Nearly 30 years after the two phases of communal violence that escalated in Bombay in 1992–1993 following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Supreme Court issued a number of orders on November 4, 2022. Amongst the myriad directions issued was the order given to form a committee to examine the records pertaining to 108 people who disappeared during the riots in Mumbai in 1992–1993. The court stated that the Maharashtra government were to employ all reasonable means to locate their relatives or legitimate heirs of those who disappeared. This is the third or fourth time that such directions have been given.
A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Abhay S. Oka, and Vikram Nath was hearing the said case while disposing of a writ petition filed by activist lawyer, Shakeel Ahmed in 2001 seeking implementation of the recommendations of the Justice BN Srikrishna Committee report, which was constituted by the State Government to probe into the violence. The bench noted that Article 21 of the Constitution of India confers a right on every citizen to live with human dignity and it encompasses into itself the right to live a meaningful and dignified life. In their judgment, the major focus of the bench has been on the payment of compensation to the families of victims in the 1992-93 Mumbai communal riots and also for the revival of dormant cases, by constitution of a special cell, in connection with absconding accused.
“If the citizens are forced to live in an atmosphere of communal tension, it affects their right to life guaranteed by Article 21. The violence witnessed by Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993 adversely affected the right of the residents of the affected areas to lead dignified and meaningful life. It cannot be disputed that certain groups were responsible for the large-scale violence in December 1992 and January 1993,” the bench said. (Para 20)
The entire report of the Justice BN Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry can be read here
Justice Oka, who authored the judgment on behalf of the bench, said one of the root causes of their suffering was the failure of the state government to maintain law and order. Therefore, the affected persons had a right to seek compensation from the state government, he added.
“One of the root causes of their suffering was the failure of the State Government to maintain law and order”, the Court held. (Para 20)
In December 1992, Mumbai saw the worst kind of bloody aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition and communal riots. There were numerous instances of arson and violence reported. More than assaults, people were being admitted in hospitals as a result of police firing. Pursuant to this, there were serial bomb blasts in various parts of the city on March 12, 1993. In December 1992 and January 1993, as many as 900 people were reported as dead, 168 were missing and 2036 were injured. As a result of the serial bomb blasts of 1993, there were 257 death and 1400 suffered injuries.
The state administration had resolved to provide financial aid to those affected by riots and the series of bombings in a resolution dated July 8, 1993. A second resolution passed on July 22, 1998, and it was determined to pay the missing people’s legal heirs Rs. 2 lakh in compensation. There have been lapses of implementation of this decision.however.
Issues dealt with and Directions given:
The Maharashtra government agreed to compensate the victims with rupees two lakh, and the money was given to the legitimate heirs of 900 people who died and 60 people who went missing. The State Government informed the Court that despite the fact that 168 people were reported missing following the disturbances, it could only provide compensation to the relatives of 60 missing people, as the other legal heirs could not be located. Therefore, the Court instructed the State to make every effort to find the 108 missing people’s rightful heirs.
“The State Government shall pay compensation of Rs.2 lakhs to the legal heirs of the missing persons traced out hereafter, with interest at the rate of 9% per annum from 22nd January 1999 i.e. from the expiry of the period of six months from the date of the second Government Resolution, till actual payment”, the Court ordered. (Para 28 iv)
Additionally, the Court ruled that the State must find the other victims who were due compensation under the terms of the first Government Resolution’s annexure but who were not given any. The compensation for the victims listed herein are also subject to interest payments at a rate of 9% per year beginning on January 8, 1994, or six months after the date of the First Government Resolution, until the actual payment is made.
Taking notice, the Supreme Court established a committee to investigate the records pertaining to 108 missing people, which was chaired by the Member Secretary of the Maharashtra State Legal Services Authority. The court also ordered the state government to designate a revenue official, not below the rank of Deputy Collector, and a police officer, not below the rank of Assistant Commissioner of Police, as the committee’s other members.
“The Committee shall monitor the efforts made by the state government to trace the family members of missing persons, whose addresses are not available and also to ensure that those eligible persons who have not made procedural compliances are assisted to make necessary compliance”, the SC said, adding it will also have to also monitor compliance with the directions issued by it as regards payment of compensation to all categories of victims. (Para 22)
2. Revival of Dormant Cases:
The bench also noted that of a total of 253 riot-related criminal cases, one was still pending while 97 are dormant, as pointed out in an affidavit submitted by the state. In addition to this, 114 cases resulted in acquittal, there were 6 convictions, 1 case got abated, and 34 cases were found unrelated to riots.
