Silence in Gujarat court screamed “Shame!”

By NM Sampathkumar Iyangar
Aslam Kasim Mansuri is not someone with substantial literary capabilities to vividly portray the woeful plight of a people living as lowly aliens in native land. He is an ordinary mechanic who lives in Bapunagar locality of Ahmedabad as an ‘equal’ citizen of Republic of India. The mechanic is not equipped to refute the discourse of learned analysts concerned about welfare of people of his ilk, counseling: “Those who do not have faith in the judicial process cannot be a part of the process of reconciliation.” He cannot dream of matching the expertise in jurisprudence to marshal candid legal points. Yet, he delivered a firm rejoinder that shattered that shibboleth and exposed inherent flaw in the assumption. His silence in a ‘designated’ court in Ahmedabad in January 2010 did just that.

Mansuri succeeded in conveying to the world that millions of people in India started losing faith in its judicial process only after realizing the futility of blind faith in the system. After almost eight years of yearning for justice, his silence in the special court of Judge BU Joshi was an eloquent testimony. It portrayed the confidence level that India’s courts command from ordinary citizens.

Worse than Hell: Aslam lost as many as 12 members of his family in the State-orchestrated massacre of Muslims in Gujarat on Feb 28, 2002. He was a resident of Gulbarg Society in the city where former Member of Parliament Eshan Jafri lived. Over 100 people, including the MP and his family, were trapped in the inferno as a frenzied mob burnt down everything in sight. Fleeing residents were stoned and clubbed and Aslam suffered severe head injuries. He was packed off to a relief camp after receiving treatment in the city’s VS Hospital. Coming back from the clutches of death was however a small consolation. He suffered tragic horror, identifying 17 burnt bodies in Kalandri Masjid. The corpses included his sister Najma, sister-in-law Farida, son Irfan, wife Mahmooda and daughter Muskan. His daughters, Aiysha, Zaiyna and Shabnam; his brother Shakil and grandmother Sonaben had disappeared without a trace.

Repeat probe: Mansuri was projected as a ‘star’ witness before a Special Investigation Team constituted by the Supreme Court in March 2008. The team came upon a plea by Jafri’s widow seeking transfer of police cases arising out of the massacre outside the state. The ‘Honourable’ judges were well aware that top functionaries in the political, bureaucratic and police establishments managed to hush up complaints to bale out criminals in their good books. However, the court just constituted the SIT, consisting of the dubious officers of the state, headed by retired CBI Chief RK Raghavan, to retry the cases.

Not much was expected from the 1963 batch IPS officer with a controversial past. He was the IGP in charge of VIP security at the site of assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur in 1991. It was quite probable that Rajiv had dug his own grave with his arrogant style. Yet, Raghavan - supposed to have gone into all probable motives of the assassination and likely beneficiaries - readily arraigned a bunch of Tamil refugees letting go top politicians of a Party that it resurrected from oblivion. The Jain Commission that probed the ‘conspiracy’ recommended action against him for gross lapses. However, loyalists of Nehru-Indira clan were pleased with services rendered to them and he was made CBI chief in 1998. A Bench of the Central Administrative Tribunal quashed the appointment. The unassuming officer also handled the infamous Babri demolition case against LK Advani before he retired in 2001.

There, however, was some pragmatism about the setting up of special courts to deliver justice though justice delayed is justice denied to most victims. It was thought that it may achieve more than providing an avenue to some dignitaries - retired judges, hordes of clerks and peons to wait on them and several lawyers - to make easy money. Ironically, the obsessive optimists were mainly leaders of the minority community that repeatedly bears the brunt of organised massacres.

Eyewash: The hopes have since been belied and the whole thing turning into gigantic eyewash as widely predicted. The most dubious of Raghavan’s lieutenants to turn the ‘special’ investigation into a ‘special’ farce was Geetha Johri. The lady picked up by the Apex Court for the team was caught by it manipulating facts in a related case. She had reported that five sub-Inspectors and Inspectors were ‘absconding’ and their names as unknown in the infamous Sohrabuddin Fake Encounter case. The fact was that an NGO had brought out the names of those five police officers; those names were given to concerned authorities as well. Also, she had based her eyewash investigation on fabricated FIR. The Court found no justification for her to walk out of the investigation, without informing it.

Poignant Reticence: In the court, Mansuri stated that on the fateful day, he was standing in the society in the morning when the mob attacked it. He saw an autorickshaw burning and then he went up to the terrace and saw nothing. RK Shah, the public prosecutor, repeatedly asked him whether he had seen anyone from the mob before. The witness refused to speak. During cross-examination, defence lawyer Mitesh Amin showed Mansuri the handwritten statement he had given before SIT. The star witness maintained that he was not aware about validity of the statement. He identified his signature during hearing; yet, he refused to own the statement. “I do not remember what I said earlier,” he reiterated.

