ON FEBRUARY 13, when the trial in Suleman Usman Bakery firing case finally began after 26 years, Mohammed Farooq Shaikh (57), the first panch witness examined in the sessions court, said that he does not remember anything. But days later, Shaikh, a shop owner selling footwear right outside Suleman Usman Bakery, said that if he had the necessary backing, he would have said all that he knew about January 9, 1993.
“Agar koi mazboot aadmi sar par hota, to apan fight bhi karte (If I had strong support, I would have fought),” he said, sitting in his tiny shop on Mohammed Ali Road, a few feet away from the bakery.
Following the Babri mosque demolition in 1992, riots were witnessed in Mumbai for five days in December 1992 and 15 days in January 1993. On January 9, 1993, amid curfew, a special operations squad of the police had opened fire on Suleman Usman Bakery, the Dar-ul-uloom Imdadiya madrasa located above it and an adjacent mosque, allegedly following a tip off that rioters were housed in the building.
Nine persons were killed and 12 injured in the incident. The police had claimed that they retaliated after being attacked by soda bottles and acid bulbs when they broke open the door of the bakery.
“People are scared to talk about it,” Shaikh said. “This is not a normal case. This is against the police. Who will want to get involved?”
Shaikh sold footwear outside the bakery when the 1992-93 riots had broken out. For two months, he said, he remained at home in Crawford Market with his wife and one-year-old son.
When the police opened fire at those inside the bakery and madrasa, Shaikh claimed that everyone knew that those killed were innocent. He personally knew the maulana, Abul Qasim, who was killed. “We would greet each other everyday whenever he walked in. He taught children here,” Shaikh said.
In 1998, judicial inquiry by the Justice B N Srikrishna Commission had indicted the police, finding its claims that soda bottles and acid bulbs were hurled at them, to which they retaliated, unsupported by evidence. But even after the commission report, no FIR was registered against police officers immediately. It was only in 2001 that a special task force registered a case under Section 302 (punishment for murder) of the IPC against 18 police officers, including former Mumbai commissioner Ram Deo Tyagi, who was a joint commissioner in 1993 and allegedly led the attack.
In 2001, after the FIR was lodged, Shaikh claimed that a police officer had paid him a visit to make him a panch witness. In his statement as panch witness, Shaikh had stated that he was called to the bakery by a local cleric and shown a spot near the chimney, where two bullet marks fired by the police were still visible.
“I was asked to sign documents. I signed without any question. I never thought I will be called to a court,” he said. The statement of another panch witness, Salman Khot, was also recorded but Khot did not appear before the court on February 13.
Pointing towards the door that the police allegedly broke while entering the bakery, Shaikh said: “We know nothing will come out of it. Everyone knows what happened here. The pressure is immense.”
His son, he added, has scolded him for becoming a panch witness. “Nobody wants to be associated with the riots.”