It directed the Sessions court to dispose of the pending case at the earliest. The accused must either be untraceable or be fleeing, the court reasoned, therefore that must be the cause. The top court also asked the High Court to issue appropriate directions to the courts in which these cases are pending.
“The High Court must ensure that the concerned courts take appropriate steps for tracing the accused. The state government will have to set up a special cell for tracing the accused,” the bench said. (Para 13)
The top court said the state government would provide details of 97 cases on dormant files to the Registrar General of the Bombay High Court within one month from Friday. The Apex Court ordered that the High Court send suitable administrative instructions to the relevant Courts where these cases are ongoing. The High Court must make sure that the relevant Courts take the necessary actions to find the accused. It will be necessary for the State Government to establish a special cell for locating the accused. The trial in the ongoing case needs to be accelerated.
The Court further ordered the State Government to swiftly carry out all recommendations made by the Commission regarding police force changes that were approved by it.
3. Failure to provide legal aid services
Senior Advocate Dr Colin Gonsalves, who appeared for the petitioner, submitted that the the Legal Services Authority failed in providing legal aid to the riot victims. He relied on Section 12 (e) of the Legal Services Authorities Act 1987, which mentions that victims of ethnic violence will be entitled to legal aid. The Court observed that it cannot pass any directions for providing legal aid in view of the passage of time. Nevertheless, it examined the legal argument of Advocate Gonsalves and found merit in it. The Court held that the 1992-92 riots will qualify as “ethnic violence” within the meaning of the Legal Services Authorities Act.
“The term “ethnic” can be narrowly construed as including solely “linguistic” or “racial” groups. If it is given a broad meaning, it will include religion, tribe and caste in group distinction. Looking at the conclusions in the report of the Commission and the response to the recommendations of the State Government in the form of the Memorandum, there is no manner of doubt that communal disharmony between two religious groups was one of the main causes of the riots and violence. There are enough indications in both documents that there was tension between the two religious groups which is one of the major causes of the incidents of violence. Considering the object of the 1987 Act, a broad meaning will have to be assigned to the word “ethnic” for the purposes of considering the entitlement to grant of legal aid. Therefore, these incidents of December 1992 and January 1993 are the incidents of ethnic violence within the meaning of clause (e) of Subsection (1) of Section 12 of the 1987 Act. Hence, on an application being made by the victims of the offence or their legal heirs, legal services could have been provided to them by appointing advocates, who could have assisted the Criminal Courts in terms of sub-Section (2) of Section 301 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (for short, ‘Cr.P.C.’) during the course of trials. Legal services could have been provided to the victims to challenge the orders of acquittal.” (Para 16)
The Court did point out that those were the early years for the Legal Services Authorities and that over the last few decades, its purview has grown. The Court expressed the hope that such circumstances would never arise in India again, but it also stated that in the regrettable event that they did, Legal Services Authorities would assist the victims.
“We hope and trust that after 75 years of independence, riot like situations will never arise. Unfortunately, if such situations arise, we are sure that the Legal Services Authorities at various levels will come to the rescue of the victims of violence and render legal services to them, keeping in mind the spirit of Section 12 of the 1987 Act”. (Para 16)
4. Implementation of Police Reform Recommendations:
Regarding the concern raised regarding taking action against negligent police officers, it was stated that, in accordance with the commission’s recommendations, FIRs were filed against nine police officers; afterwards, two of them were let go, and the remaining seven were found not guilty. It claimed that the state administration had not given a justification for not contesting the verdict.
“The State should have been vigilant and proactive in these cases. Now it is too late in the day to direct the State to examine whether the orders of acquittal deserve to be challenged,” the bench noted. (Para 11)
Pertaining to the disciplinary investigation brought up regarding various police officials, it was stated by the bench that given the amount of time that had passed, it would be inappropriate to discuss the appropriateness of the penalties imposed and the validity of the orders issued by the disciplinary authorities.
“In any case, in a writ petition in the nature of a public interest litigation, a writ court should not normally interfere with disciplinary proceedings,” the bench said. (Para 12)
The bench stated that the commission’s recommendations were extremely broad and included numerous ideas for strengthening and upgrading the police force. The state has reportedly adopted the majority of these recommendations, according to a memorandum in government records.
“But what remains is the implementation part. The state government cannot ignore the recommendations made by the commission for the improvement and modernization of the police force and the recommendations shall continue to guide the state government,” it said. (Para 18)
The court ruled that all of the commission’s recommendations for police force reforms that it had approved must be swiftly put into effect by the state.
The order can be read here.