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April 30, 1998


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Varsha Bhosle

Selective leaks

On April 16, The Times of India carried a front page report written by Jyoti Punwani, datelined Mumbai, on the Supreme Court's acquitting the 11 Muslims who were earlier convicted by the special TADA judge for the murder of 6 Hindus in the infamous Radhabai Chawl case. The report was appended by another tear- jerker by Punwani, titled "Families of Radhabai accused heave a sigh."

The gist of it all was that: a) because the Babri Masjid was demolished, an "upsurge" followed; b) all the "boys," aged between 18 and 22 (some of whom had children), were innocent; c) Justices G N Ray and G B Pattanaik acquitted them in a 100-page order; d) the families of the convicted suffered terribly; and e) justice has finally been done. The people quoted and/or mentioned in the reports were lawyer P C Jain who appeared for the accused, Abu Asim Azmi of the Samajwadi Party which paid most of the legal expenses, advocate Majeed Memon who filed the petition in the Supreme Court, and family members of several accused.

The next day, the ToI published a proper report on the same case, datelined New Delhi, and filed by its news service. It said that the apex court, in its 53-page verdict, had pulled up the investigating agency for indiscriminately picking up Muslim suspects; appended on page 8 was a report titled "Exaggeration by witness can't be ruled out." It came directly from a scribe in the court.

Then, two days later, The Sunday Times (which I was told had been edited by Bachi Karkaria) questioned the verdict which has drawn mixed reactions in Mumbai. It examined the "all-enveloping ambiguity" which has "in effect, helped the murderers -- whoever they were -- get away scot free" and tabulated the contradictions in terms of time, assailants, eye-witness accounts, arrests, and reactions to the judgement -- and made Jyoti Punwani look like a fool.

I'm wondering, what ToI's resident editor Dina Vakil was doing on the 15th of April when Punwani submitted her report from Mumbai? Why was it published before the actual New Delhi-dateline report? It is evident that Punwani wrote hers after being given the dope by those representing the Muslims in the Srikrishna Commission -- Majeed Memon is mentioned. And Punwani is known in Bombay for her lop-sided reportage of the Srikrishna Commission proceedings in editor Ayaz Memon's Mid-Day...

Even with the known bias of the "reporter," editor Dina Vakil did not have the professionalism, competence and ethics to force Punwani to set down all sides of the controversial judgment -- as was done in The Sunday Times. Without her even being in Delhi and witnessing the apex court's proceedings, why was Punwani's report trusted to be valid...?

The Radhabai Chawl cookfest of 1993... Its gory details were kept under wraps by all our major "news"papers -- to protect us from having evil thoughts about the "minority community". You see, it's always a good thing to publish pictures of Hindu bairagis with trishuls or the Babri Masjid being demolished -- but it's a no-no to present the true face of Islamic fundamentalism...

For instance, even after the accused had been sentenced by the TADA court, the ToI had to add that the roasting alive of six people was "a sequel to the riots which took place in the wake of the demolition of the disputed structure at Ayodhya". Meaning... yes, what does it mean? That multiple murders and bomb blasts are condonable because the root cause was the demolition of a derelict structure by Hindus...?

The facts of the Radhabai Chawl massacre case are that on the night of January 7, 1993, nine Hindus -- 6 females and 3 males, of whom 2 were minors -- were locked in a room doused with kerosene and then set on fire. Five of them died on the spot. One died later in hospital. The two minors and one girl survived after sustaining disfiguring burns. Apart from this, everything else is questionable -- except that the chawl was in a mainly Muslim basti and that the assailants were Muslims: Six witnesses declared that the attackers stood around shouting "Allah-o-Akbar" and fled only when they heard the police sirens.

The public prosecutor said that eye-witnesses named the accused, who, according to one police officer "were notorious goondas and three of them had criminal records". Three days after the incident, the police announced the names and gradually arrested 17 Muslims.

In October 1996, 11 of the 17 accused were convicted by S M Deshmukh, additional sessions judge of the TADA court, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Instantly, a committee to defend them was formed by Abu Asim Azmi, president of the Bombay unit of the Samajwadi Party, and representatives of the Jamiat-e-Ulema and the Muslim Council. The case was, above all, a Hindu-Muslim war...

The balanced report in The Sunday Times ends with "No one knows anything for sure -- the case has been too clouded in confusion and ambiguity for that. Unfortunately, liberals seem to be reacting to it as a minority versus majority issue." True; secularists of every hue see it as Hindu judges, politicians and policemen deliberately entangling poor, innocent Muslims in the heinous act. Plain Hindus see it otherwise.

The Supreme Court observed that the police had framed the 11 Muslims and "somehow tried to get them identified through witnesses who belonged to the community from which the people were burnt alive." The problem was that two of the women who died did not identify the accused in their dying statements as the assailants were masked. The accused's counsel rejected the deposition of eye- witnesses as "totally unworthy of credit" and the judges, too, believed that.

The prosecution's claim is that after their depositions, every eye-witness had been threatened and/or bought. I believe that. So do most Hindus I spoke to.

Do you remember the O J Simpson trial? How many believe that the man is innocent? How many feel that though the prosecution may have bungled with the evidence, the man shouldn't have walked? Hadn't it become a racial issue? Didn't the civil suit later indict Simpson...? Like most Whites of the US, I feel Simpson is guilty. I also believe that even with the LAPD's poor track record, no one should be allowed to draw the race card and the police-brutality card in any criminal case, whether it mixes Blacks, Whites or the pink-striped. Just the evidence card will do, thank you.

Which brings me back to our own parallel little world of the TADA- credibility card. Quoting precedent, 11 persons of the Bombay blasts case were released on bail and 40 more followed. Then, the Act itself was scrapped -- by the use of the communal card. And now those convicted by the TADA court have been set free by the Supreme Court...

Hell, those convicted by the TADA court *are* guilty, no two ways about it. But the minority syndrome won't let our dunder-headed liberals see it that way. All that the controversial judgment will do is put the Hindus' backs up a little more. It has mine.

There are other things to think about: Apropos the *still- classified* Srikrishna Commission Report that hasn't been read by even the deputy CM of Maharashtra, how is Teesta Setalvad (editor, Communalism Combat) able to write in an editorial of The Sunday Times of April 26 that, "The evidence recorded by the judge through incriminating testimonies of victims, offending politicians and policemen, explodes the myth that has been built up by Hindutvawadi proponents... Testimonies of police officials and police records show that systematic provocation was provided by Sena MLAs and MPs (Kalidas Kolambkar and Madhukar Sarpotdar among others) and local BJP leaders in over 18 police station areas of Mumbai since October 1992. These leaders held mock kar sevas, ghantanad celebrations (temple bell ringing victory celebrations in anticipation of and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992) and shouted provocative slogans against Muslims. Policemen did nothing to stop these blatantly provocative and therefore, potentially violent, mobilisations..."

How is it that we Hindu writers, even after trying, are unable to acquire even a page of the report, but Mrs Teesta Javed Anand Setalvad can spew information from it that doesn't sound at all like plain conjecture...? Where is the leak? More significantly -- why is there a SELECTIVE leak...?

Caste card, minority card, creed card, celebrity card, race card... what's the difference? The overview of justice is befuddled when human beings project themselves as belonging to a special group needing separate standards of evaluation and concessions. In the end, all it will do is simply bring India closer to a civil war. Methinks there *needs* to be a Bhaarat- manthan.

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