Mansuri also refused to identify any of the accused persons sitting in the court. He had said earlier that he could identify the arsonists in person though he did not know their names. In the court, however, he refused to even look their way. The judge inquired whether he was facing some threat, but Mansuri replied in negative.  Obviously aware of the insignificance of his chair to dispense justice when high and mighty ‘dignitaries’ are involved, he endorsed the declaration of the public prosecutor classifying him as hostile witness. For the record, Mansuri Sr lives in the same society and Aslam’s workplace happens to be the massacre site, which is under ‘protection’ by the same minions who directed the 2002 mayhem. They are roaming free with honour, some of them even as ‘Honourable’ ministers till recently.

Precedents: It is clear that the silence of the witness was the result of the clout wielded by the likes of Tytlers, Sajjans and Bhagats as well as Singhals, Advanis and Thackerays of the country over the political, administrative and judicial organs. Much tom-tommed Commissions of Enquiry by Ranganath Misra, Liberhan or Srikrishna proved themselves to be impotent against them. Realization must have dawned on him that it is the right of a minuscule section to lord over and oppress vast masses in the so-called democracy - transparently or hypocritically.

Quick on the heels of the eloquent silence that screamed “Shame!” came further proof of the rotten state of affairs. An ‘Honourable’ member of the judiciary, Jyotsna Yagnik, reiterated that ordinary citizens must not waste their energy crying hoarse about injustice. She delivered ‘justice’ on January 12 in a POTA court - under the draconian law that is supposed to have been repealed.

Her verdict was in a case with the name of “ISI Conspiracy Case”, a name that doesn’t look funny at all to India’s establishment and media. Interestingly, it bunches cases that were described by crime branch headed then by encounter expert DG Vanzara as “revenge” by Muslim victims for the pogrom in 2002. The crime branch picked up 56 persons - obviously Muslims - and implicated them in various cases they ‘cracked’! Those included several bomb blasts as well as the ‘assassination’ of Haren Pandya, former Home Minister of the state. The Gujarat government has been maintaining that the pogrom itself was a justified ‘reaction’ to the ‘action’ by Muslim thugs of killing a railcoachful of boisterous pilgrims returning from revelry in Ayodhya. This is the theory, obliquely endorsed by Gujarat High Court that the SC-constituted SIT is supposed to dig into. Vanzara is behind bars only because he ‘encountered’ a rather wealthy contractor whose brother had the resources to pay his way to the Apex Court.   

Sham Justice: The illustrious POTA judge found 22 persons guilty in the bizarre case, the largest number so far in the state. The six-year-long court drama dwarfed the crude display of draconian authority seen in Gujarat earlier by POTA courts. After hush-hush trials, these courts had ‘co-operated’ in incarcerating marked persons in Akshardham attack case, Haren Pandya case etc, providing outlandish explanations for their action. All of them were repeats of the Rajiv Assassination cover-up.

The ‘Honourable’ judge awarded 10-year jail terms to 18 of her ‘subjects’.  Charges could not be invented against 22 subjects and she had to acquit them. They would be released from jail seven years after being arrested and accused of hatching terrorist conspiracy with the help of Pakistan-based terror groups to avenge 2002 riots. The acquitted victims of her ‘justice’ included Maulana Naseeruddin and 12 others from Hyderabad.

Before dispensing her ‘justice’, the POTA judge indulged in some ‘patriotic’ sermon: “There is a deep concern in this country over intensifying cross-border terrorism. Now, terrorism has obtained global dimension and to prevent and suppress such acts is the need of every civilized society. There is a unanimous expectation from citizens of this nation that the judiciary would deal it with iron hand!” It was not surprising, therefore, that her court issued notices to 17 witnesses who had retracted their statements recorded under threat to life and limb for turning hostile.

Aslam Mansuri must thank his stars that the ‘Honourable’ SIT court did not take such umbrage at the ‘disrespect’ he showed to it by his silence. Mercifully, he may not be the beneficiary of perverted Indian ‘justice’ meted out to the teenage riot victim Zahira. She too had witnessed all her kin being burnt alive by influential thugs. Obviously out of fear of harm to her relatives and community from the high and mighty, she was not ‘consistent’ in her depositions. The ‘Honourable’ court found it prudent to put her behind bars on charges of contempt of court!

The silence of Aslam in court was deafeningly loud. It was louder than the comment from Simon Overland, Police Chief Commissioner of Victoria, Australia, on the hysterical noises in Indian media about street violence in that country. “Look at the data. Indians are safer in this country than they are in their own country,” Overland teased. It is true that several Indians have been mugged, knifed and set alight and one Indian man even lost his life in that country. But, Aussie ruffians cannot match the inhumanities and hate crimes being committed on thousands of Indians in India. As more and more Aslams realize the futility of banging their head against India’s judicial wall, there is the lurking risk of an insuppressible rebellion. Will the eloquent silence in the Ahmedabad court fall on deaf ears again?

The author is a political analyst  based in  Ahmedabad

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 February 2010 on page no. 1

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