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The tale documents tell

Print edition : Jul 21, 2001 T+T-
Communications between the Maharashtra and Union governments and the Intelligence Bureau through the course of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign provide fresh insights into the mobilisations by organisations and the management of the situation by the government.

Early this year, the Maharashtra government submitted three sets of documents to the Justice Liberhan Commission of Inquiry investigating the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The documents, which have been obtained by Frontline, broadly fall into three groups. The first consists of communications between the Maharashtra State authorities, the Union government and the Intelligence Bureau through the course of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. The second set consists of the notings of the Mumbai Police's Special Branch operatives, up to the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992. The third consists of the hate-peddling articles authored by Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, which played a key role in the riots that followed.

While the documents affirm much of what has already been written on the issue, they also challenge not a little received wisdom. These volumes provide insights into the Rajiv Gandhi government's management of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign, the micro-level mobilisations that paved the way for the Mumbai riots of December 1992-January 1993 and the workings of the Shiv Sena once the violence began. At once, the documents contain several discontinuities: large periods of time are unaccounted for, and correspondence is frequently incomplete.

This article, the first of a three-part series, looks at the correspondence between Maharashtra and Union government authorities.

PRAVEEN SWAMIANUPAMA KATAKAM

ON February 1, 1986, District Judge K.M. Pandey ordered open the locked doors of the Babri Masjid, allowing Hindus to worship at the shrine that right wing religious groups claimed was the birthplace of the god Ram. Broadcast on national television, the action was intended to help Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi win back caste Hindu support for his Congress(I). Less than six months later, on November 11, 1986, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad got into the act, laying the foundation stone for a Ram temple on land that local Muslims claimed belonged to the Waqf community trust. The first clouds of India's worst communal storm were starting to build up.

Sitting in his office in New Delhi's North Block complex three years later, the Director of the Intelligence Bureau (DIB), M.K. Narayanan, authored a seminal confidential note on the consequences of his Prime Minister's action. Addressed to Maharashtra Chief Secretary D. Sukhthankar, Narayanan's October 3, 1989, letter pointed out "that the declining trend since 1987 in communal incidents and violence has been reversed and incidents have again begun to rise since July". Second, he proceeded to state, "while some spurt in communal violence has been reported in view of the forthcoming elections, (the) causative factors that are becoming manifested are highly disturbing and invalidate any assumption that there has been a positive improvement". Finally, the letter concluded, "it would appear that the control mechanisms and police effectiveness in keeping down levels of communal violence are proving inadequate before the enlarging activities of Hindu and Muslim communal bodies".

Narayanan's letter was provoked by a seminar held in Mumbai in August 1989, attended by Directors-General of Police and State intelligence chiefs. There, his letter recorded, it had been noted that "the VHP had grown very rapidly in the past 18-24 months". The "increasing use of provocative symbols and insignia, specially by the Hindus, was acting as a catalyst to communal confrontation". Another factor was the "blatant communal propaganda of the BJP and Hindu fundamentalist organisations like the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal". The DIB noted that officials at the seminar said the police "needed in this situation to be more assertive and take necessary preventive and preventive measures (sic) well before actual communal violence occurred". Special powers, including broader authority to prosecute for incitement to communal hatred and the use of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act against fundamentalists, were demanded.

If officers at the August meeting felt deep concern, it was not without reason. Intelligence Bureau surveillance, Narayanan's letter notes, showed the long-term ambitions of the Hindu fundamentalist mobilisation. "So far," paragraph 8 records, "14 State committees have been constituted as also 232 District Committees. Targets for Shila Poojan (temple foundation prayers) and Maha Yagna in each State have been finalised. The fund collection target has been fixed at over Rs.15 crore, of which nearly 10 per cent has been collected already. While the Shila Poojan programme(s) are to commence officially on September 30, 147 Shila Poojans have already been held in various States." Pointing to "highly intemperate speeches" made by Bajrang Dal workers at Ayodhya that July, Narayanan observed that volunteers on the occasion had pledged to "make the supreme sacrifice for the construction of the RJB (Ram Janambhoomi) temple".

Just how serious the DIB was is evident from his use of the term "Hindu irredentism" to describe the activities of the Hindu Right, suggesting that it had an agenda far larger than bringing down the Babri Masjid. In a November 6, 1989 letter to Maharashtra Director-General of Police R.S. Kulkarni, which describes the situation after communal riots broke out in Sitamarhi and Bhagalpur in Bihar, Narayanan warned of possible Muslim reprisals. In the month since his October missives, the DIB wrote, "the communal situation has become extremely sensitive in quite a few States, partly as a result of the Shila Poojan processions taken out by the VHP and the slogans raised by some of them, and partly due to Muslim concerns which have been translated into aggressive intransigence". "The Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, the Students Islamic Movement of India and the Tabliq-e-Jamaat have all called for effective retaliation against the VHP-sponsored programme," he noted, adding that there was talk "of setting up guerrilla squads to prevent the Shilas from reaching Ayodhya".

