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Commentary/Dilip D'Souza

Cases? What Cases? Riots? What Riots?

Bal Thackery I know some of you out there are students and I hope you are still learning things. Because if you are, you will recognise the thrill I felt this week -- the joy of learning new stuff, you know? I have found out so much over the last few days. I feel especially privileged, because it all came from two eminent men indeed: one was a chief minister, one is a chief minister.

This redoubtable pair, Manohar Joshi and Sudhakar Naik, appeared before the Srikrishna Commission in Bombay this week, and what a good thing they did! For had they not, I would have been floundering in ignorance about so many issues. At least, I would have believed all kinds of nonsense about them. How good of these two to take the time to set those impressions right.

For example, the government of Maharashtra has withdrawn various cases against Bal Thackeray for his writings during the riots. In my naive, foolish way, I had been thinking that there was one very simple -- or so it appeared to me -- reason for this: that Thackeray is himself, for all purposes we might think of, the government of Maharashtra. What good would it do for the government to pursue cases against himself? Good reasoning, no?

No. And it took Chief Minister Joshi to explain why. The real reason those cases were withdrawn, Joshi told the Srikrishna Commission, was that "the government was of the view that continuation of prosecution... would amount to reopening of old wounds which had almost healed."

Whose wounds, Mr Joshi did not say. But the week's re-education only began with that. The chief minister also brought up the famous "appeasement" of Muslims that has led to so much resentment among Hindus. The nasty Congress and the shifty Left parties, they have spent the years since Independence pandering to and appeasing Muslims, and that's brought us to where we are today, wherever that is. And what examples of such appeasement did Mr Joshi offer up? "The lack of any effort on the part of the government to educate Muslims and ensuring that they remained impoverished."

Of course. You keep a whole section of the population poor and illiterate, you're "appeasing" them. Come to Maharashtra, fantasy land for the world.

Then there was Sudhakar Nero, the man who will forever be remembered, though not with gratitude, for smoking his pipe while Bombay burned and the rest of us feared for our lives. He too covered himself with glory at the Commission. Seeing that he was only the chief minister of the state at the time, might he have known that Thackeray had been publishing inflammatory articles during the riots? No, "Nothing done by Mr Thackeray during the riot period was brought to my notice." And in fact Thackeray "played no part whatsoever in fermenting the riots." What about these press reports, in one of which Naik claimed the Shiv Sena had started the riots, in the second of which he issued a "plea" to Thackeray? Oh, pay no attention to those, both were false.

So how did the riots start anyway? Well, there were the arrests of such thugs-cum-politicians as Pappu Kalani and Hitendra Thakur. There were the demolitions of structures (in Bombay, not Ayodhya). These things "may", said Nero thoughtfully, suddenly have sent Bombayites into the frenzy we saw, killing thousands of other Bombayites. And how come the mayhem was not stopped? Oh, but if only the Army had acted, if only those officers and jawans had done their duty as the city police and he, Nero, himself were so conscientiously doing, as he begged them to do -- if only that had happened, the riots would have been nipped in the bud. Instead, the rest of us got kicked in the butt.

That's the kind of week it's been.

We should be grateful the week happened now, in 1997. If it had been, say, a year from today that these men showed up to be questioned, I am fully confident that they would have asked: "Riots? What riots?" Because that's the only logical -- if I may be permitted as laughable a term as that one -- end to the inverted, upside-down, merry-go-round that facts and events must cope with in times like these.

Take just this business of Thackeray's literary ventures and reopening wounds. Take a look at these excerpts from four editorials that he wrote at the time of the riots:

* "Which is this minority community? The Muslim traitors who partitioned the country and haven't allowed us to breathe ever since." (Saamna, December 5, 1992).

* "Muslims should draw a lesson from the demolition of Babri Masjid, otherwise they will meet the same fate as Babri Masjid. Muslims who criticize the demolition are without religion, without a nation." (Saamna, December 8, 1992).

* "Pakistan need not cross the borders and attack India. 250 million Muslims in India will stage an armed insurrection. They form one of Pakistan's seven atomic bombs." (Saamna, December 9, 1992).

* "Muslims of Bhendi Bazar, Null Bazar, Dongri and Pydhonie, the areas we call Mini Pakistan... must be shot on the spot." (Saamna, January 8, 1993).

These editorials, along with five others, formed the basis of a petition that two Bombay citizens filed after the riots. It asked the Bombay high court to direct the government to prosecute Thackeray for promoting enmity and hatred between religions, the enmity and hatred that resulted in the massacre of innocents during the riots.

Manohar Joshi The petition took 18 months to be heard. Once that it was scheduled, the Sena counsel said he "wanted more time": he got 6 weeks. Another time, he said he had suffered a detached retina: he got 6 weeks again. A third time, the assigned judges declined to hear it, saying they had other "pressing matters" to attend to, so would the petitioners please approach the chief justice to have it heard by another bench: that delayed it two-and-a-half months. A fourth time, the counsel for the government asked for an adjournment because he "had not expected the case to actually come up" that day: he got a relatively measly 9 days.

And when it finally was heard nearly two years after the riots, the judges began by asking if the petitioners really wanted to press the matter now that so much time had passed.

Still, they did hear it. Then they dismissed it. Two points they made stood out. First, that so much time had in fact passed and there was no sense in "reopening old wounds." Second, since the government claimed it had filed cases for some other Thackeray writings and so was, indeed, pursuing punishment against the man, there was no need to consider this petition.

And what has happened to those cases? They are the ones that Thackeray's own government has now withdrawn. The ones Manohar Joshi says would, if pursued, amount to "reopening old wounds." That coincidence of language is really no coincidence: Joshi also told the Srikrishna Commission that the dismissal of that petition was his cue to withdraw these cases.

In a nutshell, now: one reason the court dismissed that petition was that so much time had passed. But so much time had passed because the defendants themselves repeatedly delayed the hearing. Another reason it dismissed the petition was that the government cited other cases that were being pursued. But the government has now dropped those cases, citing the dismissal of the petition as justification.

Merry-go-round? Catch-22? Or just more fun lessons to be learned in Maharashtra? Ask me next year, by when I suspect I will have come to believe that I don't even really exist.

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Dilip D'Souza

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