Alok Churiwala was just 24 years old when a bomb ripped through the Bombay Stock Exchange building in Fort in the southern part of Mumbai, alongside other spots, in March 1993. Another stockbroker, Kirit Ajmera, was in his 30s when the bombs went off. He has since had over 40 surgeries, but 200 shards are still lodged in his body. Tushar Deshmukh’s mother was killed in the serial blasts; he was just 13 years old.
For these three victims and the families of many others killed or injured in this terror attack, as well as the investigators who have followed these cases for years, what really hurts is the long wait to achieve closure.
From 1993 to 2006-07, 123 people were prosecuted before a special TADA Court, at the end of which two of the main accused – Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon — are still out of reach of the Indian agencies. Imagine the challenges of testifying over two decades, keeping key witnesses mothballed to protect them from threats and transporting them each time to court even as the long trial rolled on with multiple appeals.
The judge who has overseen India’s longest running trial, P D Kode, who convicted as many as a hundred people, says there isn’t much more that can be done to ensure speedier justice. In his view, the trial had to be carried out in such a manner that the faith of the accused in the legal system would not be eroded in any way.
But it is a reflection of the same system that for over four years, all evidence was being recorded on a typewriter — before switching to a computer a decade ago. Add to that the late realisation that one of the main conspirators in the case, Abu Salem, may escape the death penalty because of a sovereign assurance given by the government to Portugal, from where Salem was extradited in 2005, that he would not be hanged for any crime. This is because Portugal is against the death penalty and that was the only condition on which it gave him up to India.
Similarily, it took a decade for the Special Court to sentence five persons to death and 70 others to life term imprisonment for their role in the 2006 serial train blasts again in Mumbai, in which 189 people were killed and hundreds others injured.
This is in sharp contrast with the judicial system in several Western countries, several of which are now struggling to combat terrorism.
Indian authorities say they desperately need a counter-terrorism legal framework with a cadre of judges and prosecutors. Importantly, all such terror cases are tried only in Paris. In India, on the other hand, multiple agencies and police forces across states independently probe modules, for example of the Indian Mujahideen.
The Paris model held for many years in Europe, although the recent terror attacks across the European Union, including the latest terror strikes in London, indicate that the challenges have changed. At a counter-terrorism conference in Paris in February, a former Indian investigator pointed out that the threat from terror modules – which is conventional belief – is giving way to threats from “lone wolves.”
There are other worries too. While India’s co-operative federalism is being celebrated, especially as a higher share of tax proceeds are passed on to states and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is being readied to roll out, the near absence of a co-ordinated approach on handling threats from Maoists within and terror threats from without, severely hampers resolutions.
As for the 1993 Mumbai blasts, 24 years is a long, long time. Despite a much-acclaimed probe report authored by Justice B N Srikrishna, closure remains far away. It makes you wonder about that evocative phrase, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Terror module or lone wolf, the truth is that the judicial system is hardly reacting to the grief and suffering of ordinary people.