Twenty-Four Years After the Bombay Riots, a Continuing Sense of Injustice

Thousands of lives were destroyed forever, but barely anyone has been held accountable.

A day after the Babri Masjid was demolished on December 6, 1992, Razia Rehman Sheikh had planned to take her son Jabbar for a check up to a public hospital for his mental illness. She never got there. Years later she remembered the day with great clarity. That was when the riots broke out in Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1995). They waited at Kherwadi gate near Bandra for a long time. They saw a lot of bodies being taken away in hand carts. Jabbar was watching all this too. It was a while before he could be taken to hospital. Later, Jabbar developed a severe mental illness and had to be committed to an institution. Razia’s tragedy did not end there. One of her daughters who was about to be married, suddenly died one day.

Razia used to live in Razzak chawl in Behrampada and had many Hindu neighbours. Now most of them have sold their houses and left. She, too, unable to bear the trauma, moved across to a nearby slum at Naupada. Now her life is spent with the Mahila Shakti Mandal, a women’s group helping others in distress. And educating her daughters is her priority. Like Razia, many in Mumbai still feel the trauma of the riots, which tore the city’s secular fabric to shreds. While the city already had its ghettoes, the riots intensified the divide more than ever, forcing people to seek shelter with their own community.

There is little to remind us today, 24 years later, of the months of upheaval that wracked the city in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. No memorials exist for the over 1000 killed and the many missing. Only memories remain, indelibly and unhappily etched in the minds of survivors.

Sudarshan Bane, whose parents died along with four others in the Gandhi chawl incident in Jogeshwari on January 8, 1993, ekes out a living doing odd jobs. His sister Naina Bane was almost burnt to death but managed to escape. The Shiv Sena used the Gandhi chawl incident to whip up passions in the second phase of riots in January 1993, as the Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry has pointed out. Yet, the same party has practically ignored the Banes who were left to fend for themselves after their house burnt down. They lived with their Muslim neighbours in Jogeshwari for years but now it seems impossible they would ever do so again.

The sense of injustice and alienation after the riots of 1992-93 persists. The Supreme Court still has to give its final say on some cases related to the Mumbai riots. The petitioners include the Action Committee for the Implementation of the Srikrishna Commission report, the Mumbai Aman Committee and the Lawyers Legal Aid Committee. Lawyer Shakil Ahmed who filed one of the petitions in the Supreme Court in 2002 demanding the dismissal of 31 policemen indicted by the Srikrishna Commission for the riots, has little hope left that riot victims will get any justice. The exhaustive inquiry report by Justice Srikrishna is now a dusty relic.

Officially, 900 people were killed in the riots. Thousands fled the city in fear. Many never returned. Some of the people reported missing in those days have not yet been traced. In July 2007, there was an effort to revive the riot cases and implement the Srikrishna Commission report. The police registered 2267 cases during the riots. About 1371 cases were closed as “A Summary”, as true but undetected. First a Special Task Force (STF), formed in 2000 to act on the recommendations of the Srikrishna Commission report, reviewed these cases and later this was re-examined by a committee headed by the Maharashtra director-general of police. About 112 cases were re-investigated. Fresh charge sheets were filed in eight cases, according to the Maharashtra government affidavit to the Supreme Court on January 16, 2008. These were filed in response to the apex court order in August 2007 directing all petitioners to file a joint affidavit listing their grievances over the implementation of the Commission’s report.

Fifteen years after the riots, Shiv Sena leader and former MP Madhukar Sarpotdar was convicted under section 153 A of the Indian Penal Code on July 9, 2008 for his speeches during the riots. Sarpotdar, who passed away in 2010, was the first and only politician to have been handed out a year’s simple punishment and a fine of Rs 5000; he got immediate bail and never went to jail. The Srikrishna Commission listed 31 policemen actively participating in riots, communal incidents or incidents of looting, arson and so on. One of them was Ram Deo Tyagi, a former joint commissioner of police (crime), against whom victims fought a long drawn out case, which ended in his acquittal along with other policemen in the famous Suleiman Usman Bakery case by the high court in October 2009. Two years later, the Supreme Court upheld the acquittal.

According to the Maharashtra government’s affidavit to the Supreme Court, of the 31 policemen listed by the Commission, ten were punished after departmental inquiries, 11 were found not guilty and one died.

In 2007, then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh decided to create four special courts to try the 253 pending cases related to the riots. A total of 894 charge sheets were filed in the courts, according to official records. The government decided on August 22, 2007 to form a high-powered committee chaired by the additional chief secretary (home) to review the pending riot cases. The committee examined the pending cases and selected 16 to be expedited through the special courts besides reviving the 93 dormant cases. Some 41 absconding accused were arrested who were involved in 24 pending cases. In 539 cases of the riots, the accused have been acquitted or discharged. Of these, 379 were scrutinised and 50 identified for further action.

According to the figures from the home department, 202 cases were sent to the fast track courts. There were some convictions. Out of 173 missing persons, a total of 65 legal heirs were given Rs 2 lakh each and legal heirs of 49 persons were not traced, official records state.

The state government’s affidavit listed the nine cases filed against the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Saamna, as well as as those against the late Bal Thackeray and other party leaders. There is no mention of the state either reopening the cases or challenging the ones that resulted in acquittal. The police filed nine cases against Thackeray and Saamna for provocative writings. In four cases, no charges were framed, and Thackeray and the other accused were discharged on October 18, 1996. In two cases, Thackeray and others were acquitted on October 2, 1996. Three other cases have been closed.

Victims of the riots and their families are still running around for justice. Farukh Mapkar, both a victim and an accused in the riots, fought a long battle in the courts to get himself acquitted of all charges in 2009. On January 10, 1993, police firing in the Hari Masjid resulted in the death of seven persons and injuries to six, including Mapkar, but he was charged along with 50 others for rioting. After much wrangling, the CBI  investigated the matter, but it exonerated sub-inspector Nikhil Kapse who allegedly fired in the masjid. Mapkar had challenged the CBI report but some months ago, the sessions court accepted the agency’s report and closed the case. Now, Mapkar is all set to challenge the matter in the high court.

Tahir Wagle’s son Shahnawaz was killed by the police, an incident which the Srikrishna Commission referred to as “cold blooded  murder”. The police maintain that Shahnawaz was shot during rioting and a case to this effect was filed against him and 83 others at Byculla police station. After Wagle’s persistence, four inquiry reports by the police concluded Shahnawaz was not murdered but killed in police firing. The latest one in 2012 has also not believed the account of his sister Yasmin, the sole eyewitness to the incident, who says she saw the police shoot Shahnawaz in cold blood after dragging him out of  his home. The family has lost all hope of justice after the Bombay high court in January 2013 rejected a writ petition seeking justice, filed by Akhtari Tahir Hasan Wagle, Shahnawaz’s mother, after the state government filed an affidavit saying the matter was pending in the Supreme Court along with other cases.

For survivors of the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots, the final hope rests with the Supreme Court. But that hope is tinged with disappointment with the long delay.

Meena Menon is an independent journalist and author of Riots and After in Mumbai (Sage 2012).