There is a certain chilling predictability about the list of convicts, a dreadful Orwellian litany of sameness. After a mammoth 14 years of trial and the dramatic sentencing of Sanjay Dutt, the Bombay blasts case of 1993 is closed. Of the 123 accused, 100 have been sentenced, 12 have been sentenced to death, 20 given life terms, 15 of them with rigorous imprisonment (RI). What are the names of those who will die? Among others, Memon, Turk, Tarani, Shaikh, Mukadam, Ghansar, Malik, Pawle, and Khan. What are the names of those who will serve life terms with RI? Among others, Shaikh, Khairulla, Qureshi, Memon, Rehman and Kadar. In the 1998 Coimbatore blast verdict this week, the main accused Abdul Nazar Mahdani has been acquitted, but SA Basha, founder of al-Umma has been found guilty, along with 157 others. Muslim after Muslim has stepped up to be convicted and sentenced. Soon India’s jails will be choc-a-block with Muslims.
The conspiracy that bombed Mumbai in 1993 and took 257 lives was demonic and destroyed lives. But after the conspiracy of terror, has come a surreal conspiracy of silence. There is a deathly quiet, a floating shroud of bemused acceptance. There is not a shred of sympathy, no trace of introspection, no question of benefit of doubt given to any of the accused in the court of public opinion. To voice any doubts about the long delayed trial is considered ‘anti-national’, ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘pseudo-secular’. Yet senior lawyers have publicly cast doubt on how the blast case is a shame on the judiciary. How can justice be thoroughly done through the mountains of documentation, the sheer bulk of facts and contradictions, the long delayed trial and lapses in human memory that must have faced poor Justice PD Kode. A senior counsel has called the case a “mistrial” and a case of “playing to the gallery”.
Yet, apart from the high voltage debate on Sanjay Dutt, among the larger public, there is only silence. The guilty are Muslims, after all. They killed innocent people, they’ve been brought to justice and that’s the end of that. A softly floating cloud engulfs us in its comforting yet toxic fumes. Is it a phantom? A phantom that is lulling Indian society into a deadly illness of certainty. A society that does not ask questions of itself, a society that does not take itself to task, but wallows in convenient ‘truths’, is a society doomed to death. Hindus and Muslims whisper among themselves in their own ghettos. The cross-religion and cross-community debate is dead or dying.
Judge PD Kode is justifiably hailed as a tough and idealistic judge and his own fairness is not in doubt. The prosecution of Special Public prosecutor Ujwal Nikam has been determined. Yet, in a case where far too many cases were bunched up together, where the sheer volume of paperwork was so huge, isn’t it expecting too much of a single human being to be perfectly conversant with each case? In the prevailing silence, a few voices have sounded. As Muslim after Muslim has walked to his death, as ‘terrorist’ after ‘terrorist’ has been taken away for life, what about the Hindu mobs and Hindu police officers who were named and indicted by the Justice Srikrishna Commission that inquired into the bloodcurdling 1992-93 riots of Mumbai in which 900 died? That horrifying report, indicts 31 “trigger-happy” policemen: among others, the names here are sub-inspector Vasant Madhukar More, police inspectors Patankar and Wahule, Jt Commissoner of Police RD Tyagi, not to mention political names like Gopinath Munde, Madhukar Sarpotdar and Ram Naik of the BJP all accused of inciting mobs. Aren’t riots too not an act of terror? A terrorist is defined as one who kills innocent civilians for a political purpose. So aren’t those Hindu rioters too not ‘terrorists’ and shouldn’t they too face the same law as Muslim ‘terrorists’?
Let’s try and break the conspiracy of silence a little. Rubina Memon is not a celebrity. Instead she is the wife of Tiger Memon's older brother Sulaiman. She has been given rigorous imprisonment for life. Rubina was the woman in the brown burqa who we all saw on television. Rubina has been found guilty under Tada because it was the van registered under her name that was used to carry arms and ammunition for the blasts. She also allowed her house to be used for ‘terror activities’ and had arranged funds from her bank account for the conspirators.
But is there any proof that Rubina actually bought the car that was registered in her name? Did she use the car? Did she actually know what her husband’s brothers were planning to do? Or was it kept a secret from her, as men all over India, keep important secrets from their wives and sisters-in- law? If Afsan Guru, wife of Shaukat Husain Guru, could be acquitted in the Parliament attack case because there was no proof she knew her house was being used for ‘terror activities’, can the same lack of knowledge not have been possible for Rubina? Assuming, she did know, is there proof that Rubina played an active role in the blasts? Or was she the typical uneducated Muslim woman in a household who did what her menfolk asked her to do, even allowing a car to be registered in her name so that her husband could escape tax?
For her crimes, Rubina will serve a life term with rigorous imprisonment while her teenage children seek permission to visit their mother in jail. Tragically, justice may not have still been done to Rubina Memon.
Zebunissa Qazi is 60 and also held guilty under Tada of abetting terrorist acts. She’s been given five years of rigorous imprisonment. What did she do? She says some boys handed her a bag and told her to keep it in her garage. She did not know what was inside the bag. Are Rubina Memon and Zebunissa Qazi terrorists?
Dr Mohammed Haneef, detained for 27 days in Australia is on the other side too. On the other side, distant, far away from Indian mainstream society, from muted civil society groups, distant from the voices of the intelligentsia, bludgeoned into silence by the spectre and reality of the ‘Islamist terrorist’. What factors should have exercised the Indian conscience about Dr Haneef? That it is not a crime to be related to those who are terrorists, only a conspiracy is a crime. That lending a SIM card is not a criminal offence. That a one-way ticket is not a criminal offence. That a beard is not a criminal offence. Australian civil society took its government head on about Haneef. Indian civil society turned its back on Haneef, instead vilifying the Prime Minister when he made the mistake of confessing he had had a sleepless night about Haneef’s parents.
There is suddenly no doubt left in the minds of the majority of Indian society. Political tokenism of three Muslim vice-presidential candidates sits alongside a covert hidden communalism that does not express itself in riots but in quiet determined segregation. The burqa-clad or lungi-clad figures march into the Tada court, yet apart from the publicity circus around celebrity Sanjay Dutt, we are incurious about the individuals behind the burqas and the lungis. The little stories of mothers and brothers are of no interest. The toxic cloud of silence drifts ever closer, lulling us into a dreamless sleep.
The writer is senior editor, CNN-IBN