Who's afraid of the riot report

The Shiv sena's reluctance to make the findings of the commision public means nothing but an admission of guilt

February 16, 1998: Justice B. N. Srikrishna of the Bombay High Court hands over his 700–page report on the Mumbai riots of 1992–93 to the government of Maharashtra.

February 18: Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister, Gopinath Munde, tells the press that the report “may” be made public “in a week’s time”. (From then until April 21, the government makes a string of excuses to delay release of the report).

April 22, 1998: (Two days before the close of the budget session of the state Assembly). Chief minister Manohar Joshi boldly declares in the state Assembly: “Everything that our party undertakes is done after due thought and, therefore, I have no regrets for my party’s role during the riots”. He also hints that there is no likelihood of the judge’s findings and the government’s obligatory Action Taken Report being placed before the state Assembly till the six months deadline ending on August 15, 1998.

May 1: A Shiv Sena delegation that includes senior leader and party spokesman, Subhash Desai, calls on Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the Raj Bhavan in Mumbai to demand that the Srikrishna Commission report on the Mumbai riots of December 1992 and January 1993 be shelved. Speaking to journalists after meeting the PM, Desai initially tries to make out that his party’s position was dictated by its concern that the making of the findings public would only open up old wounds, rekindle bitter memories and vitiate the communal atmosphere in the metropolis. Later, he blurts out that it was the party’s policy to shelve a report that “might be biased against the majority community.”

When contacted by the press, Uddhav Thackeray, nephew of the Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, goes a step further — he threatens an ‘andolan’ in the city against the report being made public.

May 2: Uddhav Thackeray, in an interview to The Times of India: “Actually, we are not afraid of any report. We did not start the riots. We only retaliated to protect our people. We are not ashamed of defending our people. In fact, we will retaliate even harder if anybody tries to create trouble again”.

If the Sena is so certain of its retaliation theory, why is it afraid of a judge possibly having concluded on the basis of the voluminous evidence on its record, that those most responsible for large–scale killing, arson and loot are the leaders and cadre of the Shiv Sena? Could the Sena’s guilty conscience be pricking it that much more sharply because Justice Srikrishna happens to be a mandir-going, devout Hindu whose day begins with a puja and who has no awkwardness wearing a tikka on his forehead whenever he occupies the judge’s chair in court?

Opposition parties and citizens as a whole are keen to know what Justice Srikrishna’s report has to say. It is evident that chief minister Manohar Joshi, ‘remote control chief minister’, Bal Thackeray, his nephew, Uddhav have read his report in full, know exactly what it contains and, therefore, do not want anyone else to know. The Sena’s desperate bid to keep the report under wraps can only mean that, one, the Commission has nailed the Sena lie that the pogrom against Mumbai’s Muslims, directed by none less than the Sena supremo himself, was a mere act of “retaliation” in defence of “our people”; and, two, not just the cadre, but even some top leaders (Thackeray included?) have been severely indicted. Given the voluminous and damning evidence placed before the Commission, neither should be very surprising:

The pages of Sena mouthpiece, the Saamna, were used by its editor Bal Thackeray, everyday since October 1992 to incite communal hatred. Finally, in January 1993, came the supremo’s open exhortation to Sainiks to “teach Muslims a lesson.”

Despite repeated threats to his person, Yuvraj, a young reporter from the Marathi eveninger, Mahanagar told the Commission that he was personally witness to a telephonic conversation between Thackeray and his senior functionaries. As part of his journalistic duty, Yuvraj had gone to interview Thackeray. He told the Commission that he had clearly heard Thackeray giving directions on the phone that Muslims should be targeted, attacked and killed.

Evidence on the Commission’s record shows the involvement of sainiks — from shakha pramukhs, to municipal corporators, sitting MLAs and MPs — in the violence. During his second round of testimony on September 24, 1996, before Justice Srikrishna, Sena MP Madhukar Sarpotdar, said in open court that his party believed in the theory of violent “retaliation.” He justified the pogrom against Bombay’s Muslims in January 1993 as “retaliation” for two incidents of January 6 and 7, 1993 in which a few Hindus were killed.

Sarpotdar claimed that the burning of a Hindu family inside a hut in Jogeshwari and the killing of two mathadi workers in south Bombay was part of a larger Muslim plot to target Hindus after December 6, 1992. “Against this background, retaliation, even in areas far way from Jogeshwari was “justified.” While admitting that this amounted to taking law into one’s own hand, Sarpotdar said, “it was only natural.” To make sure he was hearing what he was hearing, Justice Srikrishna himself asked Sarpotdar during the course of the Commission’s hearings: “Does this theory of retaliation hold good for your party as well?” “Yes”, the Sena leader had replied.

Sarpotdar, a senior SS leader and an MP since 1991, was one of the crucial SS witnesses before the Commission of inquiry, particularly considering widespread allegations of his direct involvement, with implicit support from the local police station, in violent attacks in many parts of Bandra east, both in December 1992 and in January 1993.

