle shell that obviously came from a police weapon. Wireless messages sent by the police after the operation claiming that sten-gun fire from the bakery had injured four civilians were also shown to be untrue, since the names of those supposedly injured were nowhere recorded.

* On the Mumbai Police, the ATR is virtually incomprehensible. Paragraph 1.30 promises that a "Committee under the Director-General of Police and consisting of representatives of Home Department, Law and Judiciary Department and Director of Prosecution will examine the cases of delinquency" cited by Justice Srikrishna. Paragraph 1.28 promises to "weed out communal elements to enhance the secular character of the police force." Paragraph 32, however, rejects the Commission's claim that the police were biased on communal lines, and in paragraph 34, the ATR insists that the police "brought the riots under control in minimum time and handled the riots effectively."

The role of the Congress(I) and the State Government

CONGRESS(I) leader Sharad Pawar is correct to complain about the Maharashtra Government's Action Taken Report on the Justice Srikrishna Commission eeport. The ATR claims that "one of the important reasons for the riots flaring up was the efforts of one-up-manship over the others between the then Congress Chief Minister, Shri Sudhakarrao Naik, and the then Defence Minister, Shri Sharad Pawar." Justice Srikrishna endorsed no such view, and indeed thanked Pawar for the suggestions he gave during the Commission's hearings, but the Commission Report decidedly does not exonerate the Congress(I).

Justice Srikrishna's key finding on the Naik Government is that "effete political leadership, vacillation for political reasons and conflicting orders to the Commissioner of Police percolated downwards creating a general atmosphere of confusion in the lower ranks of the police, resulting in the dilemma, 'to shoot or not to shoot'." He is even more critical of the delay in calling in the Army to control rioters. "Four precious days," the Commission Report records, "were lost for the Chief Minister to consider and issue orders as to effective use of Army for controlling the riots." The delay in calling in the Army was attributed by media commentators to Naik's belief that had the armed forces controlled the violence, the credit would have gone to Defence Minister Pawar.

No substantive evidence of this plausible belief, however, emerged during hearings, leading Justice Srikrishna to make his studied remarks on the issue.

A second important failure of the State Government was to anticipate and respond to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. "The demolition of the Babri Masjid," Justice Srikrishna found, "appears to have caught the State administration and the police machinery totally unawares. The intelligence inputs obtained by the State Government through its Intelligence Agencies and the Central Intelligence Agencies neither indicated nor led to the assessment, that there could be damage to or demolition of the Babri Masjid." In the event, this failure meant that "by the time the news was officially conveyed by the Government of India's Intelligence Agency, it was too late and things had begun to roll." The Commission further noted that police officers who gave evidence before the Commission, and Naik "frankly admitted that demolition of the Babri Masjid was a wholly unexpected contingency." Most of them learnt of the happening only through television coverage, the Commission recorded.

As senior Maharashtra Government officials watched television, mobs of angry Muslims were out on the streets, and euphoric Shiv Sena and BJP workers were organising celebratory meetings. The riots were set to begin.

Justice Srikrishna is in no doubt where the blame lies. "Though the responsibility for dealing with assemblies on public streets is that of the police," he held, "the police left it to the judgement of the then Chief Minister who failed to act promptly and give clear cut directions."

* On the State Government's preparedness, the ATR says: "The Government does not agree with the above conclusions of the Commission. The Government wants to say firmly that the State administration and the police machinery was fully geared to deal with the situation" arising out of the proposed kar seva at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992.

The role of the BJP

THE BJP's role in the Mumbai riots has received relatively little attention, having been obscured by the sharp criticism of the Shiv Sena and the Mumbai Police in the Srikrishna Commission Report. But the report attributes a key role to the BJP-led Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the genesis of the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993 and the subsequent serial bomb blasts.

"From or about July 1992," the report records, "the Bharatiya Janata Party orchestrated its campaign for construction of a temple at Ayodhya by holding Ram Paduka processions, Chowk Sabhas, and meetings, using these occasions for delivering speeches exhorting the Hindus to become united on the issue. Not only were these occasions used for exhorting Hindus to unite, but some speeches and slogans on such occasions were downright communal, warning the Muslims that dissent on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute would be an act of treachery for which the Muslims would be banished from the country."

Such mobilisations, Justice Srikrishna notes, had "less of religion and more of politics. Under the attractive garb of advocating one's own religion, the Hindutvawadis politicised the issue and tried to pre-empt the issue pending in the Court of law, by their strident clamour" for the construction a Ram temple at Ayodhya. The BJP's rath yatra "in support of its campaign ... further added to communal tension all over the country," Justice Srikrishna points out, "and Bombay city was no exception." The report cites the recruitment of volunteers for kar seva at Ayodhya as an example of the mobilisation programmes with a specific bearing on sharpening communal fissures.

