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Justice Still Eludes Victims of Alleged Police Violence During 1992 Bombay Riots

“I know I might not achieve much in the end, but I have come this far, I can’t give up now.”

Tahir Wagle (right) whose 17-year-old son Shahnawaz was killed in a police firing. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Tahir Wagle (right) whose 17-year-old son Shahnawaz was killed in a police firing. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Mumbai: Besides a handful of elderly people in the Khwaja Garib Nawaz complex in the Imambada region of South Mumbai, no one remembers the incident in which Abdul Wahab Khan was killed on January 8, 1992. A 47-year-old technician working with a private company in the city, Khan was killed in police firing. He was climbing the stairs to his house when a bullet fired by a police battalion struck his back and pierced through his heart. He died instantly.

But besides a record maintained at the state-run JJ hospital which gave “death due to firing” as the cause, Khan’s death has no other mention. Neither in the police records, nor in the judicial commission report – headed by Justice B. N. Srikrishna – that was set up to inquire into the 1992-93 riots. Hundreds were killed – the official figure is 900, but there could be more – and several others went missing. Khan was one of them. Since there was no public outrage over his death and no record, and neither was there any socio-legal support extended to his family, even 25 years after his death, his wife is unaware that she could have sought justice in a case where a civilian was killed in police firing. “Can someone really file a case against the police?” his wife Mumtaz asked.

Khan was one of two persons – both Muslim – killed in the Imambada firing. Another was a woman. Her story, too, is mostly unknown; some people recall she was the aunt of one Laala who lived in this area. The family moved out of Imambada soon after the incident.

Mumtaz has a clear memory of her husband’s death. “It was a Friday. Since curfew was imposed in the area, men had offered namaz at home. Suddenly, we heard some commotion and police firing at a distance. My husband and others ran down to ensure no kid was playing outside,” Mumtaz recalls. While others had managed to climb up the stairs, Khan, who was still on the stairs, was hit by a bullet. “Only one round was fired and it was on my husband’s chest.” Khan was declared dead on admission at JJ hospital.

Mumtaz, who is now in her 60s, says she had always wondered, “Why my husband?” But then she immediately adds, “What answer could I get when people everywhere are blinded with hatred,” she said. Mumtaz eked out a living from what was left of her slain husband’s humble savings and later with help from her parents. Her children, two daughters and two sons, are married today. Mumtaz says the family has tried very hard to move on. But the memory still haunts them. “My youngest daughter was only five at that time. My eldest son was in class 8. They had seen their father’s body with a big hole in the chest, lying lifeless in front of the house. How can they ever recover from that trauma? How could we ever forget the injustice done to us?”

Mumtaz says she has an idea who fired the bullet that killed Khan, but in the absence of any record, this name remains just “hearsay”.

But even where there is clarity on a death, there has been no justice. Even approaching the police and courts repeatedly over the last two-and-half-decades have not resulted in much. The sense of injustice and alienation after the riots of 1992-93 persists.

Material loss aside, even in cases where lives were lost, both the state and the judiciary could not deliver justice. “What happened to me on January 10, 1993 was horrible. But what followed was even worse,” said Farooq Mapkar, a peon in a private bank and one of the survivors of the riots. On January 10, 1993, police firing in the Hari Masjid in Wadala resulted in the death of seven persons and injuries to six, including Mapkar, who along with 50 others was charged with rioting. It took 17 years of court battle to finally get him exonerated in 2009. Mapkar had named Nikhil Kapse, the police sub-inspector, for allegedly firing at him and six others. But the CBI exonerated Kapse of all charges, claiming they didn’t find the victims’ testimony credible. They were not “neutral” witnesses, the CBI report claimed, because they had all been accused in the rioting case filed after the firing. The agency’s report was accepted by the sessions court.

Even 25 years after this incident, Mapkar is perhaps the only survivor who has kept the struggle for justice alive. Each time the state tried to shield Kapse, Mapkar tried to push back, trying different legal means to seek justice. “The government exonerated Kapse as many as three times. I appealed each time,” Mapkar said. He says even if the state had just stuck to facts and evidence that Justice Srikrishna had managed to gather, Kapse would have long been convicted. Justice Srikrishna had observed that “PSI Kapse showed brutal and inhuman behaviour as well as unjustified firing which killed six Muslims.”

