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Communal Riots: Murderers At Large

By Sayantan Chakravarty, Sheela Raval
and Farzand Ahmed

India Today
July 21, 2003

Every riotous fury in India comes to the same grinding, and
predictable, halt. The innocent people who lose their loved ones
battle endlessly-with fading hope-for justice. The guilty are almost
never brought to book. A study by the Bureau of Police Research and
Development, a Union Home Ministry body, says that between 1954 and
1996, almost 16,000 people lost their lives in 21,000 incidents of
rioting, while over one lakh were injured. Only a handful have been
held accountable.

With gut-wrenching frequency, the story is repeated
in Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat.
Over 20 commissions of inquiry have studied major riots in the
country, four of which are documented here. Each has, more or less,
drawn the same conclusions: the police failed to act with
impartiality in every case; the brass rarely acted on its own and
almost always looked to the political leadership for direction; the
miscreants exploited every such delay in action by indulging in
looting and arson. Not a single politician has gone to jail because
the government of the day has always found a way to exonerate or drop
charges against them.

As the accused go free and justice is mauled after every rabid
session of rioting, the victims will continue to hope-and face
betrayal yet again.

Delhi Dead: 2,733

The assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984
sparked riots that lasted 15 days. Several inquiry panels later, 8
people were convicted. The politicians and police got away.
The mayhem began at about 6 p.m. shortly after the death of prime
minister Indira Gandhi was announced at the iron gates of the All
India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi. The news set the tone for
a communal massacre that India hadn't quite witnessed since
Independence. Chaos reigned on the streets and locality after
locality in the capital echoed with the shrieks of the dying and
burning people. A fortnight of carnage saw over 2,700 dead and many
thousands injured.

"President Zail Singh wanted the army to act, but it didn't. The then
prime minister and home minister did not take his calls," recalls
Tarlochan Singh, who was Zail Singh's press secretary. Today, he
chairs the National Minorities Commission.
The worst affected areas were the ones that had elected Congressmen
H.K.L. Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar to the Lok Sabha. Yet the police could
do nothing to lay their hands on them. Says Supreme Court advocate
H.S. Phoolka, who contested numerous cases in the Delhi High Court on
behalf of the victims' families: "Even after 19 years, the images of
the state-sponsored terrorism scar the mind. All the leaders have got
away with murder. Who can have confidence in such a democratic

Meerut Dead: 350

The riots began on May 21, 1987 and continued for two months. The
state police conducted a probe but all cases were later withdrawn by
the state. The armed personnel accused went scot free.
As with most riots, there are conflicting versions on what set this
one off: burning of mills or a reaction to the carnage by the
Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) personnel. A majority claim it
was the armed police. The pac men wanted to arrest a man from the
Hashimpura area but were stopped by a mob. When the uniformed men
tried to force their way in, the crowd became violent. The PAC called
in reinforcements and retaliated instantly. About 40 bodies were
later found floating in the canal near Maliana village. This ignited
communal passions and Meerut was soon on fire. Within hours, over 350
shops in the city and three petrol pumps had been burnt. In the
following two months, 350 people were killed, among them prominent
residents including a doctor from Hapur and an army captain.
Rationality took the backseat as one set of residents instigated
massacres against another. It took several weeks for a 13,000-strong
army detachment to restore sanity on Meerut's streets.
Says Meerut Bar Association President Anil Bakshi, who took up the
cases of over 30 accused: "Innocent people were framed by the state
administration to save the policemen guilty of the massacre." The
Uttar Pradesh government, under pressure from the Rajiv Gandhi
government, withdrew hundreds of cases from district courts in
Meerut. As a result, there were no convictions. The PAC, having
terrorised a large section of Meerut, was the biggest gainer-and
justice the biggest loser.

Bhagalpur Dead: 1,000

On October 23, 1989 began the month-long riots triggered by police
atrocities. Of the 864 cases filed by the police, 535 were closed and
most accused acquitted for lack of evidence.
Following police atrocities in 1989, the silk city of Bhagalpur saw
massacre and arson in which over 1,000 people died, nearly 50,000
were displaced and 11,500 houses torched. In the carnage, an army
major herded 100 men, women and children to a house at Chanderi
village and posted the local police for their protection. The next
morning, however, he found the house empty. Four days later, 61
mutilated bodies were found in a nearby pond, among them a live
Malika Bano whose right leg had been chopped off.
Bano narrated a story that continues to haunt Bhagalpur. On the night
of October 27, a frenzied mob took over the house from the police,
slaughtered the people hiding inside and tossed their bodies in the

Of the 864 cases registered by the Bihar Police, chargesheets were
filed in only 329 cases. In 100 of these, the accused were acquitted
for want of evidence. Chanderi was no different. Of the 38 accused,
only 16 were convicted andsentenced to rigorous life terms, while 22
were acquitted.

Mumbai Dead: 1,788

The Babri masjid demolition set off riots between December 1992 and
January 1993. The Sri Krishna panel examined 502 witnesses, but no
police officer has yet been punished.

Hours after the demolition of the Babri masjid, Mumbai erupted. For
five days in December 1992 and then again for a fortnight in January,
the city witnessed unprecedented riots. As many as 1,788 people were
killed and property worth crores of rupees destroyed.

On January 25, 1993, the Maharashtra government set up the Sri
Krishna Commission of Inquiry, which recorded the evidence of 502
witnesses and examined 2,903 exhibits. But three years later, on
January 23, 1996, the BJP-Shiv Sena government wound up the
commission, only to reinstate it later under public pressure. The
commission finally submitted its report on February 16, 1998. Of the
17 police officers who were formally charged in mid-2001, not one has
been arrested so far. Even departmental action has not been initiated
against them. In April this year, former city police commissioner
R.D. Tyagi and eight serving police officers accused of killing nine
people, were discharged by a Mumbai sessions court.
-compiled by Sayantan Chakravarty, Sheela Raval and Farzand Ahmed