Sarpotdar has been cited as the one of the main instigators of violence in the Nirmal Nagar and Kherwadi areas of Bandra (east) by witnesses including police officers. Sarpotdar and Ashok Shinde, the local SS shakha pramukh, led a 500-strong mob towards Bharatnagar on December 8, 1992. Instead of dispersing the mob, the local police (names have been cited by witnesses) fired in the direction of Bharatnagar killing 2–3 persons. Thereafter, police entered homes and fired inside them.

Sarpotdar and other Shiv Sainiks made inflammatory speeches on December 27, 1992 in the presence of policemen, some of whom subsequently joined in the ceremony to re-install the Ganesh idol allegedly destroyed by Muslims on December 6,1992.

Sarpotdar addressed a public meeting at 4 p.m. on January 12, 1993 just outside the Nirmal Nagar police station and exhorted the mob not to leave a single Muslim home in the area intact. Policemen on duty applauded. Mobs thereafter entered a neighbouring housing complex, looted and burnt property and stabbed many people. Sarpotdar was arrested for the illegal possession of arms by Major Goswami of the Indian army on January 11. On his release from custody by the Mumbai police, after pressure was successfully brought to bear on the local police station by Shiv Sainiks, there were again many at tacks on Muslims.

Kalidas Kolamkar, a Shiv Sainik and then a municipal corporator, led a drunken mob to kill Muslims, loot and burn their homes and establishments in the Wadala and Pratiksha-nagar areas in central Mumbai. He is today a sitting MLA of the Shiv Sena, having won in the March 1995 Assembly elections.

The daughter of a customs officer, a Marathi-speaking Hindu married to a Muslim who deposed before the Commission in shudh Marathi, testified that Kolamkar personally led his drunken men into Muslim areas. She had to hide her husband in a trunk and face humiliating threats from the Sena leader: “We’ll make an example out of you for marrying a Muslim. We’ll find another husband for you,” she was told.

Police brutality and complicity with marauding Shiv Sainiks in several parts of Mumbai was another shameful fact of the Bombay violence both in December 1992 and January 1993. This was evident from police records and the testimonies of police officials before the Commission.

Deposing before the Commission in early January 1997, the then additional commissioner of police, V.N. Deshmukh (now with the IB) stated on record that “eight out of ten policemen believe that Muslims are more prone to violence.” Explaining this disturbing phenomenon before the judge, Deshmukh said that this was an attitude he had noticed emerging within the police force over the last decade.

Deshmukh’s testimony proved to be the latest confirmation of the deep level of communal bias in policemen. In December 1992 and January 1993, this bias resulted in large-scale murder and arson on the streets of Mumbai. Police bias manifested itself in many ways — inaction against provocative mobilisation for violence by Hindu communal parties whether it was in the ghantanaad (temple bell ringing) celebrations, or the mahaartis that in fact were launching pads for brutal attacks on the minority, non-registration of complaints of victims, participation in looting and arson, summary release of SS aggressors whether they were guilty of murder or arson and, finally, winding up investigation of incidents of violence for spurious reasons.

This writer, then with Business India, tapped police wireless messages in many parts of Mumbai in January 1993 (CC, March 1998). The tapes and the police’s own original recordings of these messages have been examined by the judge during his inquiry. They are part of the crucial testimony to the deep–rooted communal bias in sections of the Mumbai police.

The SS–BJP alliance in Maharashtra, with a BJP government at the Centre, is doing everything in its power to bury the report. The ultimate threat issued by Bal Thackeray is familiar: arrest me and Mumbai will burn. Two years ago, in January 1996, the SS–BJP combine in the state, uncomfortable with the kind of evidence that was being recorded, summarily scrapped the Commission in the midst of its recording some very incriminating evidence.

The Commission’s report, it appears certain from the reaction of the Sena leadership, has exploded the myth that the orchestrated violence against Muslims in Mumbai was a retaliatory act. The evidence recorded before the Commission had exposed, area by area, the systematic provocation and communal mobilisation by the SS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and BJP in many parts of Mumbai, for months before the mosque demolition in Ayodhya and the systematic targeting of the minority community that followed.

Any impartial perusal of the voluminous evidence before the Commission is enough to expose the insidious strategy of the Sena and the rest of the sangh parivar:

l Mobilisation for the kar seva since October 1992 in at least 18 police station areas of Mumbai during which provocative slogans against Muslims in general were hurled.

lGhantanaad ceremonies in many areas of the city three hours before the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992;

l Police complicity at the local level, allowing this to carry on unchecked; l The demolition of the Babri Masjid itself;

lLaunching of mahaartis (a joint programme of both the SS and the BJP locally, in Bombay) from December 26, 1992 as yet another technique to mobilise venom against the Muslim minority; l The January round of violence with brazen instances of police complicity; l The bomb blasts.

Clearly, the Shiv Sena’s reluctance to make the findings of the Commission public means nothing but an admission of guilt.

TEESTA SETALVAD

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