NATIONAL

A 10-year-old case and a volte face

HUBLI (KARNATAKA), AUG. 21. If the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Uma Bharti, and the Bharatiya Janata Party find themselves embroiled in a major political controversy over a pending criminal case in a Hubli court, they perhaps have only themselves to blame.

For, both Ms. Bharti and the BJP had been complacent over the implications of the pending criminal case, under which a non-bailable warrant (NBW) that had been repeatedly issued and remained unexecuted. A fresh NBW was issued in the first week of August by the Judicial Magistrate First Class II, Hubli, and this was in force when Ms. Bharti visited Bangalore the other day but apparently it was not served on her.

The Congress-led coalition State Government headed by Dharam Singh has tried to backtrack before the court on its earlier plea of withdrawing the case through a revision petition filed before the Additional District and Sessions Judge, Hubli. The action has opened a Pandora's box for Ms. Bharti and the BJP.

Flag-hoisting agitation

The case had its origin in the BJP-sponsored agitation in Hubli over the question of hoisting the national flag at Idgah Maidan, on Independence Day in 1994. Idgah maidan, an open place in the heart of Hubli, has been the subject matter of a prolonged dispute on the ownership, with the Karnataka High Court deciding that Muslims had been permitted to offer prayers on a few specified occasions. A Special Leave Petition filed by the Anjuman-e-Islam, Hubli is pending in the Supreme Court.

On August 15, 1994, the two-year-old BJP agitation for hoisting the flag reached a flashpoint, with the party announcing its intention to hoist the flag at the grounds. The then Congress Government under M. Veerappa Moily, determined to frustrate the BJP's attempts, clamped a curfew on the town. Police had closed the entry points to Hubli.

Ms. Bharti, however, entered the town outwitting the police. She led one of the contingents of volunteers marching towards the Idgah Maidan. She was intercepted at a place, about a kilometre from the venue, and was arrested along with others. Later, she was let off.

Six persons lost their lives in the police firing to quell the violence that erupted on the occasion. Five persons were killed on the first day while another persons died two days later.

Ms. Bharti was the main accused in the case in which charges under Sections 307 (attempt to murder) and 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house, etc.) of the Indian Penal Code were filed.

Ms. Bharti never appeared before the court initially or even seven years later when the S.M. Krishna Government decided in January 2002 to withdraw all the cases, including one against Ms. Bharti, filed in connection with the Idgah agitation in the public interest.

All other cases were gradually withdrawn, except the one pertaining to Ms. Bharti, Rajendra Gokhale, the State BJP secretary, and 20 others. Among those who got relief were Jagadish Shettar, the then Leader of the House in the State Legislature, and Pralhad Joshi. Later, Mr. Shettar scored his third successive win in the Assembly elections from Hubli rural while Mr. Joshi won the Dharwad North Lok Sabha seat.

Court's refusal

The prosecution tried in vain to get the Uma Bharti case withdrawn in July 2002 from the court of the Judicial Magistrate First Class II, Hubli. But in an order passed on July 11, 2002, the court declined to grant permission on the ground that it had no jurisdiction in the matter and that the offences mentioned therein could be tried only by a district sessions court. A reference was also made by the court to the continued failure of Ms. Bharti to appear before the court.

For the next two years, nothing happened. There was no sign of activity from the side of Ms. Bharti, who in the meantime had become Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister. The BJP in Karnataka took comfort and did nothing as the Government itself had volunteered to withdraw all the cases. Neither the Karnataka Government nor Ms. Bharti took any step to seek relief in getting the cases withdrawn. This delay has proved costly for Ms. Bharati.

For the first time, lawyers on behalf of Ms. Bharti appeared in the 10-year-old case on May 24, 2004 and got the NBW recalled. A week later, they preferred a revision petition in the Court of the District and Sessions Judge for getting the earlier orders of the Magistrate dated July 11, 2002 quashed and for getting the case against Ms. Bharti withdrawn.

Three weeks later, the Karnataka Government moved another revision petition, making a similar plea. Both had pleaded for the condonation of the delay [in filing the revision petitions] and had taken the stand that the petitions were not affected by limitation.

Surprise

But new developments started taking place soon. The Judicial Magistrate First Class II, Hubli issued a fresh NBW on August 3, along with orders for the attachment of the property [of Ms. Bharti]. On August 18, the prosecution sprang a surprise by backtracking on its earlier plea for withdrawal of the case against Ms. Bharti. The implication was clear: the Government did not want to withdraw the case. The widely held view is that had Ms. Bharti put in a personal appearance in the court, she would not have been in the mess she finds herself now in.

The volte face by the Congress-led Karnataka Government vis-�-vis the cases has been a matter of intense political speculation in the State. The Public Prosecutor was acting on "oral instructions" in making the latest plea, while the original Government order of July 2 on withdrawal of the Idgah cases remains unchanged. The prosecution has changed its stand, despite admitting in the earlier petition that it was not possible to prove the charges because "the crime had been committed by 5,000 to 6,000 workers who had formed an unlawful assembly."