The communal riots of Bhagalpur which took place on October 27, 1989 and continued about two months, finally culminated in the 14 accused having been found guilty by a court in Bhagalpur on June 18. These riots had claimed lives of some 3,000 Muslims, according to unofficial estimates, while rendering many grievously injured and uprooted from their homes and hearths. But official figures say it resulted in death of 1,070 victims.
It is estimated that some 50,000 Muslim homes were destroyed and a large number of people fled for safety. Though this delayed justice is in fact justice denied, the justice did come late, unforgivably late for many people whose lives were changed for ever in the aftermath of these bloody riots. The entire police and judicial proceeding dragged on callously over a period of more than 17 long years during which many victims of the riot and one accused died. Suffice it to say that justice was so delayed that only two of the 45 Muslim families got to hear the verdict. The rest had either been killed or had fled never to return. The riots were organised by heartless enemies of humanity. They put the conscience of the civilized world bow its head in shame. They also put a big question mark on the actual implementation of the fundamental rights of all Indians to have their life, property and honour protected by the State as guaranteed in the Constitution of India.
TARDY LEGAL PROCESS
Going down the memory lane one needs to capture the ghastly riots when on October 27, 1989, a mob attacked the Logain village late in the evening and went on a murderous spree. In all 811 First Information Reports (FIRs) were filed with the police in connection with the riots and police filed 302 chargesheets. The lower courts wrapped up 152 cases, acquitting the accused in 119 cases for want of judicially sustainable evidence. In the 33 other riot cases the district and sessions court pronounced sentence of life imprisonment on the accused of the riots. Trial began in 2001; the delay was caused because of shortage of judges, a perennial problem of Indian judiciary giving a jolt to the administration of criminal justice.
The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) recommended chargesheets against 24 people of which two had to be dropped after they moved the High Court. Two more turned absconders and the list contracted to 19 after one of the accused died. With another accused having been found to be a minor, the total list went down to 18. Four more accused later absconded. Ultimately only a very small number of the accused, numbering 14, faced the trial. Although the 14 accused including a police officer were found and pronounced guilty by the Additional District and Sessions Judge S.N. Mishra, their total number was much less than the number of persons originally charged for the riots. This raises the hypothetical but genuine question: if more accused had not absconded and could be made to appear before the court, wouldn't the number of convictions secured have been higher? The quantum of punishment and the actual sentence for the guilty will be pronounced on June 27, 2007.
The commission of these crimes against humanity at large and normally law-abiding Muslims of Bihar in particular have sealed the political and electoral fate of the Congress in Bihar with colossal erosion of its reputation and secular credentials elsewhere which continue to haunt it to this day and have deprived it to regain political power in many states. The Nitish Kumar government has consistently been of the view that former Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) government of Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi did not do enough to pursue these cases and bring the rioters to justice despite flaunting their Muslim-Yadav (MY) card to secure political power in the state and assuring Muslims that their genuine interests would be served. They did nothing even when their ascendancy to power, to a large extent, depended on garnering Muslim votes. Nitish Kumar may not have got these cases expedited but it must be appreciated that his government posted a Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of police at Bhagalpur to fast-track the riot cases and even look into the closed ones.
However, to put the record straight, it must be said that the new Commission set up by the Nitish Kumar government to enquire into the riots afresh took a long time to start its work in absence of furniture such as tables and chairs and computers etc., and its first meeting could be held only on May 31, 2007.
Mr. Afzal Amanullah, Principal Secretary (Home) of Bihar government has hailed the Monday judgment as a 'major success' for the efforts of the state government which has reopened 27 cases. He has given to understand that with the verdict in the most infamous of the Bhagalpur cases, the government of Bihar will now leave no stone unturned to see that all the other cases also are brought to their logical conclusion.
GENESIS OF THE TROUBLE
The Durga Puja procession on October 24, 1989 was apparently the trigger for the riots. Reports say that the rioters had been looking for an excuse to attack the minority community – to lay hands on their land and other properties. Today Jalebi Khatoon and Hadisa Khatoon, once owner of their houses, live with their children in the two huts. During the 17 long years nothing changed for these two women even when the state government claimed itself to be the champion of the cause of Muslims who formed a substantial vote bank of Lalu-Rabri's RJD government in the state.
Despite the 'tall' claims and beating of the drums publicising government protection for the riot victims and efforts to rehabilitate them, nothing really happened. Succour did not come to these 'unfortunate' victims who had become fodder of the violence. These Muslims, the victims of poverty, isolation and lack of political and police protection, could not manage to secure their Constitutional right of protection. Notwithstanding shout of sympathy by the Congress leaders at the top of their voice as also by the RJD politicians, these persecuted victims of communal violence got nothing by way of administrative action to have their properties restored to the pre-riots bonafide owners except, of course, the government dole of Rs one lakh each to the families of 634 victims. What a price for human lives! Over and above, some people also got an amount of Rs. ten thousand each from the Prime Minister's Relief Fund. The applications for compensation made by another 169 persons were rejected. This despite leaders of different political parties and a number of Chief Ministers, past and serving, giving innumerable assurances to get the needful done and their cases considered sympathetically. Even RJD MLA Shakeel Ahmed Khan, who was Law Minister in the former Rabri Devi government, could not do anything beyond making promises never to be kept.