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Muslim anger was fuelled by displays of euphoria by Hindutva parties. "The irresponsible act of the Hindutva parties in celebrating and gloating over the demolition of Babri structure was like twisting a knife in the wound and heightened the anguished ire of the Muslims." Although Justice Srikrishna held the Shiv Sena principally responsible for these displays, he noted that the BJP had been a participant. "At this juncture," he says of the situation on December 6, 1992, "the Hindus had nothing to complain about and should have left the matter to be dealt with by the police as a problem of law and order. It is unfortunate that even at this stage, the activists of Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena jumped into the fray, and escalated communal passion."

* On the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the ATR says: "Government feels that a demand for construction of a temple cannot be communal because such a demand can be made under Fundamental Right guaranteed by the Constitution of India. 'Vande Mataram' has been given the status equal to the National Anthem and, therefore, Government does not find anything objectionable in the slogan, 'Is desh mein rahna hoga, to Vande Mataram kahna hoga'."

The role of Muslim fundamentalist groups

IS the Srikrishna Commission Report pro-Muslim? Even a cursory study of the two-volume report shows this thesis, of which Chief Minister Manohar Joshi is the most ardent advocate, to be wholly incorrect. The key difference he draws between Hindu and Muslim rioters is that while the former were organised into street armies by the Shiv Sena, those of the minority community consisted of leaderless mobs and criminals.

Justice Srikrishna's acid attack on the Hindu right for its politics on Ayodhya is mirrored by a similar disdain for Muslim sectarian groups who joined the fray. "The Babri Masjid, a dilapidated structure, which was perhaps not even used as a mosque," he asserts, "suddenly became a rallying point for the Muslims. Vocal sections amongst the Muslims formed the Babri Masjid Protection Committee, which called upon the Government of India to ensure that no harm would befall the Babri Masjid."

Hindu unreason fed Muslim reaction. "Hindutvawadis roared that not permitting the construction of a temple on the banks of the Sarayu at Ayodhya at the spot where Lord Shri Ram was born was a blot on the self-respect of every Hindu; Muslim leaders harangued that any concession would put Islam into 'Khatra' (danger). The Hindu majority, with its new-found identity, and the Muslim minority, with its heightened sense of insecurity, flexed muscles and rattled sabres."

The Srikrishna Commission Report is unsparing in exposing the role of "Muslim mobs" in rioting after December 7. "Large mobs of Muslims came out on the streets and there was recourse taken to violence without doubt. This time, the Muslim mobs appear to have come out with the intention of mounting violent attacks as noticed from their preparedness with weapons of offence. There were violent attacks on the policemen in Muslim-dominated areas like Bhendi Bazaar and its vicinity." The report cites several specific examples, such as the murder of police constables at Byculla and Deonar.

Significantly, Justice Srikrishna flatly rejects the proposition, put forward by many politicians, civil rights activists and journalists, that the Mumbai Police targeted Muslims for retaliation during the first phase of rioting. "The explanation of the Commissioner of Police that the aggressive and violent mobs in the initial stages comprised Muslims and, therefore, Muslim casualties were higher does not appear to be as far-fetched as has been made out by the Muslims, nor can it be dismissed offhand." He also saw some validity in police explanations that the high number of deaths by upper-body injury in police firing were the outcome not of bias, but the problems of maintaining ideal accuracy in real-life riot situations. "The possibility of some of the rioters ducking to escape becoming targets and in the bargain taking the bullets in the upper regions of their body is not too remote for consideration," the report says.

Nor, as the Maharashtra Government has claimed, does Justice Srikrishna fail to address the role of Muslim underworld figures in the riots. What he points to, however, is the significant distinctions that were blurred in the riots between Muslims and criminals. "Some of the Muslim criminal elements operating in South Bombay," he says of stabbings in the fortnight from December 24, "like Salim Rampuri and Firoz Konkani have been identified as the brains between the stabbing incidents. That they were criminals was underplayed by the Hindus; that they were Muslims was all that mattered, and a cry went up that the Muslims were bent upon a second round of riots."

* On the leadership of Muslim mobs, the ATR says: "Government feels that a leaderless mob alone could not have sustained such horrifying, rancorous and prolonged rioting. The Government is surprised and shocked that the commission could not identify its main leaders from behind the curtain."

Links between the riots and the serial bomb blasts

IN March 1995, the terms of the Srikrishna Commission were amended by notification to include an inquisition into the facts and circumstances of the Mumbai serial bombings of March 12, 1993. The purpose of this amendment was to establish whether the riots of 1992 and 1993 and the serial blasts were part of "a common design." Put simply, the Shiv Sena-BJP Government hoped to establish that both the riots and bomb blasts were carried out by Muslim criminals, exonerating Hindu chauvinist organisations of principal responsibility for the post-Ayodhya orgy of violence.

The effort failed, provoking Chief Minister Manohar Joshi to rage in his comments on the Srikrishna Commission Report. But the fact of the matter is that there was simply no evidence that there was a common design. Only one affidavit was filed after the Commission issued a public notice in newspapers calling for information. Advocate Prabhakar V. Pradhan filed an affidavit in which he claimed that he had "casually bumped into someone" who claimed that the serial bombings were the work of the United States' Central Intelligence Agency, and not revenge of Muslims for the 1992-1993 riots. Justice Srikrishna, unsurprisingly, was "not impressed that there was any important material for serious consideration" in the affidavit.

