Revisiting some truths in the Radhabai Chawl case

BY Jyoti Punwani| IN Media Practice | 05/04/2006
A rejoinder to Dasu Krishnamoorty`s assertion that the media did not pursue acquittals in the Radhabhai chawl case because the accused were Muslims.

Jyoti Punwani

It¿s ironic indeed that Mr D Krishnamoorthy should pick on the Radhabai Chawl case as an example of media selectivity and bias (The Hoot, March 2, 2006). The essence of his argument is that the media didn¿t pursue the Radhabai Chawl acquittals as zealously as it did the Best Bakery and Jessica Lal acquittals because the victims of Radhabai Chawl were Hindus, and the accused, Muslims. The media¿s sympathy for the minorities prevents it from giving equal treatment to both Hindu and Muslim victims, is the implication.

The irony lies in the fact that the Radhabai Chawl case was the most publicized case of the riots. Six Hindus, five of them women, sheltering in a room on the night of January 7-8, 93, were burnt alive by local Muslims in the second phase of the post-Babri Masjid Mumbai riots of December 92-January 93. The case in fact, remains to date the symbol of the riots.  And that was only because its victims were Hindus.

This was the only incident of the Mumbai riots in which such a large number of Hindus were killed in one single act. The inhuman manner in which they were killed - kerosene thrown on them followed by a burning match - added to the outrage. The Shiv Sena openly claimed that the incident provoked Hindus to go on the offensive and all the killings of Muslims that took place subsequently were a ``spontaneous and natural retaliation¿¿.

It took a judicial commission  - the Justice B N Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the Mumbai riots to discover the truth behind the Radhabai Chawl myth. The Commission found, with the help of police records and police testimonies, that the Radhabai Chawl incident was not the ``flashpoint¿¿ of the January 93riots, which gave rise to the famed ``Hindu backlash¿¿. Violent incidents of an equally grave nature had taken place before it, where Muslims were the victims, but no media hype had surrounded those. Indeed, in December itself, in two separate incidents, two Muslims and four Muslims had been burnt alive while confined indoors, but no one knew of these incidents except the local police station.

When the Commission was set up, each party had to give their statement on the causes of the riots. The Sena, the police and the government, all ascribed the January violence to the same three incidents of violence against Hindus that took place in the first week of January 93, the most serious being Radhabai Chawl. This in spite of the fact, admitted by the police during cross-examination, that in some areas, the violence between the December and January phases of the riots had never really ended; that the January riots began almost all over Mumbai much before the Radhabai Chawl incident; and that in many areas -including Jogeshwari, the suburb where Radhabai Chawl is located, Hindus had already gone on the offensive. 

It was expected that the Sena would milk any killing of Hindus, and when six died at a go, it was a bonanza for the Sena. As Justice Srikrishna found, ?the communal passions of the Hindus were aroused to fever pitch by the inciting writings in print media, particularly `Saamna¿ (the Sena newspaper) and `Navakaal¿, which gave exaggerated accounts of the ?Radhabai Chawl incident?Bal Thackeray?like a veteran general, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate?¿¿ The Commission found this to be the cause of the January riots.

What¿s not so surprising is that the police exhibited the same mindset as the Sena. Even in their internal briefings, the police chose to ignore serious attacks on Muslims that preceded the Radhabai Chawl incident. As Justice Srikishna put it, ``Police officers appeared to have an inbuilt bias against the Muslims, on occasions, the attitude was that one Muslim killed, was one Muslim less.?  The English press, taking their cue from the police on whom it relied inordinately during the riots, flashed the Radhabai Chawl incident to such an extent that the news spread across the country in less than 24 hours. Interestingly, a few days later, 11 Muslims were burnt alive in a garage, but the incident was not even reported.

With such hype surrounding the Radhabai Chawl incident, the pressure to catch the culprits was immense. The first six arrests (under TADA) were made within five days of the incident; the remaining 11 arrests continued right till April. Some of these late arrests were of Muslims who had, after the riots, gone back to work for their Hindu employers in the same area, hardly the behaviour of those who had burnt  Hindus alive in the vicinity. It is significant that the arrests were made by a senior Muslim officer.