AT least one person seems to have taken Narayanan's warnings with some seriousness, but he did not seem to have much support. In October, Union Home Minister Buta Singh wrote to Maharashtra Chief Minister Sharad Pawar. Although Pawar was unavailable for comment, since he was in the United States, Buta Singh's letter appears to have been a response to the Chief Minister's concerns about the emerging situation. "Regarding your point about the thinking at the national level about some operational details," Buta Singh wrote, "I am sure you would appreciate that the Central government cannot lay down any drill to take care of eventualities that may arise in the context of a given situation". Why this was so, the Home Minister did not explain, but added that it "hardly needs to be stated that the State government is fully competent to take any steps, in accordance with the provisions of the law and the expediency of the given situations. I am sure the law enforcement agencies in your state will be able to deal with developments with sensitivity and alertness".

Put simply, the Union government was not prepared to do anything. The exact contents of Pawar's letter are of course not yet known. But the Intelligence Bureau's letter to Chief Secretary Sukhthankar made it clear that the police forces were simply not equipped to deal with the unfolding communal crisis. That letter had asked not just for new powers to prosecute and detain suspects, but also to control processions and the use of cross-sureties issued by community leaders to hold the peace. Why Buta Singh chose not to act on any of these demands, coming as they did from the most powerful official in his own Ministry, requires investigation.

Buta Singh's letter also seems to suggest that Pawar was, by this stage, pushing for some form of national emergency management system, and a clearly-laid down procedure to deal with riots should they break out. Despite the growing number of communal incidents, nothing of the sort was put in place right up to the outrage of December 6, 1992, when the Hindu Right brought down the Babri Masjid.

What is most significant about Buta Singh's letter are the clues it gives out to the Rajiv Gandhi government's mode of managing the growing violence. "It is true," he admitted, "that considering the very great implications to national unity that this dispute has, we have taken certain initiatives to reduce the area of confrontation between the contending parties." As a result of a meeting in Lucknow, he continued, the VHP had given a six-point undertaking to the Union government. These were to intimate the district authorities of the Shila processions, not to raise provocative slogans, carry the sanctified bricks only in trucks on agreed routes, appointing senior functionaries to guide processions, decide with district officials the final spot for placing the sanctified bricks in Ayodhya, and to abide by legal orders. "It is entirely up to you," he concluded, "to take recourse to action on the above lines, if you deem it proper. I have indicated these to you only by way of an illustration of the keen desire of the Central government to avoid confrontation."

How desperate the regime was to avoid trouble is clear from a close reading of Buta Singh's letter. First, he blamed "contending parties" for the situation, but chose to negotiate with only one, the VHP. Second, the Home Minister advocated a State-level dialogue with the VHP even though he was aware that the organisation had violated at least one of its tenets, to avoid raising provocative slogans. Third, and most important, his letter made no reference to the fact that the Intelligence Bureau was, by now, increasingly worried that a violent confrontation was imminent. Nor did desire "to avoid confrontation and maintain public order/communal harmony" extend to implementing the new policing measures officers had called for at the Mumbai seminar in August. Buta Singh's policy of seeking to appease the VHP was to lay the foundations for the conduct of policy by the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime years later, a period that the documents made over by the Maharashtra government to the Justice Liberhan Commission do not encompass.

From 1989, intelligence operatives kept a close watch on events. On December 13, 1989, for example, the Ministry of Home Affairs sent out an encrypted note, marked II-12013/9/89-IS (DV), warning of the possible movement of 14 trucks carrying 1,220 Ram Shilas and 850 VHP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers through Bidar in Karnataka, to Nagpur in Maharashtra. "Some of the activists are likely to carry lathis and daggers," it noted, "State and district authorities will have to ensure that volunteers are not allowed to carry any kind of weapons or trishuls, etc". The message also asked for "very close monitoring", and mandated that action be taken to ensure "that the movement between town(s) should be as fast as possible and that the accompanying activists do not raise any provocative slogans and that as far as practicable convoy(s) should avoid mixed or congested areas while passing through towns." But the political leadership had other things on its mind: policing simply was not seen as a priority.

