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Why there's no noise about the Mumbai riots

February 04, 2014 11:37 IST

A protest rally in Mumbai

'No one talks about the Mumbai riots anymore, though like Delhi 1984, the guilty have not been punished. In Gujarat, many powerful leaders of the state's ruling party are in jail for their role in the riots...'

'In Mumbai, only one politician of the Shiv Sena, a former MP, was convicted of hate speech, along with two other Shiv Sainiks, one of whom was a corporator and the other a junior functionary...'

'So why the apathy? Could it be because despite these statistics and the widely-publicised findings of the Srikrishna Commission, what remained in public consciousness was the violence by the Muslims, thanks to a highly efficient Sena propaganda machine?'

'There's no demand for it, but would an SIT probe into the closed cases of the Mumbai riots help today?'

The fadeout of Mumbai's riots from public debate can be called a triumph of the communal State, argues Jyoti Punwani.

When it comes to crimes by the majority community against a minority, our police are known to look the other way; there have been times when they have also actually joined in the violence.

So their role in the 1984 Sikh massacre in Delhi, which was led by Congress leaders, is not surprising. What is astonishing is that the incidents of those three bloody days after then prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination may now be re-investigated, 30 years later.

Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002 are the constants in our political discourse, used to score points against each other by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress respectively.

But the 1992-1993 Mumbai riots that came in between are forgotten, though the demolition of the Babri Masjid that sparked off those riots, is not. The demolition in Ayodhya changed forever our claim of being a secular State. But the violence that ensued in faraway Mumbai did so too.

900 persons died in the Mumbai riots. The violence was spread over two long phases, a week in December 1992 and 10 days in January 1993. The riots took place across the country's financial capital, leaving no area and no class of Muslims untouched.

The brutality seen in 1984 and in 2002 was evident in Mumbai too: A pregnant woman's stomach slashed; victims, including women, mutilated and burnt alive; burning tyres put around the necks of victims...

Mumbai's violence was investigated by a commission of inquiry headed by a sitting high court judge. The commission was suddenly wound up by the Shiv Sena government and then reinstated, six months later, on the orders of then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Apart from these dramatic developments, Justice B N Srikrishna's report, submitted in 1998, created waves like no other commission of inquiry report had, because it named Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray as the man who directed the violence in the January 1993 phase of the riots.

Thackeray was the 'remote control' of the Maharashtra government when Justice Srikrishna submitted his report. The commission also indicted the Mumbai police force as communal, and indicted 31 policemen, including a former additional police commissioner of Mumbai, Ram Deo Tyagi.

Despite such sensational findings, which were widely publicised, no one talks about the Mumbai riots anymore, though like Delhi 1984, the guilty have not been punished. In Gujarat, many powerful leaders of the state's ruling party are in jail for their role in the riots.

In Mumbai, only one politician of the Shiv Sena, former MP and MLA Madhukar Sarpotdar, was convicted of hate speech, along with two other Shiv Sainiks, one of whom was a corporator and the other a junior functionary.

To be fair, Sarpotdar was the only senior politician who had riot cases registered against him. But hardly any of the Shiv Sainiks accused of rioting were punished; nor a single policeman named by Justice Srikrishna. None of the latter spent even an hour in custody.

As they did in Delhi, the police in Mumbai also closed the riot cases. Sixty per cent of them, numbering 1,358, were closed after being classified as 'A Summary -- True but Undetected'.

The Srikrishna Commission found that the police had made no effort to 'detect' the offences, even when the accused had been named by complainants.

While the police closed cases in which both Hindus and Muslims had been named as suspects, the Commission found that some police stations had a large number of such cases. In most of these, the suspects named were Shiv Sainiks.

Apart from recommending strict action against the 31 indicted policemen, Justice Srikrishna also recommended that these 1,358 cases be re-opened. Forced to act by the Supreme Court, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party state government set up a hand-picked Special Task Force (STF) to study the Commission's recommendations.

The STF re-opened all of five closed cases -- amounting to not even one per cent of the cases closed! These too ended in acquittal, thanks to a half-hearted prosecution.

So why is there no noise being made about the lack of justice to Mumbai's riot victims? Could it be because there are no political points to be scored?

The Congress-NCP government has been in power since 1999. The secular brigade across the country has always been loath to attack the Congress as vociferously as it attacks the BJP, as the prime goal is to keep 'communal forces' from coming to power.

Even Muslims knowing the hollowness of the Congress's secularism, end up voting for the Congress. So how strong can their attacks be?

The BJP should have gone all out to attack the secular pretensions of the Congress-NCP on their failure to implement the Srikrishna Commission Report. But that would have meant validating the Report.

For both the Shiv Sena and the BJP, Justice Srikrishna is the epitome of the anti-Hindu Hindu.

The Shiv Sena hates him because he showed up pitilessly the role of their leader and their party in the violence.

The BJP hates him because he blamed party stalwart L K Advani's rath yatra and the Ayodhya campaign for vitiating the atmosphere and building up communal hatred in Mumbai.

The yatra and the campaign were the very instruments that brought the BJP to power. It must be remembered that when Justice Srikrishna's report was tabled, the BJP was in power at the Centre, and L K Advani was the Union home minister.

