At least once a week, a visit to the open market is a must. For, it’s therapeutic “to dissolve into the crowd” with all that noise, grind and muck, says Maharashtra special public prosecutor Rohini Salian as her car inches slowly through the late night Colaba crowd. Sitting in the front seat, an old habit that allows her to “decide the path and have complete control over the driver”, Salian is waiting for the NIA’s next move.
On Thursday, a day after Salian told The Indian Express that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had told her to “go soft” on the accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, and 20 hours after the NIA issued a denial, she says the noise needed to grow louder. “It was time to expose. It was suffocating,” she says of her coming-out-of-the-closet moment.
Salian had said that soon after the NDA government came to power last year, she got a call from one of the NIA officers, asking to come over to speak with her. “He didn’t want to talk over the phone. He came and said to me that there is a message that I should go soft,” she had told The Indian Express.
Since the news broke, Salian has kept aside her small phone, an older Samsung model stuffed into a knitted black-and-white pouch. Journalists, former jurists, police personnel, family and friends and a few politicians have been calling, texting her. She hasn’t been responding. She says it’s a “small price” you pay when you chose to stand up. “It’s crossed hundred, both calls and messages. I do not have anything new to say,” she says.
When Salian rang the alarm bell with her charge against the NIA, it was hard not to sit up. For, this is a woman who has built a formidable reputation over three decades of legal practice, handling a number of cases as chief public prosecutor for the state of Maharashtra. Her accusation now casts a shadow over other ‘Hindu terror’ cases handled by the NIA – the 2006 Malegaon blasts case, the Samjhauta case of 2007, the 2007 Mecca Masjid and Ajmer Sharif blast and the 2008 Modasa blast.
In 2008, days after a laptop was seized from Sudhakar Dwivedi, now an accused in the Malegaon blast case of that year, Hemant Karkare called Salian. That call, she says, changed everything.
By then, she had resigned from the prosecution post and told Karkare she was fed up of “bogus cases” and wanted to argue from the defence side. He heard her completely, before he threw the googly. “’This is a true case, a Hindu terror blast,’ he told me,” she says.
By the time she finished looking at the papers – transcripts from the laptop, along with statements of a few other accused – it was post midnight and she says she was shaken. “I had a mindset like any other. Till that night, for me, all blasts are committed by Muslims. I felt I had been behaving like a goat – just eating what I was fed. I never once stopped to question,” she says.
The papers spoke of a Hindu Rashtra, of the need to go back to the time when India’s borders as Hindoostan spread far and wide. “I thought were they hallucinating. Every other blast (Samjhauta, Mecca Masjid, Ajmer blast, etc. for which Muslims had been blamed) was there inside those papers, with funding trails from outside, inside statements of witnesses from the few camps…”
Months later, she would stand in the High Court, as Special Public Prosecutor, and argue against Lt-Colonel Prasad Purohit’s bail. Purohit, who is alleged to have been involved in the Malegaon 2008 blast conspiracy, was also being questioned for the Malegaon 2006 blast.
Salian recalls that during the last stages of the NIA’s Malegaon 2006 probe, the officers had come with an opinion sheet along with the chargesheet. The opinion was that the first lot had been wrongly arrested.
“I went through the entire chargesheet. I advised them that it was a mistake on the part of one agency, so you have to do justice. You cannot combine both (ATS and NIA chargesheets, both with different sets of accused) and try together, because the stories are totally different. It will be difficult for the judge to discharge them… But the prosecutor has the power to do it by convincing the court. It is that power they were worried about. It is that seat they asked to go soft,” says Salian.
Salian says that in a deeply polarised society, she is prepared for the monikers that follow. “They do not know my background. There is a difference between being political and being a nationalist,” she says. Salian was born in 1947 – she says there is a “certain charm” in being an Independence year born – in Mangalore, Karnataka, where her father Mangalore Jarappa ran a daily named Swadesh Abhimani.
“The pages of my father’s newspaper spoke of nationalism and pride, of one free country. Imagine my situation when I had to read the wordings of Abhinav Bharat and a separate constitution,” she says.
As a young convent-educated girl, Salian recalls coming home and telling her mother that she finds more peace in churches. “Other parents would stop, but not mine,” she says. “Our father brought all sorts of scriptures of Hindus. We were brought up reading those. So no one can influence me,” she says.
That’s something her contemporaries vouch for – some of her biggest admirers are defence counsel, whom she has taken on in her years as public prosecutor. “If she is convinced about something, she goes all out to establish it,” says High Court advocate Niranjan Mundargi who has fought against Salian in the Suppression of Unlawful Act against Safety of Civil Aviation case of 1999.
Senior criminal lawyer Majeed Memon, who has opposed Salian in several cases, including the Bharat Shah case, says, “She always works hard on her brief. There is no doubt about that. Her statement, if true, has very serious repercussions. The only solution is this case is that it has to be probed by some independent agency.”
On Thursday, as she sat cross-legged inside court room 55 waiting to examine two witnesses in the Mulund blast trial, she said, “Justice needs to be seen being delivered. The narrative cannot be Hindu or Muslim. It can only be go after the accused. Go after the ACCUSED.”
Writing for The Indian Express, former Mumbai police commissioner Julio Ribeiro had said, “Salian is one public prosecutor who can be equated to (Hemant) Karkare, albeit in a parallel arm of the judicial process. As Karkare was to probity in investigations, Rohini is to probity in prosecution. She sticks to the truth and to her duty. In her, the powerful people who want to scuttle the case for ideological reasons have caught a Tartar.”
In the legal corridors, many did not want to comment on Salian or her recent statement. “She is just average,” said one. Some even called it a “publicity gimmick”.
