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Published in the 1-15 December 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition


Personifying the U-turn

By Rizvi Syed Haider Abbas

India is intrinsically secular and is so very profoundly defined by Lloyd and Suzanne Rudolph calling it ‘India’s centrist ideological consequences,’ in their book, In Pursuit of Laxshmi-The Political Economy of Indian State and yet India has seen thousands of communal riots leaving behind tens of thousand of Indians dead. The worst of its kind of course in Gujarat 2002 which has been branded as being even more horrendous than Rawanda/Auschwitz of India.

The riots broke out in Gujarat on Feb. 28, 2002 after the burning of a coach of a train at Godhra, Gujarat and the next day was declared a ‘bandh’ by VHP (World Hindu Council). That day (March 1, 2002) saw what, could be termed as the beginning of months of communal rioting, rape, rapine, looting, burning and everything inhumane one can ever conceive. 

Yasmin Sheikh

The silver-lining however has come in the form of Zahira’s cousin-Yasmin Sheikh who appeared as a witness on the same date and identified 11 of the 21 accused in the 
Best Bakery case. 

On March 1, 2002 in Vadodra (erstwhile Barodra), Gujarat, the ignominious Best Bakery massacre took place as nearly 1000 rioters swooped on the bakery-cum-residence owned by late Habibullah Sheikh at 9 pm and within a matter of hours eleven members of the Sheikh’s family and three bakery employees were either charred to death or hacked to pieces before being consigned to the flames.

Zahira Sheikh, daughter of Habiullah, escaped death along with her mother, grandmother and three brothers by hiding on the roof of the building and since then the Best Bakery case has hogged the headlines in national dailies because of the prosecutors star witness — Zahira Sheikh. A small recount of the events goes like this:

  • The First Information Report (FIR) was filed on March 2, 2002 on Zahira’s version and was submitted to the magistrate on March 5. 

  • Chargesheet filed in May-end and all the 21 named by Zahira were charged. Fast-Track court of additional judge HU Naidu starts examining the witness from May 2002 onwards. 

  • On May 19, 2003 Zahira, her mother Sherunissa and her brothers Nafitullah and Nabiullah retracted their statements in court Zahira said that she was on the terrace and couldn’t identify the accused 

  • On June 27, 2003, AJ HU Naidu ruled the evidence against the accused was fabricated and acquitted all 21 accused. 

  • July 5, 2003, Zahira along with her mother told The Sunday Express that she lied in court because she feared for her life." Kaanpte Kaanpte jhoot bola tha court mein" 

  • July 7, 2003, Zahira said that Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) MLA Madhu Srivastava and his cousin, Congress councilor Chandrakant Srivastava were behind the threats and sought re-trail outside Gujarat. 

  • July 8, 2003 National Human Rights Commission visited Vadodra to scrutinise papers in the Best Bakery case. 

  • July 31, 2003 NHRC moves Special Leave Petition in Supreme Court asking for a retrial outside Gujarat. 

  • April 12, 2004 Supreme Court orders the retrial to be held outside Gujarat in Maharastra. The orders were passed by Justice Aoraiswamy Rajin and Justice Arijit Pasayat. 

Hence, the trial against the 21 accused started in Mumbai and Zahira’s plight was taken up by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) an NGO run by Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand. Teesta is also a co-editor of Communalism Combat and is fighting for communal harmony in Mumbai since more than a decade and is fighting for communal harmony in Mumbai. She has to her credit of pursuing the cases of victims of riots in Mumbai and for her commendable role in getting Srikrishana Commission to finally nail down the BJP and Shiv-Sena members responsible in the Mumbai riots after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.

Teesta Setalvad, who had taken Zahira under her wings all these months was taken unawares and the nation was shocked when again Zahira Sheikh made a diabolic U-turn to say (reading from a paper) that it was Teesta Setalvad and her associates who in fact have used her. " What I had said in Vadodra before court on May 17, 2003 was right and whatever she had said after leaving Vadodra (in July 2003) has been on Teesta’s instructions."

This complete volte-face came on Nov. 3, 2004 after Zahira reached Vadodara from Mumbai to narrate of her stint with Teesta. She said that after the fast track court had acquitted the 21 accused two Muslims had barged into her house and told her that she would have to change her statement in the interest of community and thereafter she along with brother were taken to Mumbai to Teesta Setalvad. She however did not divulge the exact date when she was able to flee from Mumbai but said that Teesta has had her held captive and it was she who had made her sign legal papers and the matter was taken to Supreme Court against her wishes.