Mapkar’s patience has slowly begun to wear thin. “I know I might not achieve much in the end,” he says, but adds that he feels responsible for his community and others affected in the riots. “I have come this far, I can’t give up now.” Mapkar is now waiting to challenge the sessions court order to exonerate Kapse before the high court.

Like Mapkar, a few more, mostly lawyers and human rights activists, have continued to knock at the doors of high courts and the Supreme Court from time to time to reopen cases lying dormant in files. Finally, in early 2007, the then UPA-led government decided to reopen about 112 of the 1,371 cases which were closed as ‘A’ summary, i.e. “true but undetected.” While the 1,371 cases included both, those against the Hindu mob and police officials involved in brutal killings, the reopened ones excluded those against the latter.

These reopened cases were reinvestigated under the supervision of a committee headed by the Maharashtra director general of police. Special courts – two magistrate and two sessions courts – were set up to exclusively run trials in riot cases. All 202 cases were sent to these special courts.

Very few people named as perpetrators in the violence, which went on for weeks in December 1992 and January 1993, were convicted for causing damage to public property and participating in mob violence. The special courts could only find one politician, Madhukar Sarpotdar, guilty of inciting mob violence with his speeches. Sarpotdar, a senior Shiv Sena leader and a former member of parliament was sentenced to one year of imprisonment along with a fine of Rs 5,000. He was granted bail immediately after the sentencing and five years later he died, without ever going to jail. Several others, including Shiv Sena shakha pramukhs and party activists who were accused for their direct roles in the riots were acquitted for “want of evidence”.

The riots broke in two phases. One, right after the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6, 1992 and lasting until December 12, 1992. After a brief phase of peace, with a few stray incidents of damage to public property, the second phase – and a much more intense one – broke on January 6, 1993 and went on till January 20, 1993. While the first phase saw active involvement of Hindu mobs led by Shiv Sena leaders and activists, the second phase saw a major role of police officials in the killing and brutal treatment of Muslims. The commission had observed: “The response of police to appeals from desperate victims, particularly Muslims, was cynical and utterly indifferent. On occasions, the response was that they were unable to leave the appointed post; on others, the attitude was that one Muslim killed was one Muslim less…Police officers and men, particularly at the junior level, appeared to have an in-built bias against the Muslims which was evident in their treatment of the suspected Muslims and Muslim victims of riots.”

The commission had further observed that: “The treatment given (to Muslims) was harsh and brutal and, on occasions, bordering on inhuman, hardly doing credit to the police. The bias of policemen was seen in the active connivance of police constables with the rioting Hindu mobs on occasions, with their adopting the role of passive on-lookers on occasions, and finally, in their lack of enthusiasm in registering offences against Hindus even when the accused were clearly identified and post haste classifying the cases in ‘A’ summary”. Justice Shrikrishna, whose report was never accepted, declined to be interviewed.

These decisions to reopen cases in 2007 were arbitrary, points out advocate Shakil Ahmed, who had closely examined the state and court proceedings right from the start. “In several cases the victim had identified the police and provided independent witnesses too. But the police had still closed them,” Shakil points out. One such case was of Tahir Wagle’s 17-year-old son Shahnawaz, who was killed in a police firing outside his house in Dockyard road area. The Srikrishna Commission referred to his killing as “cold blooded murder”, but four different inquiries conducted on Wagle’s persistence concluded that Shahnawaz was killed during rioting. “My daughter Yasmin had seen my son getting killed. The police said she was a liar. A neighbour, a Hindu woman Shantha Gawli had told the police that she saw my child being shot and had identified the police. But the police did not take her statement in to consideration.” Wagle is still hoping that the petition pending before the Supreme Court would be revived some day and his son’s case would be taken up. “I live in that hope.”

Ahmed feels that more than the state, it the judiciary which made access to justice impossible. “Usually you will find the apex and high courts suo motu taking up cases as and when it sees grave injustice done to people. But in the riot cases, the courts shied from taking any responsibility. Victims who had lost everything, and left in abject poverty, were expected to run to Delhi (Supreme Court) for justice. Could there be any worse kind of travesty of justice than this?”