Remember the dead of the Radhabai Chawl?

BY Dasu Krishnamoorty| IN Media Practice | 02/03/2006
The media campaigned on Best Bakery and will do so for Jessica Lal. But why did it not pursue acquittals in the Radhabai chawl case as doggedly?

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Two judgments coming in the span of a week became the talk of the town. There was all-round applause for a Mumbai special court awarding life sentence to nine of the 21 accused in what has come to be known as the Best Bakery case. The other was a Delhi court acquitting all the accused in the murder of Jessica Lal in a restaurant socialite Bina Ramani owns. Both cases involved capricious depositions by witnesses. In the Best Bakery, media and NGOs zealously took the battle into the sanctum of the Supreme Court and persuaded the apex court to transfer the trial to a special court outside Gujarat. The media are now worked up about the freeing of all accused in the Jessica case and one may assume that the curtain has not come down on the case. It figured in Parliament on Monday. The Best Bakery case also cannot be said to have ended since the accused can still appeal to the Supreme Court,  

Several newspapers commented on both the judgments, indicating delight and outrage as also their perceptions on the working of the justice and police systems. These cases, like any other case, assert the reality that one: victims of injustice have a system to fall back upon for relief and two: the accused get a fair trial before they are convicted. The administration of justice is in accordance with the law of the land and precedents that form the basis for challenging any departure from or distortion of the two. The press, on the other hand, is a watchdog that people look to for support. As a watchdog, the press is different from the courts. When an issue comes up for trial before the press, it has no written codes or precedents to go by in assessing the merits of an issue. Also, unlike the courts, media do not readily provide hearing to both sides. That changes the complexion of the hearing.

Pending the last word of the Supreme Court on a possible appeal from the accused, one has to join the Indian Express in describing ?the silence from 11, Ashoka Road? (BJP headquarters) over Friday¿s verdict on the Best Bakery retrial case as deafening.  The Express did not spare the Congress either. ?To this day, the dismal failure of governments headed by the Congress to throw even one person into jail for those riots that killed some 3,000 Sikhs that fateful November is a blot that it can never erase,? it said. M.J.Akbar commended the role of the media in achieving Friday¿s denouement. He wrote, ?Every Indian can declare with pride that he or she lives in a nation that has not only democracy, but something more: institutions of justice that deliver in matters of honour, truth, life and death. And thank God for a free media too.?

The media gave credit to the judiciary for rescuing the case from Gujarat courts. On several occasions, judiciary took notice of information in the media to suo motu set in motion the due process of law. While this media-judiciary interface is the crux of democracy, it is essential that media are not seen as influencing the course of justice or judiciary seen as taking cue from the media. ?Still, it is a landmark judgment, considering that it generates optimism about the outcome of many similar cases and in a way restores some faith in the judiciary which was rudely shaken yesterday in the Jessica Lall¿s case,? said the Tribune. T.J.S. George of the New Indian Express wrote, ?When the Jessica Lal murder case turned our criminal justice system into a farce, the Best Bakery case provided it with a triumphant vindication. Which means all is not lost despite the saboteurs in our midst.?

The two judgments of last week bring back memories, unless one is struck by amnesia, of one of similar cases the Tribune mentioned earlier. That is, the tragedy in Radhabai chawl in Mumbai on the night of January 7, 1993. Nine persons - six women and three men, of whom two were minors -- were locked in a room, doused with kerosene and then set on fire. Five of them died on the spot. One died later in hospital. The two minors and one girl survived after sustaining disfiguring burns. The Supreme Court freed all the 11 accused, setting aside a TADA court conviction. The court observed that the police had framed the 11 Muslims and ?somehow tried to get them identified through witnesses who belonged to the community from which the people were burnt alive.? Courts, of course, have their own criteria to convict or acquit accused, both in accordance with the spirit and letter of the law. This case provides remarkable evidence of media passivity.

Of the Best Bakery case, the Tribune said, ?But more needs to be done. There are others guilty of equally heinous crimes who are still roaming free. The law has to catch up with all of them if the shaken faith of the right-thinking people, particularly the minority community, is to be restored.? True, the killers of Radhabai chawl are some of those roaming free. They are alive and kicking somewhere while the kith and kin of the deceased continue to nurse their unhealed wounds.. Somebody, other than the 11 persons convicted by the TADA court and later found to be innocent, must have done that heinous job on a January night in 1993. This means that the real culprits are at large. If a fair trial is a human rights issue that concerns every citizen equally, regardless of their political orientation, one might say fair deal eluded the survivors of those who perished in the Radhabai chawl.

The Indian Express said, ?For this newspaper, which doggedly reported on the tortuous course of the tragic Best Bakery case, the verdict is a vindication.? But the Express overlooked one implication:  that the newspaper had started probing the Bakery case on the assumption that there were discrepancies in the police investigation based on the acquittal of all the accused by Gujarat courts. Okay, why did it assume that everything about the Radhabai chawl case was honky-dory and therefore failed to pursue it as doggedly? Somebody must have set the chawl ablaze. Who are they? Did the media lose all interest when they came to know the faith of the victims? Will the killers escape both judicial and media oversight? These questions cry for answers. Under the law, there is no limitation for re-opening a criminal case. Will the media press for it?

The Express and other newspapers that took the interest of a party to the case in Best Bakery can as doggedly work on tracing the culprits in the Radhabai chawl case. Shivraj Patil told the Rajya Sabha, ?As the law exists today, no person should be tried twice in any case...Supreme Court has ordered reinvestigation in some cases and it has become a kind of law also for us. It can be followed,? This means that it is possible for the police or any other state agency to reinvestigate the Radhabai case. To fend off charges of bias, media have a duty to use all their investigative talent to identify the killers. Victims are victims and need media support irrespective of who they are.

Vir Sanghvi of Hindustan Times said, ?I share your rage, your outrage and your determination that we must not let Jessica Lall`s murder go unpunished. To allow that to happen would diminish us as a nation.? Vir, if the Radhabai murderers go scot free, it will certainly diminish the image of the media beside that of the nation. Akbar, please note.

Contact: dasukrishnamoorty@hotmail.com

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