In August, the Supreme Court (SC) announced the setting up of a high-level committee to check why 241 cases closed by the Delhi police after the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, remain closed even after another set of policemen re-examined them. Such committees have to report to the court that appointed them. Hence, if evidence still exists, the culprits of 1984 may well face trial.
Unfortunately, such hope has long been extinguished in families whose loved ones were similarly killed in Mumbai. The 1,358 closed cases of Mumbai’s 1992-93 riots account for 60 per cent of the total cases registered then. In Mumbai too, a special police team re-examined them, barely a decade after the incidents took place — not a long time, given our legal system. But this team reported to the Maharashtra government. The result? Just five of the cases were re-opened and all of them ended in acquittal.
Such a farcical exercise was not expected of this grandly-named Special Task Force. The STF comprised hand-picked police officers, supposed to be different from the Mumbai police, who had been indicted by a judicial commission for their pro-Shiv Sena, anti-Muslim conduct during the riots. The Justice B.N. Srikrishna Inquiry Report into the riots recorded that the Mumbai police closed many of these cases even though complainants had given names and sometimes, even addresses of the suspects.
Were these officers hauled up for their shoddy investigations? That would be expecting too much. The STF reported to Chhagan Bhujbal, former Shiv Sainik turned state home minister under a Congress-NCP government. Bhujbal set up the STF only to show the SC that the Srikrishna commission report was being implemented. An angry chief justice, A.S. Anand had demanded to know what action was being taken against those indicted by a sitting high court judge. That was the last meaningful intervention by the SC in the 1992-93 Mumbai riots matter.
Why have the riots that broke out in Mumbai after the Babri Masjid demolition been pushed to oblivion? Nine hundred persons died in violence which lasted more than a week in December 1992 and again in January 1993. The Justice Srikrishna Commission Report became the most publicised report of any inquiry commission, because the judge, without mincing words, indicted Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray.
Yet, the communal violence debate continues to focus only on Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002, using each episode as a weapon against the Congress and Narendra Modi respectively. The Mumbai riots, on the other hand, exposed both the Congress who ruled the state and the Shiv Sena, which was responsible for the violence, specially in January. Bit difficult then to lay the blame on one door. And if you can’t use them politically, why mention communal riots at all?
But there’s another reason why the Mumbai’s riots are rarely mentioned. More than the Congress and the Shiv Sena, it was the Mumbai police that was exposed. The Srikrishna commission indicted 31 policemen for crimes ranging from murder to rioting to shielding rioters. Twenty-four years later, just two cases against the policemen, filed under judicial pressure, are alive. The “secular’’ Congress-NCP government that ruled between 1999-2014 made sure the other cops went scot-free.
Although overwhelming evidence exists against the policemen in these two cases, one officer was exonerated by the CBI. The cases meander from court to court. Investigating officers reluctant to get their colleagues into trouble, occasionally show up. Bored public prosecutors barely glance at the tattered files. And no one’s present in court to exert public pressure.
Delhi’s Sikhs have been helped not just by untiring lawyers but also by human rights groups and powerful community organisations. In Gujarat, the violence was televised and shook the entire country, prompting a number of NGOs to intervene, who then roped in the NHRC and the SC.
Mumbai’s victims have always had only a small band of activists and lawyers. But as cases were deliberately prolonged, only a few stayed on for the tedious job of attending courts, supporting vulnerable victims and witnesses, assisting lawyers fighting for free. Ultimately, they were just not enough to take on a state determined to protect its own.