Finally, both the Shiv Sena and the BJP could not accept the Report's finding, that innocent Muslims were at the receiving end of both the Sena and the police.

But what about public pressure from below forcing a government to act? After all, while politicians have betrayed them, it's the Sikhs who have never stopped agitating for justice in Delhi.

The Congress's Rajya Sabha MP Husain Dalwai had once publicly said that the Srikrishna Commission Report would only be implemented when the people forced the government to do so.

Alas! The people of Mumbai failed to do so. Not that they didn't try. But a spirited campaign to get Ram Deo Tyagi punished as per the directions of the Supreme Court, fizzled out as the case dragged on.

A handful of activists and their young lawyers were no match for the government which, at every step, went out of its way to ensure that Tyagi and his co-accused, and indeed, all the cops indicted by Justice Srikrishna, walked free.

Unlike the Sikhs in Delhi, the Muslims of Mumbai didn't get involved in large numbers in this campaign. In Delhi, the fight remained in the same city that the violence had taken place in; in Mumbai, the legal fight was fought in the Supreme Court, where a petition had been filed after the Sena-BJP government had rejected the Report.

Only one lawyer, advocate Yusuf Muchhala, remained committed enough to travel to Delhi for every hearing.

Sadly, even the community as a whole didn't help him. The less said about its leaders, the better. The man who filed the Supreme Court petition demanding implementation of the Commission Report got a ministership because of this one act.

After becoming a minister, Arif Naseem Khan could have used his clout to get the Report implemented by his own government. He didn't. He is now Maharashtra's minority affairs minister, but couldn't even get a special public prosecutor appointed to fight the appeal against the Sarpotdar conviction.

Other Muslim leaders were only interested in seeing Bal Thackeray punished -- which even Justice Srikrishna had not recommended, knowing the difficulty in finding evidence against him that would stand up in court.

The nitty-gritty of getting individual cases involving poor Muslims punished was too tedious for them. The real achievement would have been to get even one policeman punished. But the relationship between the police and the Muslims is too complex for them to take on this powerful arm of the State.

The only time Muslim leaders got active was when members of their community got convicted for the March 12, 1993 bomb blasts. Angry that the riot accused remained unpunished, they managed to get then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to appoint two special magistrates courts.

These courts made history by handing down the first convictions of Hindus and of Shiv Sainiks for the 1992-1993 riots. That included Madhukar Sarpotdar. These two courts handed out a total of seven convictions, six of which were set aside by the higher courts.

Only the conviction of Sarpotdar's co-accused, Jaywant Parab and Ashok Shinde, was upheld. (Sarpotdar had by then passed away.) Incidentally, no Muslim activist or leader attended a single hearing in these special courts!

The difference between Mumbai and Gujarat is even starker than between Mumbai and Delhi. Gujarat was a riot caught on camera. The Supreme Court, the National Human Rights Commission, and a range of NGOs worked to nail the guilty. The Muslims of Gujarat had the sympathy of the entire nation, not to mention the international community.

Mumbai's victims didn't even get a sympathetic hearing from the National Minorities Commission! This despite the fact that the number of Muslims who died -- 575 -- was more than double that of Hindus -- 275.

So why the apathy? Could it be because despite these statistics and the widely-publicised findings of the Srikrishna Commission, what remained in public consciousness was the violence by the Muslims, thanks to a highly efficient Sena propaganda machine?

Radhabai Chawl, where six Hindus, five of them women, were burnt alive, remains the dominant image of the Mumbai riots; not the burning alive of three Muslims in a Maruti van in broad daylight; not the raid on Suleman Usman Bakery in which eight innocent Muslims were shot dead; not the shooting of unarmed namazis inside Hari Masjid.

In all these cases, the Commission indicted the policemen involved, yet they never faced trial -- despite two of them being charged with murder. Tyagi (who led the Suleman Bakery raid) got a discharge upheld by the Supreme Court; Kapse (who ordered the firing in Hari Masjid), was exonerated by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Neither Tyagi's discharge, nor Kapse's exoneration, provoked a public protest, while in Delhi, Sikhs sat on a dharna after former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar was exonerated by the CBI in May last.

Mumbai isn't a place for mass democratic action anyway -- even Anna Hazare couldn't get a crowd. But the point is no one even tried to protest!

There is no demand for it, but would an SIT (Special Investigation Team) probe into the closed cases of the Mumbai riots help today? Only if the policemen manning it were forced to do a bona fide investigation, and only the court can exercise that power.

Those victims whose cases were re-opened had to work with a hostile, cynical police force, indifferent PPs (public prosecutors), and zero support from their community. The efforts of individual activists weren’t enough.

The fadeout of Mumbai's riots from public debate can be called a triumph of a communal State. Politicians, police and bureaucrats worked in perfect co-ordination to tire out the victims and their few supporters.

Image: A 'Justice Rally' in Mumbai, October 25, 2007. Thousands of Muslims held a rally demanding justice for the victims of communal riots in 1992-1993 that left hundreds dead in the city. Photograph: Arko Datta/Reuters.

Jyoti Punwani