Mumbai: On February 13, when Mohammed Farooq Mohammed Fazil Shaikh took the witness stand in Mumbai’s sessions court, he claimed that the police had recorded his statement incorrectly. He was deposing as an independent (panch) witness in a 26-year-old case of police firing.
On January 9, 1993, police opened fire on Suleman Usman bakery in south Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road area, killing nine Muslim men. Eighteen policemen, including the then joint commissioner of police R.D. Tyagi, were named as the prime accused.
But, as the case has finally come up for trial, only seven people remain accused. Nine of the 18, including Tyagi, have been discharged from the case by the trial court and two policemen have died since.
The case has been moving at a snail’s pace ever since, and has been hampered by many obstacles along the way – like the suspicious disappearance of the police diary.
When the proceedings finally began, Shaikh was the first witness to be called to the stand.
To every question posed by the prosecution, Shaikh furnished a standard response: that he had never entered the bakery. “I only signed where the police asked me to sign,” he told the court. Sixty-year-old Shaikh runs a chappal (slipper) shop in the Mohammed Ali road area of south Mumbai.
The Suleman Usman bakery case
The Suleman Usman bakery firing was perhaps one of the deadliest incidents of the 1992-1993 riots, severely denting the secular identity of the state. Back then, a judicial inquiry commission led by Justice (retd.) B.N. Srikrishna indicted the police for indiscriminately firing on the Muslim youth who had gathered to offer namaz. The policemen claimed that several “armed terrorists” were holed up in the masjid above the bakery, from where they were hurling bombs at the police.
The commission found these claims to be false and stated that the police was not provoked to resort to opening fire. At first, the commission’s findings were not accepted by the state government. Eventually, after much back and forth, the Special Task Force set up by the government in 2000 booked 18 policemen under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code for murder. Of them, seven are facing trial at present.
The struggle to bring this case before the court has been immense. It was essentially due to the efforts of human rights activists and some riot victims, that the case even reached trial stage.
Shaikh’s hostility in court was not surprising. Several witnesses this reporter reached out to expressed an unwillingness to pursue the case anymore. They see no point in putting themselves in a situation where they have to face the court and the police all over again.
“We have tried it all. There is no point in reliving all that we had endured in 1992-93 again. The main people have already been let off scot free. One [referring to Tyagi] even went on to become the commissioner,” said a garment retailer, who is also one of the witnesses in the case.
In 26 years, even locals have lost hope for justice. The Suleman Usman bakery firing case was once the fulcrum around which the movement for justice for the riot victims was organised. But today, most residents of the area have put the whole incident behind them. Hardly anyone was willing to talk to this reporter.
“Those who fought for justice are either too old today or deceased. The second generation knew justice would never be done, so they never got themselves involved in the struggle,” says Sheeraz Masood, whose father Fazal Ahmed Shad was at the forefront of the fight to bring the accused to book.
Masood’s family runs Universal Book Depot – a store that sells the Quran and other Islamic religious books, right opposite the bakery. “My father is over 80 now. He is too old and tired. His saathis [friends] have all died,” Masood added.
Maulana Noorul Huda, one of the victims of the incident and also the one who challenged the accused at every stage of the case, died in 2012. “He was a Maulana at the adjoining Masjid. He was injured severely in the firing. But he continued to fight the police until his death. With his death, the case, too, took a back seat,” said Farooq Mapkar, a social activist and also a victim of police firing in another incident in Hari Masjid at Sewri, central Mumbai.
A sessions court in Mumbai – designated to conduct the trial in the riot case – was scheduled to examine the next witness on March 1. But when the witness- assistant sub inspector Amrut Shekappa Ingle appeared to testify, the prosecution informed the court that the original log book – containing details of calls made by cops through wireless units at the time of the incident – could not be traced.
Judge U.M. Padwad then issued a notice to the senior police inspector of Pydhonie police station and the deputy commissioner of police (STF) to ascertain the whereabouts of the documents which would have been crucial to establishing the claims made by the investigating team.
The log book would have provided the chronology of the incident and the exchanges made between the policemen at the bakery, those at the control room and the police station.
The case has been adjourned until March 11.
Along with missing documents, another major challenge, says one of the investigating officers, is to ensure witnesses turn up before the court and stick to their statements. “It is a 26-year-old case and the investigation was carried out in 2001, a decade after the incident. So many years have passed by, and most witnesses don’t want to be associated with the case anymore,” the officer said.
On January 9, 1993, the police had claimed that “terrorists with sten- guns” were holed up in the roof- top of the bakery. The police had claimed that bullets were being fired at them by over 100 of them hiding there. The police killed nine and had arrested 78 persons from the area claiming they were all involved in the attack. Most of them were migrants from Uttar Pradesh.
This was the second phase of the riots that engulfed the city killing close to 900persons and leaving over 2000 severely injured in the riots. The first phase was triggered on December 6, 1992, soon after the demolition of Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh and lasted for over 10 days. The second phase was triggered in the first week on January 1993. Between the two phases, several stray incidents of attacks were recorded.
The police, however, were not able to back such a serious claim with any evidence. Later when the policemen appeared before the state- appointed Justice Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry, it became clear that the police had made a false claim.
The commission had observed that, “The police were very much influenced by the floating exaggerated rumours of attacks from sophisticated firearms, and the consequent fear psychosis, which caused them to shoot to kill… The evidence on record in no way bears out the police story that there were terrorists, much less with deadly arms; nor does the evidence suggest that it was necessary for the police to carry out such extensive firing as they did.”
The commission’s report had further stated: “This is one incident where the police appeared to be utterly trigger-happy and used force utterly disproportionate to meet the apprehensions of private firing, assuming there was one. The responsibility for this incident must squarely fall on Joint Commissioner of Police, R.D.Tyagi, who was overall in-charge of the operations at the Suleman Bakery…”
The 78 Muslims who were booked by the police in a fake case were later discharged by the Bombay High Court in 2011 with an observation that: “Nothing can be more frightening than … when the protector becomes the predator.”
Even after such serious indictment and despite the evidence presented, Tyagi, was discharged from the case in 2003. At the time, the additional sessions judge Pradeep Bavkar had observed that since only seven of the 18 policemen had actually fired at the victims, only they should face the trial. This decision was upheld even by the Supreme Court in 2011. Tyagi later went to become the city’s police commissioner.
“Those who were the masterminds of the attack have already been let out free. The government, be it the Congress or the BJP, have both let us down. How does it matter now who deposes before the court and who does not?” asks Masood, dejectedly.