The story of former Mumbai Police Commissioner Ramdeo Tyagi, who died on October 15, is that of a Goliath who managed to triumph over the Davids who took him on. Like the Biblical David, they seemed no match for the police officer. Their political clout was zero; their economic status shaky. What they possessed, though, was a fierce determination to see Tyagi punished as the most senior of the 31 policemen indicted by the BN Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the Mumbai 1992-’93 riots.
Unlike for David, this just wasn’t enough for them.
The riots in December 1992 and January 1993, which followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid, left around 900 people dead. When the government-appointed Srikrishna Commission released its report in 1998, it indicted Tyagi and two senior officers of the Special Operation Squad he headed during the riots when he was Joint Commissioner (Crime), for a raid on Suleman Usman Bakery on Mohammed Ali Road on January 9, 1993, that left eight innocent unarmed Muslims dead.
The police had claimed that terrorists were firing on them from the bakery; but their raid yielded neither terrorists nor firearms. Tyagi maintained that he never entered the bakery, but only ordered his men to do so.
Had it not been for social worker Farid Batatawala, Tyagi would never have been charged with murder for that incident. The Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government to whom the Commission’s Report was submitted, rejected its findings; the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government that succeeded it, ignored them. But an affidavit filed by Batatawala in the Supreme Court in 2000, detailing the Commission’s recommendations and the government’s inaction, prompted Chief Justice AS Anand to ask the Maharashtra government counsel what action had been taken against Tyagi.
In 2001, Tyagi was charged with murder under Section 302. Charged along with him were 17 other policemen, both from the Special Operations Squad as well as regular policemen who had accompanied him on the raid.
Batatawala, who owned a readymade garments shop in the city’s Musafirkhana area, had been working to get compensation for the families of those whose loved ones had gone missing during the riots. He hailed from one of Mumbai’s old Muslim families, which owned buildings in the central Parel area and dealt in the wholesale vegetable trade in Byculla Market. (The family takes its name after the word that Mumbai residents use for potatoes.) Batatawala knew everyone in the corridors of power, yet kept his distance from them.
While other community leaders hesitated to risk the government’s disapproval by getting involved in the battle for justice for Mumbai’s riot victims, Faridbhai as he was known, willingly lent his name to the intervening affidavit filed by senior lawyer Yusuf Muchhala in the Srikrishna Report Implementation case.
Batatawala attended every hearing of the anticipatory and regular bail applications filed by Tyagi, which went on for over three months. An unseen player in those hearings was a 20-year-old madarsa student.
Abdullah Qasim was just 12 when his father, a teacher at the madarsa Dar ul Uloom Imdadiya adjacent to the Suleman Usman Bakery, was shot by Tyagi’s men as he asked for water, according to eye-witness testimony to the Commission. Qasim readily agreed to intervene in opposing Tyagi’s anticipatory bail application.
Advocate P A Sebastian of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights represented him. Public pressure forced the government to instruct the special public prosecutor, senior criminal lawyer Pheroze Vakil, to oppose Tyagi’s anticipatory bail application, and the High Court’s rejection of it was upheld by the Supreme Court, on August 13, 2001.
The very next day, August 14, 2001, Tyagi, facing imminent arrest, rushed to Bombay Hospital, where he spent his “custody period’’ till he got bail on September 5, 2001.
Bail is granted
By then, Tyagi had retired. But the other policemen accused in the case were still in the force. Their arrest would have meant automatic suspension. The public prosecutor told a shocked Judge AM Thipsay that the government did not want to ruin the careers of these murder accused. Notwithstanding the intervenor’s objections, all of them got bail, paving the way for Tyagi too to get it on grounds of parity.
“The government is worried about the careers of these policemen,” said Qasim. “Are they more important than justice for my father whom they shot even though he had done nothing wrong?”
Tyagi and eight of his fellow accused policemen were discharged by a Sessions Court in April 2003, with Judge P V Bavkar holding that they had only done their duty. The judge held that only the remaining nine accused policemen, who had actually opened fire on the unarmed inmates of the bakery and the adjacent madarsa, needed to face trial for murder.
It took 16 years for the trial of these nine accused policemen to start. By that time two had died. When this reporter asked Abdullah Qasim if he was planning to intervene again, he replied bitterly: “Nothing will come out of it. Why raise expectations only to have them dashed?’’ He was then a teacher in an Islamic School, and had been forced to shoulder the burden of a family shattered by his father’s killing.
In 2019, the Suleman Usman Bakery incident case was 18 years old. It related to an incident that had taken place 26 years earlier. Forgotten by all, the case cried out for monitoring by an intervenor. But by then, Farid Batatawala, the only man always ready to support any issue relating to the ‘92-’93 riots, was dead. So was Maulana Noor ul Huda.
Till his death in 2012, Huda bore the scars inflicted on him by Tyagi’s men when they barged into the classroom of the madarsa adjacent to the bakery. Accusing Huda and his fellow teachers of hiding weapons, they beat them with rifle butts, leaving Huda with a bleeding forehead and finger. Later, they were taken to Dongri Police Station – the first time these madarsa teachers had seen the inside of one – beaten again, and charged with rioting and attempt to murder.
Huda testified before the Commission, even telling off the lawyer who tried to discredit his testimony. But after the Commission’s Report was published, he refused to get involved with the campaign to bring Tyagi to book. “I’m a heart patient, leave me alone,’’ he would mutter.
But in 2003, when the news came that Tyagi and eight of his co-accused policemen had been discharged of all charges by a Sessions Court, this reporter found Huda seething with anger. Unlike them, Huda was still making the rounds of courts as an accused in the 1993 rioting case slammed on him and 77 other Muslims found inside the bakery and madarsa after the raid.
When the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government showed no signs of appealing against Tyagi’s discharge, the madarsa teacher decided he would not let the senior policeman walk free. Rejecting all inducements, Huda ensured that Tyagi had to defend himself all the way to the Supreme Court. Simultaneously, he filed for discharge from the false case foisted on him and the other survivors of Tyagi’s raid.
In 2011, he won his discharge. But hardly had he savoured his victory, than came the news that the Supreme Court had upheld Tyagi’s discharge. When this reporter met him, the anger was gone, replaced by a terrible weariness. Again, Huda only wanted to be left alone.
“I want to show that we are not powerless, we too have guts,” he said, when he plunged into the fight against Tyagi. “History will record that there were people who fought.’’
Jyoti Punwani is an independent journalist who lives in Mumbai.