|And justice for all 1|
Bombay, 1993. As the riots following the destruction of the Babri Masjid spread, Fathima, 30, a widow, feared for her two little children and sent them for safety to Parel. At about midnight, a group of men — including policemen — broke into her house. She was violently assaulted, beaten mercilessly, kicked about and gang-raped. They then scribbled something in Marathi on a piece of paper and pinned it to her chest. Naked and traumatised, she was finally thrown out of her own house. Fathima grabbed a bedsheet to cover herself and somehow managed to reach the police station. The policemen at the station threw her out as well, and also snatched the bedsheet away. On the streets, Fathima could get no help, as people shied away from the naked, hysterical woman, assuming her to be mad. Finally, a Sikh taxi driver came along, took off his own kurta and gave it to her. He also gave her five rupees. With that, Fathima set off for her friend’s house in Parel. By the time she got there it was two in the morning, and she needed to be rushed to a doctor. Her friend, a Christian, cut Fathima’s hair, dressed her up to look like a Christian woman and took her to a doctor. The next day, she was taken to Bhabha Hospital for treatment. Since it was a medico-legal case, the police were called. Curiously enough, the constable who came for the report was one of the culprits. Fathima recognised him, panicked and refused to make a statement. After three or four days, a police officer told her that she would be allowed to return home and live there only if she did not pursue the case. But when she went home she found her house almost destroyed, and her attackers roaming free. Fathima went to a relief camp in Andheri.
We came across Fathima while investigating, on behalf of the Indian People’s Human Rights Commission, the communal riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. We have her story in The Peoples Verdict. The young widow gave her evidence with tears in her eyes, saying that she would have committed suicide but for her two little children. When we asked whether she would file a case in court, she flatly said that she had neither the strength nor the courage to proceed against her assailants.
Fathima is not alone. In every communal riot, there could be hundreds of Fathimas, who have neither the strength nor the courage to proceed against the assailants.
Take the recent events in Gujarat. Who can forget the fate of Kauser Bano, 20, one of the most gruesome cases? She was nine months pregnant. As the mob came, she and her husband tried to save themselves. But in her condition, she could not run. So her husband literally carried her. The mob overtook them and snatched her away. Then one of the attackers slit her stomach with a sword and wrenched out her foetus, and with the edge of the sword flung it into the fire. According to eyewitness accounts, at least two more women were subjected to a similar fate. Kauser Bano was also burned alive in the same fire. Would Kauser Bano’s 76-year-old-father, who lost seven members of his family in this spate of violence, get justice? If so, what justice?
If we look at every communal riot that has taken place in India, we would find hundreds and thousands of such victims. The majority of such victims belong to the minority community, and they get no justice. It happened in Delhi in 1984. Officially, the number of killings was placed at 2,733. It has been almost two decades and none of the assailants has been convicted. Eyewitnesses were not believed, nor were the kith and kin of the deceased. And a large number of cases were just not filed, therefore not investigated. The last of the cases got over only a few weeks ago, and no one was convicted.
It happened in Bombay, after the riots in December 1992 and January 1993. Over two hundred thousand people had to flee the city and many of them have not come back. The loss of property could be as high as Rs 4,000 crore. And over one thousand people were killed. Yet, not one of the culprits has been convicted. Particularly deplorable is the fact that all those responsible for the violence and atrocities are walking freely. Though cases had been registered against some of them, instead of prosecuting them, the government just decided to quietly close the cases. Nearly 3,000 cases were thus dropped.
The Gujarat violence of 2002 was worse. In his foreword to Crime Against Humanity, Justice V.R.K. Iyer describes it as "a ghastly sight the like of which, since bleeding Partition days, no Indian eye had seen, no Indian heart had conceived, and of which no Indian tongue could adequately tell. Hindutva barbarians came out on the streets in different parts of Gujarat and, in all flaming fury, targeted innocent and helpless Muslims who had nothing to do with the antecedent Godhra event. They were brutalised by miscreants uninhibited by the police, their women unblushingly molested; and Muslim men, women and children, in a travesty of justice, were burned alive."
In all these communal riots, the police and the administration generally identified themselves with the majority community. In Bombay, the "police officers and constables openly said that they were Shiv Sainiks at heart and policemen of a supposedly secular state by accident" (The People’s Verdict). They were certain that they would not be blamed or taken to task for any dereliction of duty.
Which is why the then Maharashtra government’s reluctance to file any case against Bal Thackeray — who was regarded by many as directly responsible for what happened to the thousands of innocent riot victims — was a particularly irresponsible act. Though the government did not take any initiative, the police had filed four cases under Sections 153A and 153B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), based on four news reports in Saamna, the Shiv Sena publication, dated January 10, 11, 12 and 21 of 1993. Then they applied to the government for sanction to prosecute him. The government would not respond. Meanwhile, the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) filed a petition in the Bombay High Court for a mandatory order against the government to launch a prosecution against Bal Thackeray. They cited nine different editorials from Saamna, each containing patently inflammatory words. The petition was heard in September 1994, about a year after it was admitted — not any great delay. Yet the judges dismissed the petition on the ground that it was unwise to "rake up" old issues all over again! They also went through the impugned editorials, and found nothing wrong in them. This implied an endorsement of the Shiv Sena counsel’s argument that Bal Thackeray had referred only to supposedly "anti-national" Muslims, ignoring the basic question about who decides who is anti-national. Is it Bal Thackeray? Is it L.K. Advani? Or is it persons like Praveen Togadia or Narendra Modi?
What is still more shocking is the fact that when the petitioners moved the Supreme Court, by way of a Special Leave Petition, it was simply thrown out. Fali S. Nariman, eminent lawyer and now Member of Parliament, retorted: "Where then, O Lord, shall we turn for the redressal of palpable wrongs?" Many others expressed their shock and disappointment. Soli Sorabjee, the present Attorney-General said: "It is extremely unfortunate that the judiciary has not intervened in this case where the law has been openly flouted and communal hatred spread by Bal Thackeray through his mouthpiece, Saamna. History teaches us that unless these pernicious tendencies are scotched, they grow to become unmanageable monsters later on. The argument that a prosecution of persons responsible for spewing hatred would rake up past events is totally misconceived because there has been no rethinking or regret by the authors of the writings and there is every likelihood of such action being repeated."
Finally, about two years ago, Bal Thackeray was arrested amidst much fanfare, only to be released promptly by a magistrate. The government moved the High Court and the case is pending there. Such is the concern of the judiciary for the worst violations of human rights in the city of Bombay!
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Justice Hosbet Suresh, retired judge of the Bombay High Court, is a leading human rights activist and has worked extensively for civil liberties in India. He lives in Bombay