But there were some who thought she should have come out with these revelations earlier. “She should have said this when it had happened. The delay is fatal,” says advocate Pradeep Gharat, known for securing a conviction in the 2002 Salman Khan hit-and-run trial.
Or, as senior counsel Nitin Pradhan, who addresses Salian as a “painstaking” prosecutor, says, that as a representative of the state, she shouldn’t have said what she did. “If the prosecuting agency felt there wasn’t enough evidence, they are entitled to say that,” he says.
Salian, who began her legal career in 1982, says she has heard it all. “I am completely 68. I do not need glory. I am beyond that,” she retorts, adding she was a weakling earlier. “Much has changed. They would later call me bhai log me behan (mafia slang for a sister among brothers). They even called me terrorist,” she says.
Talking of her first day in court, Salian says she was sent to a small causes court, with a brief to take a date in a civil matter. Nervous, she went across to the plaintiff’s senior counsel and said in a meek voice, “Sir, I have come on behalf of the senior advocate from the defendant’s side. He has asked me to request you for a date.” The “budda”, she says, “grinned at me and said, I do not mind having a date with you.” A flustered Salian wanted to run, when the judge walked in and rejected her submission for a later date.
After years of working as a junior lawyer with Additional Public Prosecutor Ganesh Shanbaug, Salian moved to other cases, but never worked under anyone again. Eventually, three years after fighting for the defence side, judges recommended her to be a member of the Legal Aid panel. “It’s given to those who don’t have anyone,” she smiles, adding that it was the toughest time of her life. “I had to extract truth from robbers,” she says.
Then came a case that made her stand taller than the men in the room. Eight men were accused of 33 robberies and she was made the legal aid of one of them. “The trial went on for 365 days and I got a pay of Rs 450. Others got convicted, mine got an acquittal. I became famous. ‘Go to that girl’, the accused would tell each other. ‘Legal Aid hai, shendi maar usko (dupe her, she is the Legal Aid, so no need to pay)’,” she says, laughing.
It was then that she became a familiar name in the court of J N Patel, who later called her to defend the state’s first TADA accused, a Palestinian who had swum the seas to reach India with a semi-automatic Uzi pistol, which, in a case of mistaken identity, he would use to fire at the Italian crew of the Alitalia airline. “I had never seen a Uzi pistol. The Bombay police hadn’t either. We had to research in ballistics for weeks,” she says.
Having been the defence counsel for 10 years, it was in 1992-93, after the Mumbai terror blasts, that Salian saw herself on the prosecution bench, after a colleague made an application on her behalf. Here too, she proved to be a tough one, even “pressuring the defence team outside court”, as senior counsel RN Mishra, who was pitted against Salian in the Ghatkopar blast case of 2002 and who have been “best friends” for 25 years, says. Recalling an incident from the days during that trial, Mishra says, “When the arguments, evidence and everything was done and kept for the judgment in the case, Salian one day came and told me that there was an angry mob marching towards the court from Azad Maidan and that they were protesting against the blast accused. And then she said, ‘I am just saying this to pressurise you’, and left,” Mishra says, laughing uncontrollably. Of course, the mob never came that day.
The turning point in Salian’s career came during the JJ Hospital shootout trial, where she had to interact closely with the underworld. While she has handled over dozens of underworld files since, it’s this trial, she says, that changed the way she looked at terror.
After two gangsters of Arun Gawli were targeted inside JJ Hospital in a revenge killing, it was Salian who argued against bail for the accused in the lower courts. Inside the courtroom, then Mumbai police commissioner Ronnie Mendonza would ensure Salian was in by 9, much before the gangsters were moved in.
Twenty-six men — Dawood men and those from the breakaway Subash Thakur gang – would be marched in everyday for the trial. “Aiyyo Rama, those horrible days… Dawood’s men, Chotta Shakeel’s men… And I used to sit with a tiny tiffin box in middle of all of them, inside court,” she says.
Of the 27 accused, eight who were released on bail were killed in separate shootouts. “One day, two accused walked up to me to say that they got bail, but they aren’t safe outside. I told them to jump out of the window… what else?”
She says that life has come full circle. With the Mulund blast trial in progress, she says she just wants to concentrate on the current set of accused. “I cannot take up any more of the NIA matters on principle, unless a fresh case is made.” She says she wants out.
“I am waiting to get back to my normal life now. I love to cook,” she says. “Not stories. But excellent biryani. I only make them inside my kitchen!”
If you see my record, all favourable orders for the state. Hardly any gone against, except for these few bail applications… So the meaning very clearly was, don’t get us favourable orders. Unfavourable orders invited — that goes against society. I have a reputation; it’s not my baap ka raj. It’s an onerous duty.
I want to come out clean. I don’t want any pressure. I have no inclination towards any party, any politician. I am a pucca Hindu. Hindu means what? You should be straight, not have bias against anyone — Hindus, anyone who commits an offence, is an offender. I am now in the midst of the Mulund blast – three matters clubbed together and 141 witnesses (examination) now over — in that, all are Muslims. Same with the Ghatkopar blasts.
I told the officers, one thing we are going to do — not a single drop more or less — we have to be very impartial in the chargesheet
Hemant Karkare said, “No madam, you go through the papers.” His voice was shaking and he sounded very disturbed. Then I heard that the accused were all Hindus and I was surprised… From morning to evening I read the papers. I was shocked. I started crying and got emotionally upset. In that matter I also got to know about Samjhauta and Modasa. I started to talk to Karkare and was with him till 7 pm on 26/11 after deciding on the next day’s meeting too.
On June 12, the same NIA officer came and said there are instructions from higher-ups; someone else will appear instead of you. I said very good — I was expecting this, was waiting for this, good you told me up front, please settle my bills. You brought the notification, I didn’t
ask, I did it all free.
— From her interview with The Indian Express published on June 25