Last week’s jail sentence for two prominent Shiv Sainiks is historic as it upholds the first such conviction against a member of that party

Sent to jail for two months and fined Rs.5,000. Twenty years after their crime, this was the sentence handed down last week by a sessions court to two Shiv Sena leaders. This was for their provocative speeches during the Mumbai riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. One checked into a hospital while the other spent five days in jail, before the High Court admitted their appeal and released them on bail.

Yet we rejoice. Such has been the immunity from the law enjoyed by the Sena after its founder, Bal Thackeray, was imprisoned in 1969. The convicted aren’t mere foot soldiers. Jaywant Parab was a municipal corporator at the time, and now heads the party’s labour wing. Ashok Shinde was an up-vibhag pramukh, a post of some local responsibility. Had he been alive, the party’s former MP, Madhukar Sarpotdar, too would have been sent to jail. Indeed, this case gained fame only because Sarpotdar was one of the accused.

Largely ignored

But Sarpotdar didn’t get away entirely. This most high-profile riot accused died in 2010 a convicted man. Two years earlier, a magistrate had convicted Sarpotdar, Parab and Shinde under Section 153 A of the Indian Penal Code, but given them time to appeal. It was the appeal that was rejected on Saturday.

No protests followed, an indication of how distant the 1992-93 riots have grown for the Sena, now that the general who directed his soldiers to attack Muslims then is dead. The silence is also a comment on how the party treats those who loyally implemented its communal agenda. Surprisingly, the secular Congress, supposed to save us from Big Bad Modi, has also ignored this historic judgment.

The Sessions Court order is historic not only because it’s the first time Shiv Sainiks have been sent to jail for the riots, but also because it upholds the first conviction under Section 153 A, on hate speech, against any Shiv Sainik. Mumbai was more or less ruled for 46 years by a man whose every utterance violated Section 153 A. Yet, neither Bal Thackeray nor his followers were ever convicted for hate speech. Indeed, the Bombay High Court exonerated Thackeray for his writings during the riots, and the Supreme Court upheld that order.

Then, in 2008, Magistrate Rajeshwari Bapat Sarkar gave her judgment. Her order becomes more important if one compares it with the manner in which the offence itself had been treated until then. Indeed, this case is a perfect illustration of the attitude of the Congress, which makes tall claims about its Communal Violence Bill, towards crimes of communal hatred.

Between the two phases of violence, in December 1992 and January 1993, when the city was on edge, a massive procession was taken out by Sarpotdar, then an MLA. Though escorted by top policemen, neither did they seize the placards which declared that the Shiv Sena’s terror was the only guarantee of Hindus’ safety, nor did they silence the slogans that were so foul that even policemen refused to read them out in court.

Laxity

Though seven Shiv Sainiks and one Bharatiya Janata Party leader were charged in the case, no one was arrested. Filed and forgotten, charges were only framed eight years later, after which it sank into limbo. It resurfaced after another eight years in one of two special magistrates’ courts set up in 2008 to try the 1992-93 riot offences. These courts were set up to placate Muslims who were angry that while the verdicts in the March 12, 1993 bomb blasts case had been delivered, those behind the riots — the trigger for the bombings — had not been punished. True, 16 years after the riots, these courts would achieve nothing, and the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government did not even brief the Public Prosecutors on important cases. To the government, none of the cases was important enough. The indifference was simply a continuation of the laxity with which the riots themselves had been treated by the Congress. Under Sharad Pawar, who took over immediately after the riots, the Mumbai police single-mindedly pursued only the perpetrators of the March 12, 1993 bomb blasts.

But the two special courts broke all records by convicting 20 persons in six cases, including, for the first time, Hindu rioters.

The most famous conviction of course, was Sarpotdar’s. Sixteen years after the riots, an unknown magistrate ruled, for the first time in the State, that provocative speeches made by elected representatives, well aware that they would lead to violence, deserved punishment “to send the correct signal that wrong doing would be punished.” Forced to react, then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh promised to appoint a special PP to fight the appeal. He never did.

Five years later, a judge as unknown as the magistrate found nothing in the arguments of one of the city’s best criminal lawyers to fault that conviction. Pointing out that India was a secular country, Additional Sessions Judge Dilip Murumkar ruled that freedom of speech could not mean hurting the feelings of others.

(Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer.)

More In: Comment | Opinion