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Farooque Mapkar, 44, had a bullet removed from his shoulder 17 days after it hit him. Between 10 January 1993, when it was fired, and 27 January, when he went to a nursing home to have it operated on, he was in custody. First, he was at the Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Marg police station, then at the lock-up at Bhoiwada, waiting to be released on bail as the Mumbai police processed charges of rioting and attempted murder against him and 54 others. The police alleged the riot to have taken place at Hari Masjid, where seven people had died, and several others were injured, in shooting.

Years later, the findings of the Justice B. N. Srikrishna Commission report, published in 1998, would confirm through the testimony of “witness after witness" that the murders at Hari Masjid had been committed in an episode of unprovoked police firing at Muslim men gathered for afternoon namaaz. The bullet, as it turned out, would be the easiest thing to remove from Mapkar’s life. The Hari Masjid case, one of the most serious episodes of the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, stretched on until 2009, when a special court acquitted him of the rioting charges.

Mapkar and his team of lawyers continue to seek justice as they challenge a CBI closure report on the Hari Masjid case, which acquits the police, including sub-inspector Nikhil Kapse, indicted by the Srikrishna Commission, of their role in the case.

They rounded us up after that, and took those of us who were injured to KEM hospital. Shiv Sainiks had entered the hospital and were beating up Muslims. ‘They beat me too,’ he says. He told the police to take him back to the station.

The Mapkars have lived in Mumbai for generations. Farooque Mapkar grew up in the settlements of Kidwai Nagar between Wadala and Sewri. In 1993, Mapkar was 24 years old, five years into a job on the staff of Konkan Mercantile Bank. He was at the bank’s Reay Road branch one afternoon, Mapkar recalls the day, 20 years ago, when the police opened fire. “They rounded us up after that, and took those of us who were injured to KEM hospital." Mumbai’s premier teaching hospital, not far away from Hari Masjid was, Mapkar says, in the middle of another riot; Shiv Sainiks had entered the hospital and were beating up Muslims. “They beat me too," he says. He told the police to take him back to the station. 

It is difficult to describe the fear and uncertainty of living in a city devouring itself, to those who do not know or remember what it was like. It can only be gleaned between the lines of the Srikrishna Commission report’s sober testimonies, describing “entirely unprovoked" police firing, the systematic plotting of a false story about “private firing", and the deaths of one Hindu and six Muslim men, some of them shot at point-blank range.

For the last two decades, court dates have all but swallowed up Mapkar’s life—“every fortnight, every month". “Everyone else can turn up late," he once told a newspaper, “but the accused always has to be on time." Years passed; governments fell, courts opened, closed and deferred cases, and the city changed around him. Kidwai Nagar survived the riots, but became part of a redevelopment scheme. The Mapkars sold their small house and went to live in an apartment block in Sewri, close to the railway station.

Mapkar’s parents live close by to where he stays with his wife and children. They have had to share his attention with the grind of the cases for a majority of his adult life. “They’re old now," he says of his parents, when asked about how they have reacted over the years to his endeavours. “They read the papers and stay in touch with how things are going."

The timeline of his cases and the CBI inquiry is an instant reminder of how courts, police and the state have been complicit in delaying due process. He was in a sessions court, appearing before judge C.M. Salunkhe, on the day of another minor cataclysm, the storm of 26 July 2005—over 12 years after the firings. “All of Bombay went underwater, and court hearings went on until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Because of the water they weren’t even willing to record properly," he remembers. “One of the police witnesses clearly said that he had been hit by police bullets, and it was the Muslims inside Hari Masjid who took him to hospital—that was never taken. He came that day to give his testimony." But statements against the police’s version of truth, Mapkar says, had a habit of disappearing from the record. “We kept inquiring about it; they kept fobbing us off by saying it’s noted here, it’s noted somewhere else—just went on doing timepass."

Most of the alleged rioters with whom Mapkar had been indicted were acquitted of all charges in 2006, but Mapkar’s case, for reasons that remain unclear, was separated from the others’.

“When a man goes to court again and again, he comes to understand what his rights are," he says matter-of-factly. “If he doesn’t get them, he demands them. When the demands aren’t met, he knows he must fight."

In 2009, in the 25th sessions court, Mapkar was finally acquitted of all charges. He and his lawyers had stood alone for most of the way; in an interview to Mumbai Mirror, soon after the acquittal, he told journalist Jyoti Punwani, “The testimony of Hindu witnesses has helped me more than the silence of Muslims."

