Ghulam Mohammed Faruq Sheikh pockets the Rs 500 note as he prepares to leave the court. His other hand clutches a bright green plastic bag with silver polka dots. He tells the public prosecutor Ratnavali Patil that he may not be coming for the next hearing on 16 December, as he is going to Ambejogai for a wedding. That was the third time he had come to testify in court in the last few months in the Suleman Bakery case of January 1993, which, except for a handful of journalists and the concerned parties, seems to evoke little interest.
Sheikh, 68, says he has a heart condition, it is difficult for him to climb the three flights of stairs in the old sessions court building. He keeps having little pills for his cold as he waits for the judge to decide on the defence request for an adjournment on 26 November. And since the judge awarded Rs1,500 costs for the adjournment, and no further leeway in the matter, he and the two other witnesses were at least compensated for their travel, if not time. The two other witnesses were policemen.
That day, the lawyer for the seven accused policemen Shrikant Shivade was absent. Earlier, the witnesses were sent back for other reasons, one of them being that they arrived late in court. Another time, one of the accused policeman had fallen ill and could not come to court. One of the witnesses who had come to testify then had lost his father in the firing. While the additional sessions judge UM Padwad laments the delay each time and gives strict orders, things keep dragging on.
It is now almost 27 years since the incident at a popular bakery and adjacent madrassa off Mohamed Ali Street in South Mumbai. The events were recorded in Justice Srikrishna’s commission of inquiry report on the 1992-’93 riots and the case has had a long and torturous journey with more acquittals than convictions and this is one more phase in that long road for justice.
So far, five witnesses have been examined and the spot panchnama of the incident was prepared only in 2001. The first eye witness too turned hostile in the ongoing case, where the examination of evidence was at first delayed as there was no tape recorder to hear the old tapes of the wireless conversations related to the police control room. The control room log books were not produced till the judge gave a reprimanding order. For the witnesses, after so many years, it becomes difficult to recall exact events or the messages they wrote down as wireless operators and other details.
The first witness, Mohmmed Farooq Mohammed Fazil, testified in court that he used to sell footwear. That’s about the only thing he accepted. While the police came on 1 June 2001 to ask him to sign the panchnama, he was not aware of its contents and he did not know what happened at the bakery in 1993. He denied everything in his statement.
Another witness, Dilip Wamanrao Nikale, now 64, a retired wireless operator in the control room was on duty on that day and he identified the entries made in the log book—the original was produced in court. The messages came in thick and fast and Nikale said that it was 100 to 150 times the number of the usual messages. There were eight or nine wireless sets in the room. Temporary wireless sets were added In the Pydhonie and Dongri localities during the riots. There were several messages of people firing on the police. He and other wireless operators testified to the unprecedented situation and the volume of messages.
It was on 9 January 1993 that the Suleman Bakery firing took place. The city was already in the grip of violence with at least 500 deaths in the December 1992 riots, after the Babri masjid was demolished. End December, the violence threatened to erupt once again with the murder of a Mathadi (headload) worker in the Pydhonie area in South Mumbai and four others in January which were given a communal turn by the Shiv Sena.
On the morning of 9 January, on hearing reports that that there was private firing from the Suleman Usman Bakery area, a police team headed by then joint commissioner of police (crime) Ramdeo Tyagi and a heavily armed Special Operations Squad broke into the premises and in the ensuing firing, nine persons died. The Srikrishna Commission said in its report, “After carefully examining the evidence on record, the Commission is of the view that the story of the police does not inspire credence.”
Tyagi denied entering the bakery or ordering the firing there. In 2001, the Maharashtra government’s Special Task Force (SIT) filed a case against 18 policemen in the Suleman Usman bakery case, but nine of them, including Tyagi, were discharged by the trial court in 2003. The then public prosecutor had opined that there was no sufficient evidence to challenge the order of discharge. The trial court had recommended proceedings against the remaining policemen and seven of them are facing trial (two have passed away) in this case at the sessions court right now.
One of the victims of the incident, Noorul Huda Maqbool Ahmed, a teacher from the madrassa adjoining the bakery, challenged the discharge of Tyagi and the others in the High Court, which held that the firing was unnecessary but there was insufficient evidence against the policemen. Ahmed went to the Supreme Court, which in 2011 upheld the High Court order. He died a disillusioned man in 2012. His young son, Abdul Samad, runs a mobile repair shop and only remembers that his father’s leg was hurt in the incident and it was an injury that stayed with him all the rest of his life.
As for the owner of the bakery, Mohammed Abdul Sattar who lost five of his workers in the firing incident, he prefers to put it all behind him. Many of his workers were accused of rioting though they were acquitted later. He managed to turn his business back around in two years. He usually spends the evenings sitting on the road near the bakery, chatting with friends.
Even if so many years have passed, the incident lives in the memory of the survivors who harbour little hope of justice, like so many others affected by the riots after 6 December 1992. Meanwhile in court, the case will continue on 16 December, when more witnesses will be examined.
Meena Menon is an independent journalist. The views are personal.