IT'S currently the state government's most closely guarded secret. The 700-page two-volume Srikrishna Commission report— submitted on February 16 after a five-year probe into the Bombay riots of 1992-93—is being kept under wraps. For the Shiv Sena, which led the attacks on minorities, the report is not a happy election exhibit at a time when it is downplaying the strident saffron look.
Strict instructions—and reportedly a threat that any leak would mean removal from the post of chief secretary—have been issued to ensure that the report remains where it is: in a sealed cover in the office of the chief secretary. Within 24 hours of submitting the report—12.30 pm on February 16—Justice B.N. Srikrishna, the man who wrote it, left town on a week's vacation to an unknown destination.
Which has not left much option for political opponents, lawyers, activists and others determined to make the report public before February 28 when polls are held for the six Mumbai constituencies. "The Commission's findings are recommendatory, so the only thing that can force the government to act is public opinion—and this is the best time. In the fight to make the report public we are contemplating a writ petition on the ground that every citizen has a fundamental right to information. It is crucial for voters to see the candidates as they are," says senior advocate Yusuf Muchhala, who has represented over 110 riot-affected victims before the Commission.
For the government, the secrecy is essential to ensure the well-being of the Shiv Sena candidates, particularly Madhukar Sarpotdar, who was the party's chief whip in Parliament. With the inquiry report now complete, the general expectation is that Sarpotdar, the most prominent Sena leader to play an active part in the riots, has been severely indicted by the Commission. Sarpotdar is among the party's 21 candidates and is seeking re-election from Mumbai Northwest. His main rival, Tushar Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and Samajwadi Party candidate, is already propping up his campaign with mention of the Sena leader's role. "The man should be behind bars for what he said in his deposition before the Commission. Let alone what he did during the riots," he says.
Deposing before the Commission in '96, Sarpotdar had justified his party's use of "retaliatory violence". Asked whether he justified the killing of innocent Muslims in South Mumbai in retaliation for the slaughter of innocent Hindus in suburban Jogeshwari—the Sena had cited this as a reason for the riots—Sarpotdar described it as a "natural process". He upheld retaliatory violence and defended it as party policy.
Sarpotdar had, in fact, made an active contribution to the riots. Houses were looted, burnt and several people killed on January 12, 1993, when Sarpotdar, then an MLA, told his followers outside the police station in his suburban constituency that not a single Muslim house should be left intact. A day earlier Sarpotdar and two of his associates were detained by the army and found to be carrying three pistols and two hockey sticks. A case was registered against him under the Arms Act and nearly a month later he was detained under NSA.
Other depositions have further tarnished the Sena's image. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, for instance, informed the Commission that the use of the word landya—a derogatory reference to Muslims—by the Shiv Sena had to be understood in the context in which it had been used.
However, the feeling in BJP-Sena circles is that the report cannot do them any harm. BJP-Sena candidates from Mumbai, where the riots took place, are confident, knowing that the report won't be published before February 28. "This report is not yet published. There is no point speculating about what it can do. Right now the Congress may try to use it as they have nothing else to attack us with," says Jaywantiben Mehta of the BJP who is engaged in a tough fight with Murli Deora of the Congress to retain South Mumbai.
In its long five-year innings the Commission has continuously embarrassed the BJP-Sena regime. Depositions that ranged from embarrassing to outrageous had lawyers and civil rights activists examining the possibilities of having the Sena disqualified as a political party with no right to representation in Parliament or the state legislatures.
Rather than facing the prospect of party chief Bal Thackeray being summoned just before the 1996 general elections, the state government had refused an extension to the Commission when it's three-year term came to an end. But when the government scrapped the Commission in January 1996, it ran into severe public criticism and three writ petitions. It was revived in May 1996—the 13-day A.B. Vajpayee government feared the state government could later be dismissed by the United Front—two days before the high court could give a decision.
Serious problems cropped up again in March 1997. After a public confrontation with the Commission, the state was forced to exhibit files citing official reasons for withdrawing riots-related cases against Thackeray. The files revealed that the state initiated the process that led to the withdrawal of cases lodged against Thackeray following an appeal by a Shiv Sena leader to Deputy CM Gopinath Munde who holds the home portfolio. Munde had been asked to prove his "patriotism" by withdrawing the riots cases filed against Thackeray. Following the appeal, the law and judiciary department's reasoning—noted in the files—says: "In view of the changed situation at present, it would not be worthwhile to proceed further with the prosecution of Mr Thackeray." The department also noted that the police commissioner at the time (1996) R.D. Tyagi had communicated a similar view to the home department.
Four cases were lodged against Thackeray in 1993, after the police commissioner at the time, A.S. Sarma, sought the state's permission to take action against the Sena chief for inflammatory articles published in his newspaper Saamna, during the riots. Four chargesheets were filed against Thackeray, who edits Saamna, and others involved in its publication. The Saamna tirade accused Muslims, among other heinous activities, of amassing weapons to annihilate Hindus. But the cases specifically refer to four articles and editorials published even after a police warning that such writing be stopped as they were inflaming communal passions.
The Commission also stood its ground when it refused to let the chief minister claim privilege in order not to depose before the Commission. Joshi had to enter the witness box and depose on events relating to the riots as the judge argued that the Commission's discretion could not be restrained with respect to any witness.
But, at the end of the five-year-long tussle, the Commission's intrepid findings have been safely filed where they can't do the guilty any harm. And the state government seems to have won the final round.