Not too far up the Railway Harbour Line from Mapkar’s place of work, close to the Koliwada railway station (now called Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar) is a flat on the fourth floor of a working-class housing society. This is the office of a three-year-old weekly newspaper called Janata Ka Aaina. It is run by Shakil Ahmed, 41, who happens to be one of Mapkar’s lawyers, a key figure in a long and frustrating chain of appeals against the CBI’s closure report on the Hari Masjid case. The soft-spoken, round-shouldered Ahmed, an Ashoka Foundation fellow and activist who has represented victims in several human rights cases in Mumbai, is a local boy and the 1992-93 riots form a crucial episode in his own story. He was 22 years old when the hutments of Sion Koliwada, where he had been brought up, were burned down by rioters.

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Shakil Ahmed, lawyer, human rights activist and founder of Hindinewspaper ‘Janata Ka Aaina’, saw his Sion Koliwada home burned in the riots. Photo: Gopal MS/Mint

“They picked out Muslim houses to burn in Pratiksha Nagar," Ahmed says. “They encouraged their neighbours to flee and bought out their homes at rock bottom prices, or took control of them without paying." He pauses. “We saw the hideous face of society."

All around the Janata ka Aaina office, the community is changing. The drills and cranes reconstructing the lane leading up to it send up clouds of dust through the day. The sprawl of one-room tenements that edges up to the building are in various states of demolition. Ahmed cautions us when we invite him outdoors for a photograph; the builders working on the project will probably want to know all about the story. A group of young men from the tenements, clad in tight jeans, sporting red tilaks, are interested in him. “Who is he? You’re writing about him because he reads this newspaper? What do you mean, he publishes it?"

Ahmed was in college in the year of the riots, studying for his master’s in commerce degree. He didn’t clear his exams. “I had been educated in fits and starts all my life," he says. “I decided to study law because it had a KT (kept term) system, so you could repeat exams without repeating semesters."

They picked out Muslim houses to burn in Pratiksha Nagar, they encouraged their neighbours to flee and bought out their homes at rock bottom prices, or took control of them without paying. We saw the hideous face of society.

“I became attached to the kind of work we were doing," he says.

Today, his NGO Parivartan Shikshan Sanstha provides education to children from the Antop Hill slums not too far from his office. In 2009 he contested the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha elections as a people’s candidate from Sion Koliwada. He polled about 1,400 votes. “I didn’t contest elections expecting to bring change to the system," he says. “The attitude here is that there is no choice, with the BJP here, the Shiv Sena there, why should we vote at all? The idea was to see what people would do when presented with an alternative."

False alternatives are everywhere in the way Ahmed analyses the afterlife of the riots. Even the Srikrishna Commission report became a pawn for successive governments to play as they wished. “If there’s been a murder, an FIR should be filed, an investigation conducted, a chargesheet made, and the trial conducted," he says. “The state silenced calls for justice, aggressively promoting the Srikrishna Commission, which had no relation to any of these processes. After that, for six years they controlled the report tightly. So much changed in the city by then, socially and politically. The commission’s report was called biased (by the BJP-Sena government which came to power in 1994), and that was that. In 1999, the Congress promised that they would enforce the commission’s recommendations, secured Muslim votes, and then failed to act on it.

“In the case of the Gujarat riots, secular-minded people were able to attack the BJP government directly as communal and compromised," he says. “But people often want to apologize for the Congress, saying its ideology is secular, or that some people may commit violence, but the whole party is not like that."

‘Janata Ka Aaina’
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‘Janata Ka Aaina’

Ahmed will not say if he’ll run for elections again. One of the consequences of his campaign was his exposure to just how badly, he says, the media does its job. “Every newspaper contacted me to ask how big a spread I wanted and on which page. All with different rates," he says. “Because the media isn’t playing the role it’s supposed to, we brought out our own newspaper."

Janata ka Aaina with a circulation of about 1,500 and a readership, Ahmed guesses, of 4,000, runs local news and long editorials dedicated to social interest. In the last week of November, it had an eight-page issue, with a full-length cover feature on how Bal Thackeray’s funeral paralysed the city; inside pages had reports on water shortage in Malad’s Ambujwadi area, a murder in Antop Hill and a feature on problems faced by transgender people. Ahmed and the team of four who run the newspaper do their best to make sure it reaches local people; the idea is to make it known that there is a channel for stories about their lives and public problems.

The Bombay riots cases continue to be a part of his work. But Ahmed says, he has no hope now that they will achieve anything like wide-scale justice in Mumbai. “Look at how a man, who was responsible for killing over a thousand people in his city, a man whom the Srikrishna (Commission) report called a commander to his Shiv Sainiks..., was wrapped in the tricolour for his state funeral. How can we even begin to imagine a world in which we are safe from a Kasab, in which there are no bombings, where we can live in communal harmony, and the country flourishes?"

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