The selective treatment for the incident continued all through. The names of the witnesses were kept a secret to protect their identity. The Radhabai Chawl incident is perhaps the only incident where eye witnesses who were not policemen, didn¿t turn hostile. This wasn¿t only because the witnesses had shifted to a safer, Hindu area, where the accused could not threaten them. It was also because the police took the trouble to brief their witnesses. Perhaps it was the only riot case where the survivors of the incident were not called to depose.

Finally, the Radhabai Chawl incident was among the very few riot cases which ended in conviction, despite serious police lapses, including no ID parade. 11 of the 17 were sentenced to life imprisonment. When the accused appealed against the judgment in the Supreme Court, Justices G B Pattnaik and G N Ray threw out the TADA court¿s judgment with severe strictures passed against not only the police who they blamed  for picking up ``indiscriminately people from one community as they were residing in the locality and booked them...¿¿. More significantly, the judges also passed strictures against the TADA judge. Asked to separate the chaff from the grain by the Maharashtra government counsel, the judges said, ``...where the evidence consists of only chaff as in the present case, question of separating chaff from the grain would not arise.¿¿ The judges concluded that the case exhibited ``the extent to which the trial judge has been swayed away to record conviction without any legally admissible trustworthy evidence. ``

The question asked by Mr Krishnamoorthy is: given that these were not the guilty, why didn¿t the media start a campaign to get those actually guilty brought to book?

The answer lies not in the fact that the killers who got away with this ghastly act were Muslims and the media treats Muslims in a partisan manner. The answer lies in the media¿s apathy towards the Mumbai riot cases, or for that matter, riot cases in general. Be it Moradabad or Bhagalpur or Delhi 84, media interest dies down once the riot is over. It¿s only a handful of activists who follow up these cases.

In the Best Bakery case, Teesta Setalvad pursued the case right up to the Supreme Court. The media had to do nothing but report the court proceedings and attend press conferences. It was only after this initial publicity, that the newspapers landed up at Zahira Shaikh¿s village.

The Jessica Lal case was a high profile case to begin with, involving the cream of society. The acquittals aroused widespread revulsion. However, that hasn¿t always been enough to get the media to start a campaign for justice. Here, it was easy to do so because the witnesses who turned hostile were all Page 3 types, just a phone call away. They didn¿t have to be ferreted out of slums or villages.

There¿s another difference between these cases and the Radhabai Chawl case. In the former, a number of eyewitnesses had identified the culprits immediately after the incident - and had been reported as having done so. When all of them turned hostile, the reasons were obvious, leading to outrage. In the Radhabai Chawl case, the eye witnesses were unknown till they testified - except one, the husband of the handicapped girl who died in the incident. He kept repeating that those who had been arrested were not the perpetrators, but no one paid heed. He was the only witness who did not support the prosecution in the trial. In the former cases, the question asked even by the higher courts was: how did the judge simply accept the phenomenon of witnesses turning hostile? In the Radhabai Chawl case, the question raised by the Supreme Court was: how did the judge accept the faulty evidence at all?

When the acquittals took place, there was widespread revulsion, but little follow up. It was too much trouble to trace the survivors and witnesses.

Despite the Srikrishna Commission Report, the Radhabai Chawl case continues to remain the best-known case of the Mumbai riots. No one even mentions the acquittals in other equally horrendous cases like the burning alive of 11 Muslims, or, the stripping of a mother and daughter, and the burning alive of the latter. Here, the mother identified all but one of the accused correctly. ``

The Best Bakery and the Jessica Lal case has given rise to a welcome trend, that of follow ups and analyses of what went wrong at every step, whenever what seems to be an open and shut case ends in acquittal. The Priyadarshini Mattoo case and now, the Irfan Husain case, may also benefit form this trend.


Related story: Remember the dead of the Radhabai Chawl?

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