VICTIMS POUR OUT THEIR HEART
Talking of hapless, melancholy personified Jalebi, one feels intense pangs of tearing pain at her desperate condition. She has suffered and continues to suffer deep inside. She is afraid even to speak the truth and narrate what she suffered, carrying deep scars on her psyche. She and her husband Sheikh Bideshi, not having any support to fall back on, had returned to their village after the fury which saw their daughter-in-law and two grandchildren dead in the riots as nobody was prepared to provide them shelter. They had returned also because their holding was not large enough to attract those who had indulged in violence for getting large area fields vacated by their owners. They had a small holding of 2-3 bighas of land which could not be a target of attack again. However her son decided to stay away.
Similarly Hadisa, a relative of hers, has horrible memories of 1989 when her husband, father, brother and his wife were all butchered. Life holds no meaning for her but she said she lived because Allah wills it so. The land of the village belonged to 45 Muslim families but now is under the adverse of Hindus, most of the land having been sold at throwaway prices as a consequence of the fear and sense of insecurity instilled in Muslims during the riots and after. The local Hindus deny the charge of indulging in rioting and cornering Muslims' land for paltry sum and claim that outsiders had indulged in violence and they had nothing to do with it but fact remains: How could outsiders indulge in mass killing without instigation, aid, support and abatement by the locals, even if their claim of not having indulged in violence against their Muslim neighbours is accepted, even for argument's sake.
WHY THIS INORDINATE DELAY
The time between October 27, 1989 and the day of judgment for the case, i.e. June 18, 2007 must have been nothing less than eternity for the seekers of justice – the unfortunate men, women and children who were target of brute force in their own houses. The million-dollar question is how can repetition of such tragedies be avoided in future? How can the delay be curtailed to be an effective deterrent to the prospective rioters?
A close examination of the facts of the case point out that many witnesses never turned up in the court with police not taking effective measures to ensure their attendance. Secondly, the police did not pursue absconders. The fact is that the convict also include a policeman found guilty of not taking action against the riotous mob indulging in wanton destruction of property and threatening victims with dire consequences, ready to strike with arms and ammunition. Even a show of force is a crime enough for police intervention, not to talk of the policeman's inaction even after death and destruction. This very policeman has found to be guilty of tampering with evidence while yet another person, a chowkidar suppressed information about killings – all these offences being very serious crimes, punishable with long terms in jail and / or fine or both under the relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in addition to heavy departmental punishment under Police Manual.
Many insiders know it for certain that such complicity does not occur without political involvement and backing by the powers-that-be. Clearly the state and the Central governments failed to enforce law and order when misguided youths and others organised processions and played with the religions feelings of Hindus and incited them to grab Muslims' lands in the period when Ramjanmbhoomi movement was in full swing. The riots are said to have been triggered by a 'Ram Shifla' procession organised by the Bhagalpur Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) but the naked aggression and wanton killing of the innocent people did have its immediate effect in the form of 'political tremor' wherein the Congress government was thrown out by saner elements in the Indian society which stands for peace, and by Muslims, a community commanding 14% population in Bihar, who felt hurt, nay agonised beyond expression.
ROLE OF POLICE
It is agreed that communal riots take away peace of mind, freedom of pursuing one's occupation without fear and reaping the benefits of a settled life. It is also well-known that the general climate of law and order as prevalent in the country, with slight variation in its state in different parts, is instrumental in indirectly helping the criminals as they are not readily booked for their crime, often under influence of some local politicians, unnecessary abuse of the powers of the police to pursue these cases and file charge-sheets in an appropriate court of law, slackness in collecting evidence and then pursuing the case in the court with steadfastness, lack of continued vigil by the Muslims and other organisations interested in such cases culminating in their logical end, and what not. If the real culprits are not booked for their instigating uneducated, simple, unsuspecting ordinary people to take law into their hands and attacking victims, the day of reckoning never comes to them and they wander freely, in search of another such opportunity where they can benefit from loot of belongings and properties. They are master conspirators and executers par excellence of their plan. Perhaps these very people were in the mind of Urdu poet who said: Khanjar pe koi daagh, na daaman pe koi cheent / Tum quatl karo ho ya karamat karo ho (there is neither a blot on the dagger nor a stain on your apparel / you indulge in a murder or show a miracle).
The police must do its duty without fear or favour, and senior officer must coax their subordinates to give due regard to the upholding of human rights.
Right from lower classes, the curriculum must include lessons which have a moral and impress the psyche of school children, implanting lessons in good manner, love for truth, non-violence and concern for neighbours and their well-being as one's own well-being can be best guaranteed by the welfare of others. The children as well as grown-up people must be encouraged to adopt a philosophy of life which makes them sure that they cannot go scot-free for their wrong doings, either at the hands of the law of the land or under God's law of justice from which nobody can escape. People must be made to realise that all religions of the world, in varying forms, speak of man's accountability for his actions and answerability to what he did. They must believe that:
Kareeb hai yaar roz-e-mehshar / Chhupega kushton ka khoon kyonkar / Jo chup rahegi zubaan-e-khanjar / lahoo pukarega aasteen ka (O friend! The Day of Judgment is near / How will the murder of the victims remain undetected / If the tongue of the dagger will keep mum, still the blood on the sleeve will shout!)l