The less privileged survivors of the 1993 Mumbai riots should not be deprived of justice on the grounds that old wounds will be reopened

It is 20 years since two cataclysmic events shook Bombay now Mumbai. If there is recollection now of the first — the communal carnage spread over two months and which killed over 900 people — it is called the reopening old wounds. On the other hand, if you speak about the second, the serial blasts of March 12, 1993, it’s about terror coming home to the city and claiming innocent lives.

Even the State makes a clear demarcation — a judicial commission of inquiry for communal riots, and a designated court under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) for a terror strike. While the judicial commission’s recommendations are not binding on the government, a designated or special court has complete legal sanction. When carnage in Bombay post the Babri Masjid demolition had somewhat abated, then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao constituted a judicial commission of inquiry. It was to probe the over two-month long violence on January 25, 1993, one and a half months before the city would be shaken and stirred by a series of bomb blasts. While the judicial commission on riots headed by Justice B.N. Srikrishna was conducting its hearing, Maharashtra was claimed by a saffron coalition of the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The new government changed the terms of reference of the Srikrishna inquiry to probe the circumstances and the immediate causes of the serial bomb blasts. Then, all of a sudden, on January 23, 1996, the State government disbanded the commission of inquiry on the grounds that it was taking too much time and that it would reopen old wounds. Finally, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee intervened to revive the commission by May 1996. For five years, the commission examined 2,125 affidavits, recorded 502 testimonies and gathered 9,655 pages of evidence and 2,903 documents. Twenty-six police stations were covered by the commission but its report was rejected by the State government which said it was biased.

Commission’s stance

The Srikrishna Commission says that the Shiv Sena-BJP government desired that it go into certain aspects of the serial bomb blasts which occurred on March 12, 1993 and expanded its terms of reference which included finding out the circumstances and the immediate causes of the incidents, commonly known as the serial bomb blasts, whether the riots and the blasts were linked, and whether they were part of a common design.

In its final report, the commission said the riots appeared to have been a causative factor for the bomb blasts. “There is no material placed before the commission indicating that the riots during December 1992 and January 1993 and the serial blasts were a part of a common design. In fact this situation has been accepted by Mahesh Narain Singh who was heading the team of investigators into the serial bomb blasts case. He also emphasizes that the serial bomb blasts were a reaction to the totality of events at Ayodhya and Bombay in December 1992 and January 1993 and the commission is inclined to agree with him.”

Recurrent theme

While rejecting the Commission’s report, the government berated it for not paying enough attention to the blasts while devoting over 600 pages to the riots. With these words, the Shiv Sena-BJP had laid the foundation for erasing the memory of the riots and layering it with a sharp and unforgettable image of the serial blasts.

The theme of reopening old wounds recurred again in a High Court judgment which acquitted the late Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray, in 2007 after the State government appealed in two cases of acquittals of Mr. Thackeray by lower courts. The High Court observed that no ends of justice would be served by digging up the old cases after the expiry of seven years and that they would only revive communal tension. Time has already passed. In a review of these circumstances, it is difficult to find fault with the impugned order passed by the additional chief metropolitan magistrate terminating the proceedings in the two cases, the High Court said.

By 2007, after the designated TADA court sentenced 100 people for their roles in the March 12 serial bomb blasts case, there was uproar from civil rights groups and riot victims. The State government agreed to set up four special courts to expedite 16 of the 253 pending cases. Many important pending cases were not dealt with by these courts though some convictions were handed out. While both the Congress and its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), promised to implement the Srikrishna Commission report in their election manifesto, they did nothing. When special courts were being set up to speed up old riot cases, there was a chorus that this would reopen old wounds.

Yet, when the Supreme Court disposed of appeals by death row convicts and actor Sanjay Dutt in the March 12, 1993 serial blasts case on March 21, 2013, everyone revelled in the reopening of those old wounds. Bollywood was dismayed, people spoke in one voice saying that poor Sanjay Dutt must be forgiven. Hadn’t he spread Mahatma’s Gandhi’s ideals. For people convicted under TADA for disposing of Dutt’s weapons or storing them, there was no reprieve. While they were convicted and sentenced for an act of terror, Dutt got away unstained by the terror tag and with a sentence commuted to five years under the Arms Act. If that didn’t reopen old wounds for his co-accused in the case, nothing will. People also recalled fondly how Dutt’s father, the late Congress leader, Sunil Dutt, had to beseech Bal Thackeray to intervene so that the courts could grant his Sanjay bail after a stint in jail.

The survivors of the riots continue to despair. They can’t even get cases registered against culprits if they happen to be policemen. The Special Investigation Team, formed soon after the riots, closed more cases than it reopened. They have to approach the High Court for registering first information reports or demanding Central Bureau of Investigation inquiries. They have no choice but to reopen old wounds.

meena.menon@thehindu.co.in

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