Saturday, November 24, 2012

The MLA, the Bajrangi and the others the judgment touched

Thu Aug 30 2012, 03:42 hrs
Firebrand leader who rose swiftly till downfall
She rose swiftly through the ranks, having made her mark as a firebrand leader who had saffron politics as part of her legacy. Mayaben Surendrabhai Kodnani, convicted of murder, conspiracy and spreading communal hatred, is the daughter of a staunch RSS worker who had suffered the pains of Partition, moving from Tharparkar in Sind province to Deesa in Gujarat.
Kodnani, the first sitting MLA and woman to be convicted in a case involving the 2002 Gujarat riots, is a gynaecologist. She owes her fame, however, more to being a politician than to being a doctor, says a member of the fraternity.
From her first election as a corporator in Ahmedabad, it took her 12 years to become a minister. Dr Kodnani, now 53, resigned as minister after her arrest in 2009.
Educated in a Gujarati-medium school founded and run by her father in Deesa, she joined Rashtriya Sevika Samiti, the RSS women's wing, around the time she entered Baroda Medical College from where she got an MBBS followed by a diploma in gynaecology and obstetrics.
Some 20 years ago, she moved to Ahmedabad and set up the Shivam Maternity Hospital in Kubernagar in Naroda, which has a sizeable Sindhi population. In 1995, the BJP fielded her in the Ahmedabad civic elections from Saijpur ward. The BJP swept the polls and she was made deputy chairperson of the civic health committee and later elevated as chairman of the standing committee, the first woman to make that post.
Her skills as an orator boosted her popularity among Sangh leaders, including L K Advani who mentored her. She had been taking up her community's cause since her AMC days, leading angry protests over issues such as temple demolitions and removal of illegally built shops in areas dominated by her community.
In 1998, Kodnani was elected BJP MLA from Naroda constituency, posting a landslide victory by 75,000 votes. She was by then general secretary of the Gujarat Pradesh BJP Mahila Morcha and was later appointed chief of that unit from 1998 to 2000. From 2000 to 2005, she was the president of the Ahmedabad city BJP, a rare achievement for a woman.
It was during this stint that the massacre took place in Naroda Patiya. The charges against her include instigating the mob to kill, distributing swords and even firing from a pistol. In court, her defence was that she had been attending the Assembly session during the first half of that day in 2002, but 11 witnesses testified against her.
In December 2002, contesting her first election after the massacre, she defeated Purshottam Harwani of the Congress by a whopping 1.80 lakh votes. Harwani, now in the BJP, was outside the court today.
In 2007, Kodnani was made MoS for women and child development. She resigned after her arrest in May 2009, though she was released on bail shortly after.
As a doctor, she used to be popular in Saijpur, largely because she spoke the same language as most of her local patients. She has, however, virtually left practice since she won the civic elections all those years ago.
Kodnani, who attended the Assembly's monsoon session, had not been visiting her hospital for 2½ months, sources say. Her responsibilities have been taken over by another doctor. The conviction is expected to cost Kodnani her registration.
Her last public appearance was at the World Sindhi Conference in Ahmedabad, along with Advani.
In court, the prosecution demanded capital punishment. Defence advocate Niranjan Tikani opposed it on the grounds that her husband is not in good health while her son is studying in the US.
Hardliner who bragged about violence and then became warier
In 2004, he had proudly introduced himself as “Myself Babu Bajrangi, prime accused in the Naroda Patiya case”. More recently, he has been turning his face away from cameras and could be reached only after clearing a three-tier personal security cordon.
Babubhai Rajabhai Patel, better known as Babu Bajrangi, and who faces his fate in court, has been consistent only as a Hindu hardliner. President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's youth outfit Bajrang Dal for many years, he quit both the dal and the VHP in 2007-2008 over ideological differences with senior leaders. He then joined the Shiv Sena, but even that was short-lived.
It was in fact the hardline Hindutva he followed that led to his split from the VHP and the dal. Others were then opting for a softer line in the wake of severe criticism over the 2002 riots.
Bajrangi is accused of leading and instigating mobs in Naroda Patiya. In a Tehelka interview, he once claimed that he had slit open the stomach of a pregnant woman. He has been convicted of murder and conspiracy.
Bajrangi, now 52, is a wealthy Kadva Patel from Kutch and runs a construction and land deals firm in Naroda. One of his more intriguing initiatives is Navchetan, an organisation that he runs purely to break inter-community marriages, especially between Kutchhi Patel girls and boys from other communities. He tries and convinces them to return to their parents.
One of the best known of such breakups was that of Reema Sompura, a Gujarati girl who had eloped with Mumbai-based Anthony Rebello in 2003. Bajrangi brought her back, claiming to have rescued her, and was charged with abducting her. The couple got back together finally. Bajrangi is believed to have “rescued” around 2,000 such Hindu girls.
He heads the Kutchi Patel Samaj in Naroda, representing one of its rich and influential communities.
Bajrangi, who was out on bail till the conviction, went underground after the Tehelka tapes went on air with him detailing the Naroda Patiya murders in 2007. If one tries meeting him at his Naroda office, one has to leave one's mobile phones outside and even one's bags are thoroughly checked for “hidden tapes and cameras”. He has rarely met journalists since the tapes went public.