Police officers' affidavits, based on their investigations and the subsequent charge-sheets against the accused, also offered nothing new. The affidavits showed that Muslims had been angered by their being targeted during the riots. In Justice Srikrishna's words, "anti-national elements aided and abetted by ISI of Pakistan recruited some of the angry young men by brainwashing them that they should take revenge for the humiliation and misery heaped upon them. A grand conspiracy was hatched at the instance of the notorious smuggler, Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar, operating from Dubai, to recruit and train young Muslims to vent their anger and wreak revenge by exploding bombs near vital installations and also in Hindu-dominated areas so as to engineer a fresh bout of communal riots." This basic narrative is the one placed before the Designated Court in Mumbai. The Commission, sensitive to trial court concerns, entered into no discussion of the specific charges against the accused.

On the basis of the officers' testimony, Justice Srikrishna concluded that there "does appear to be a cause and effect relationship between the two riots and the serial bomb blasts." "Another common link," he noted, "is that some of the accused who were involved in substantive riot-related offences were also accused in the serial bomb blasts case, though their number is only three or four." By way of example, the report cited the case of Tiger Memon, who along with his family "had suffered extensively during the riots and therefore can be said to have had deep-rooted motive for revenge." In response to pointed questions, Mahesh Narain Singh, who headed the investigation, made clear that he did not believe the riots of 1992-1993 and the serial bombings were part of a common design. The serial bomb blasts, he said, "were a reaction to the totality of events at Ayodhya and Bombay in December 1992 and January 1993."

None of the material before him, Justice Srikrishna concluded, indicated "that the riots during December 1992 and January 1993 and the serial blasts were part of a common design." Chief Minister Joshi has no comprehensible ground for ire: and if he does, his decision not to produce what evidence he has before the Commission is difficult to understand.

* On the serial bombings, the ATR notes: "... the Government is taken aback that the Commission has not given adequate importance although 267 innocent persons were killed in a dastardly manner, 713 were injured and a huge loss of Rs.27 crore was caused. It is strange that the Commission did not take adequate note of such unprecedented, horrifying and totally opprobrious and barbarous incidents."

Socio-economic, demographic and political factors in the riots

AMONG the more interesting aspects of the Srikrishna Commission Report is its discussion of the social context of the Mumbai riots. Based on an analysis provided by a Committee of Experts from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the Commission placed the riots against the historic background of industrial decline in Mumbai, the rise of the informal sector and the growth of mass poverty in the city.

Employment in the organised sector in Mumbai, the experts found, had been in decline since 1971, driven by the closure of large industries, a process that accelerated sharply between 1981 and 1990. This economic decline "generated frustration among unemployed youth and poorer sections", and "hit hard even those in jobs". Unemployment therefore had become a "powerful source of frustration which could have contributed to make the city vulnerable to communal violence." Similar frustration was felt by those in the informal sector, described by Justice Srikrishna as a world "lawless, cruel and hard, with rank exploitation of workers." Finally, aggression and frustration were also felt by slum residents and those who lived on the streets, a category whose number had grown three-fold since 1961.

The changing political discourse was found by Justice Srikrishna to have "aggravated the cleavages between the ethnic groups, functioning as proximate contributory cause for riots and violence in Bombay." Themes like democracy or the pattern of economic development had slowly given way to communal discourse. "Originally confined to the forward caste (and) the middle class in Bombay, Hindutva has recently gained currency and fashionableness and its appeal cuts across economic strata and linguistic divisions," Justice Srikrishna found. Issues such as the reversal of the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case and the singing of Vande Mataram and the "aborted co-operative endeavour between the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and the Anjuman-e-Islami and the alleged appeasement of Muslims have increasingly helped the acceptance of Hindutva among the Hindus. The Muslims, on their part, have been driven more and more to assert their identity and become increasingly exclusive."

The "concentration of minority community in distinct pockets", Justice Srikrishna believes, contributed to exclusivist tendencies among Muslims, along with their failure to gain as much political representation as elsewhere in India.

The report, however, rejects the argument that the riots were driven by economic competition. Mumbai, he argued, "has not witnessed any rising Muslim bourgeoisie competing with the Hindu bourgeoisie... The Muslim community in Bombay has hardly produced sufficiently large number of educated youth to compete with educated Hindu youth for white-collar jobs. There is also no evidence that Hindus had encroached upon the traditional economic activities and businesses like bakery, poultry, leather, leather goods, timber, etc. in which Muslim businessmen have sizeable share." Nor, he says, was there evidence to support the claim that the riots "could have been engineered by builders or land-grabbers, though land grabbing may have occurred on certain occasions as a consequence of the riots."

* The ATR has no comment.
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