She also said that she would lodge a complaint against Teesta to tell Mumbai court that her original testimony, which led to the acquittals, should be taken as truth! She denied even knowing Madhu Srivastava and Chandrakant Srivastava!.

As soon as the press conference ended Zahira and her family were whisked to an undisclosed destination by intelligence personnel. It was believed that she was kept at the Airport hotel in Ahmedabad and when media men followed them they were obviously shooed away by the police. Armed policemen and dozens in plain clothes from Crime branch were deployed to monitor the hotel premises. Zahira resurfaced on Nov 9, 2004 along with her lawyers in Ahmedabad alleging that her affidavit to the Vadodra distirct collector on Nov 3, 2004 was right and it is Teesta who had coerced her to name certain BJP affiliated persons.

The attention, quite understandably and dramatically too has changed towards Teesta, who accordingly went to Mumbai High Court on Nov. 9, 2004 to seek an anticipatory bail before Justice R. Smohite praying that in the event of an arrest she may be granted anticipatory bail. The charges levelled against her do constitute a non-bilabial offence and Teesta rightly apprehending that a FIR may have been lodged against her had taken recourse to anticipatory bail as a precautionary measure.

Teesta Setalvad, however, doesn’t want to deliberate, despite the media zeroing in on her round the clock, on the issue primarily because of it being sub judice but does find herself pained and shocked. She said that Zahira was well, when in her contact while she was living at Mira Bai Road in Mumbai and does not know what made Zahira make such a huge fuss. She, however, does consider the affair to be a setback but doesn’t feel defeated either. "These things happen all the time when you fight against mighty forces who are out to scuttle justice and hope at any cost," she said in an interview to a national weekly. Teesta has also gone to the Supreme Court asking for an impartial inquiry into the whole episode. UP Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mohammad Azam Khan too demanded the same after the Zahira debacle.   

Teesta Setalvad may be in the thick of events today but a whole battery of film makers and film personalities, human rights activists, writers etc have proclaimed their solidarity with her. Nikhil Wagle, Rajni Baxi, Ashok Patwardhan, Shabana Azmi, Admiral Ramdas, Gerson da Cunha, Shailesh Gandhi, Pamesh Kamath etc. have called for an unbiased probe into every aspect of the entire matter. The press release from them was published in Tehelka. 
Since Nov. 9, 2004 Zahira has gone into hiding and has even skipped the Nov 17, 2004 hearing at Mumbai court despite summons being issued to her and her brothers. The silver-lining however has come in the form of Zahira’s cousin-Yasmin Sheikh who appeared as a witness on the same date and identified 11 of the 21 accused in the Best Bakery case. 
On Nov. 17, before Mumbai court she said that they were the members of the mob which attacked their bakery on March 1, 2002! During the hearing she replied to the defense counsel that she had informed police that two of the accused had even threatened to rape her! And robbed her of a gold chain which was a marriage gift to her and was worth Rs. 10,000.

The next day, on Nov 18, Zahira brother Nasibullah Sheikh appeared in Mumbai court only to retract his earlier statement. He confirmed to the designated judge Abhay Thipsay that someone had hit him in the head from the back making him unconscious and by the time he could regain his senses the Best Bakery had been burnt and he does not recognise the accused! Something which he had once refuted.

What would be the outcome of the drama around the Best Bakery case is now awaited, instead of justice being done to the culprits involved. Thirty-nine out of the Seventy-three witness had already turned hostile before June 27, 2003 and now Zahira has again rejoined them. Her sister in law, however, has confirmed the dreadful, events of that fateful night.

How the respectable judges would take the evidence is yet to be seen, perhaps, the words of eminent jurist and an Member of Parliament (MP) Fali Nariman may be referred to suit the purpose. "If a witness who identifies the accused earlier says he can’t recall their faces, it must excite suspicion in the mind of a pro-active and a truth-seeking judge." 

It is high time judiciary, the sentinel of law, deals the matter in a manner, that the faith in the law of land of millions of Indians get refurbished and reinvigorated and restored. 

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