Ranchodbhai Bharwad, the VHP's state general secretary, said, “Babu Bajrangi has not been with us for almost 15 years. He has no role in the VHP.”
Convicts' kin-From stunned silence to tears
Maya Kodnani's husband, Surendra, appeared lost, deep in thought, till the news came. When the emotion showed, it did in a flood: he wept, shook his head and appeared to have nearly fainted until he was sent home. Relatives including Maya Kodnani's sister tried to console him and turned away reporters who approached them.
Babu Bajrangi's son, Tarun, went into a shell after the verdict. All around the court premises, relatives of those convicted either sobbed, were muted, or kept protesting about innocence.
Any consolation they got was from each other, for no office-bearer of the BJP, the Bajrang Dal or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were on the premises. There were some members from these groups, but they served only as spectators and were not seen offering any consolation.
An exception was Purshottam Harwani, director of Gujarat Minorities Finance and Development Corporation Ltd, who was on the premises. “I came to console the families of convicts such as Mayaben who is a daughter of our community. We will see what the community can do to share the grief,” he said. He had lost to Kodnani in an election he contested on a Congress ticket.
The verdict at 11am saw emotions released in a flood from the courtroom too. Some smashed the windowpanes for a glimpse of their relatives. By noon, as the names of the convicts started coming out, Kamsan A Chhara, mother of Naresh and Haresh, wept, “They can't do this a 70-year-old mother. My younger son can't survive without me. The elder one has two little children.”
Nilam M Chaubal's cousin Someshwar was relieved: it was an acquittal. He said the police had framed his cousin.
The survivors-Amid cheer, a disappointment
Survivors of the Naroda Patiya massacre and representatives of the Citizens for Justice and Peace hailed the 32 convictions. Many called for the death sentence.
But amid all that was also disappointment that the court did not arraign four policemen and paramilitary personnel as accused. Some of the victims-witnesses had applied for the inclusion of Naroda police inspectors K K Mysorewala and V S Gohil, State Reserve Police officer Ketan Parikh, and SRP commando Dantaniya, who they said were part of the conspiracy, in the list of accused.
CJP secretary and trustee Teesta Setalvad called the verdict historic. She said it was a reflection of the confidence generated by the Supreme Court's monitoring and the protection paramilitary forces provided to witnesses.
“I welcome the conviction. The death sentence will strengthen the confidence of the people in judiciary,” said witness Dildar Hussain Saiyed, demanding that sentence for Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi. He said he had seen Kodnani distributing swords to the mobsters and instigating them.
He said he had filed the application to arraign the four cops, and was disappointed. Advocate Altaf Zidran said, “We don't know what grounds it was rejected on. We will decide what next after getting a copy of the order.”
Mohammedbhai Abdul Sheikh said, “Even the death sentence would not be enough for the nature of the crime they committed.” Shakilabanu Sheikh, who lost seven members of her family, too said the punishment should be “stricter than the death sentence”.
Advocate Raju Sheikh alleged that Bajrangi had threatened him for cross-examining a witness, Jannat Bibi. “When I came out of the court after cross-examining Jannat Bibi, Bajrangi grabbed me by the arm and threatened that I would face very serious consequences for arguing for the victims.” alleged Sheikh.
He said judge Jyotsna Yagnik forced Bajrangi to tender an apology.
The massacre...
February 28, 2002: The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had declared a bandh to protest the torching of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra. At 8 am, a mob thousands strong started to gather around Naroda Patiya, an Ahmedabad area inhabited mainly by Muslims. The mob went on to kill 97.
The areas attacked included a large number of localities , the outside and inside of Nurani Masjid and Bhagyoday Hotel. The mobsters killed with tridents, swords and guns and used even hockey sticks and iron pipes. Many of the bodies were thrown into a dry well and then set on fire.
The mobsters stormed Muslim properties, residential or commercial, and looted them of cash and every possible kind of valuables, including clothes and even furniture. The total loss was estimated at around Rs 4 crore. Some women were raped and many molested.
The attack came in defiance of a curfew announced by the police. The mobsters allegedly attacked policemen too, throwing glass bottles at them.
...And after
November: Supreme Court stays investigation in many cases including Naroda Patiya massacre. This is on a petition alleging biased investigation by Gujarat Police.
March 26: Supreme Court appoints an SIT, or special investigation team, for nine cases including Naroda Patiya. Stay lifted.
March 27: SIT arrests BJP MLA Maya Kodnani on charges including murder.
April: Supreme Court orders special fast-track courts be set up; Dr Jyotsna Yagnik appointed judge in Naroda Patiya case.
October 8: Special court frames charges against 62 persons; trial begins.
January 30: Daylong visit to Naroda Patiya by a court team.
April 13: Judgment reserved till June 30 as one of the 62 accused had died.
June 30: Judgment deferred till August 29.
August 29: Judgment delivered.
August 31: Expected sentencing of the 32 convicted.
Reports by TANVIR A SIDDIQUI, KAPIL DAVE, Satish Jha and S Khalique Ahmed in Ahmedabad