MOST people in Mumbai say they had never believed that riots would break out there in December 1992. Maharashtra's Liberhan documents, however, show that everyone in the security set-up, however, was well aware that violence was not far away. And, even more horrifyingly, that nothing was done about it.

On July 10, 1992, almost five months before the Hindu Right destroyed the Babri Masjid, the Intelligence Bureau sent out a fateful warning to all State Chief Secretaries, Home Secretaries, and Directors-General of Police. Marked SS/(ISP)/92/3653, the letter warned that "in the wake of developments in Ayodhya by certain organisations for construction of a temple, there is a possibility of a communal flare up". If this, in itself, was not a remarkable deduction, the subsequent instructions in the letter were explicit. "All developments directly or indirectly contributing to communal violence should be nipped in the bud," the message read. "Intelligence machinery in the entire States may be geared up and all precautionary measures undertaken. State governments/UTs (Union Territories) may also consider rounding up of communal agitators".

D.A. Choudhari, secretary to the Maharashtra DGP, sent out a copy of the Union government's missive to top officials through the State on July 15, 1992. No specific orders were, however, given to officials on just what they were expected to do. No arrests took place in Mumbai or elsewhere in Maharashtra, and no effort was made to terminate the ongoing mobilisation of the Shiv Sena, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. This was despite the fact that major riots had already broken out. Ahmedabad went up in flames on July 2, 1992, and tension was reported from Baroda city and the districts of Broach, Banaskantha, Mehsana, Surendranagar, Kheda, Rajkot and Surat (all in Gujarat). Through the summer, as subsequent articles in this series shall make clear, the Hindu Right was allowed to proceed with its agitation programme unchecked. It is widely believed the State government was, for its own political reasons, unwilling to engage in a head-on confrontation with Hindutva forces, hoping instead for some kind of rapprochement which would enable the Congress(I) to hold on to power in Maharashtra.

As days went by, the warnings from the Intelligence Bureau became even more explicit. A July 18, 1992 crash wireless communication, marked 431/DIS/DESP/92, anticipated the events that would take place in Ayodhya months later. "Another matter for concern," it recorded, "is the presence of a large body of Hindu militants in Ayodhya and their programme to remain there for the next two months in connection with several programmes chalked out by the VHP. A section of these emotionally surcharged people may attempt to damage the disputed shrine as it happened on October 30, 1990, and November 2, 1991. Such an incident would have immediate reverberations all over the country in terms of communal violence." "The manifestation of the VHP's intentions through the commencement of the temple construction programme on July 9, amidst wide publicity and fanfare," the note argued, "has evoked sharp reactions from various sections of the Muslim leadership and various political parties." The possibility of rioting, possibly after the approaching Muharram celebrations, was expressly discussed in the note.

Again, Choudhari dutifully sent out the contents of the Intelligence Bureau warning to all officials concerned. "All Polcoms (Police Commissioners) and Dispols (District Superintendents of Police) are therefore requested that close watch may be kept on the communal situation and prompt corrective steps taken to maintain law and order in your jurisdiction," his June 19, 1992 letter read. However, hardly anything tangible was done.

The State Special Branch did indeed maintain surveillance on organisations like the Shiv Sena, but in a routine manner. None of the corrective measures suggested ten days earlier, or indeed as early as 1989, seem even to have been considered. Indeed, Mumbai's then-Commissioner of Police, Srikant Bapat, even attempted to justify his complete lack of action. Page 155 of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry Report records his legitimisation of Shiv Sena mobilisation. "As to Maha Aartis (Sena religious street gatherings)," it notes, "Bapat considered them to be purely religious activities and therefore he had consciously decided that they were exempted from the ban orders."

Bapat's defence, like that of other top officials in Maharashtra at the time, is simply blown away by the Liberhan documents. Consider the Commissioner's plea of ignorance, read in the context of the documents obtained by Frontline. He told the Srikrishna Commission that "the Government of Maharashtra and the Bombay police had not even considered the possibility of any damage to or demolition of (the) Babri Masjid in view of the statements made by the Prime Minister, assurances given in Parliament, and the undertaking given by the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh government to the Supreme Court. All their contingency plans contemplated the possibility of kar sevaks being restrained by the use of police force and its repercussions in Bombay. The entire police force in Bombay appears to have been caught unaware by the news of demolition of (the) Babri Masjid. The angry reaction of the Muslim community also took them completely unaware."

Perhaps Justice Srikrishna should have pushed a little harder to find the truth. And perhaps the most important fact that the accompanying documents show is that the whole truth about the events of December 1992 is, so to speak, still out there: and waiting to be found.