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An Architect of Conscience – Mukul Sinha


Mukul Sinha (1951-2014)

Manisha Sethi ([email protected]) is with the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association and teaches at the Centre for Comparative Religions and Civilizations, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.

As news of the demise of Mukul Sinha – trade unionist, lawyer, civil rights worker, and a widely loved communist – came in, no news channel cared to pause the hysteria over exit polls. Not even momentarily. The giddy coverage of voting in Benaras and possibility of the Modi wave reaching the parliamentary shores safely could not be suspended for even a five-minute solemn remembrance of this remarkable man. No one recalled that Mukul Sinha had been instrumental in sending Amit Shah, being feted as the architect of Modi’s victory in Uttar Pradesh, to jail in 2010 in the Sohrabuddin Shaikh fake encounter case.

An organic trade union leader

Like K Balagopal, another of our great civil liberties fighter, Mukul Sinha came to law quite late. The former was a mathematician by training, the latter a physicist. Both were forced to abandon science – Balagopal because of a false police case, which made it unsafe for him to remain in Warangal and continue teaching; Sinha because the government laboratory where he worked could not tolerate his trade unionism in defence of his retrenched colleagues. But while Balagopal missed teaching mathematics, Sinha accepted his termination with relief and relish. He threw himself into trade union work and felt compelled to get a law degree to deal with labour cases.

He showed – just like Balagopal had before him – how civil liberties work was rigorous and analytical. I first met him in 2009, when we invited him to Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association’s first convention. He and Nirjhari Sinha, his wife and “partner for more than 30 years” presented a slide show meticulously demonstrating how the Ahmedabad police Crime Branch had killed Ishrat Jahan in cold blood.  The entry and exit marks, the angles and trajectory of bullets showed how there had been no cross firing. The occupants of the car had been shot from a point blank range. The recovery of weapons from “terrorists” surprisingly free of any bloodstains proved how they had been planted. (These were later to appear in the “Ishrat Jahan Evidence List series” on Truth of Gujarat, his website dedicated to uncovering the grisly reality beneath the shine of Modi’s hyped claims).

Protection of Terrorist Act

The same care to detail and the painstaking collection of evidence was to be found in every case the couple handled. Maya Kodnani’s conviction in the Naroda Patiya massacre is owed in large parts to the analysis of the records of her mobile phone conversations with Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Jaydeep Patel by Nirjhari Sinha. A full-length book could be written on how Sinha, lawyer for Sohrabuddin Shaikh’s brother, and his team cracked the thousands of phone calls between senior police offices and the Minister Amit Shah in late November 2005. Call data was analysed for location, durations, frequency and timing, to piece together the sequence of the murders of Sohrabuddin and his wife Kauser bi. The call records proved that Amit Shah had called Deputy Superintendent of Police Narendra Amin 15 times during the operation (and 76 times when Tulsi Prajapati was killed a year later by the same team). This turned out to be one of the crucial pieces of evidence that finally led to the arrest of Amit Shah by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in July 2010.

In fact, he was the first to fully articulate the cynical larger political conspiracy underlying the large number of Prevention of Terrorist Activities (POTA) cases against Muslims and the spate of encounter killings following the Gujarat pogrom. He had argued that terrorism was central to the crafting of Narendra Modi’s Hindu Hriday samrat iconography. Dismissing POTA as “Production of Terrorist Act”, he asked, “How does one declare a war on terrorism if there are no terrorists around? In Gujarat, this logical hurdle is easily surmounted. Create them first and then declare war on them so that the “hapless citizens” can vote you to power as their sole saviour! Till October  2002, Gujarat had no “terrorist” of any kind but by the third week of January 2004, Gujarat had around 180 “hardcore/ anti-national/ Jihadi” terrorists in its jails i.e. in a period of 15 months, Gujarat had produced and arrested nearly 180 hardened Islamic terrorists, an average of 12 terrorists per month. A good rate of production by any Indian standards thanks to the potent productivity under POTA“The state of Gujarat,” he wrote, “therefore does not “misuse” POTA but actually uses POTA to create “terrorist”.”

When the Supreme Court appointed the Santosh Hegde headed commission to enquire into six cases of fake encounters in Manipur, Sinha appeared on behalf of the petitioners, the widows’ association. In its sitting in Delhi, witnesses were cross examined in the killing of Azad, a 12-year-old school boy, who was shot dead by Assam Rifles personnel and Manipuri police commandoes. Though family and friends had maintained that Azad was reading a newspaper with his friend when he was taken away by security men, beaten and then shot dead in the fields next to his house in West Imphal, the prime witness, the officer who had led the “operation” claimed that they had acted upon secret intelligence about the presence of “UGs” (underground insurgents).

Mukul Sinha led him through a detailed cross-examination: from the officer’s knowledge of local language (“how would you command someone to shoot in Manipuri”), the grades of intelligence inputs, his counterinsurgency experience, to the specifics of the operation, the requisitioning of police commandoes, the route of the journey undertaken, the vehicles in which the raid party travelled. The witness sweated and fumbled, the counsel for the Ministry of Defence sprang up every few moments to object to his questions.

Sitting in the backbenches, a straggly collection of activists and an odd reporter from Imphal newspaper, restrained themselves from cheering out aloud. Referring to another witness’ affidavit in which he swore that the raiding party travelled in a Tata 407 rather than the three gypsies as was being claimed in the witness box by the officer, he asked, “So, is he lying?”. There was a loud objection to the use of the word lying. “Okay, okay”, He smiled gently and asked again, “So, is he prevaricating?”

This was quintessential Mukul Sinha. Gentle, persuasive, persistent, unrelenting. Though suffering from lung cancer, which made even simple conversation an ordeal, he spent hours discussing terror cases when a young researcher from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) visited him earlier this year.

Indomitable courage

When one sees senior media barons and editors genuflecting before a man Mukul Sinha was fighting against, that you realise the full extent of his courage. To be living in Ahmedabad and challenging the mightiest and the most ruthless must have put him in real danger. In rare moments he would share these stories but he almost appeared apologetic because of the self-deprecating manner in which he used to speak.

Once in the Ahmedabad courts, he ran into DG Vanzara. Under Amit Shah’s patronage, DG Vanzara ruled Ahmedabad at that time.  Fearing the worse, he said, Mukul Sinha turned around and raced to his car. He could hear footsteps following him. Faster and faster he strode towards his car.  But Vanzara overtook him, took his hands and shook them vigorously, and then left. Mukul Sinha thought it was a story worthy of a good laugh. He also joked that Modi’s national ambitions would ensure that no harm came to him. Modi could not afford any trouble in Gujarat.

Last year, in the middle of the media storm surrounding CBI enquiry into the Ishrat jahan killing, Sinha had asked: “Will our great democracy win or will a handful of killers write the future of this nation?”

The results are out. If only we hadn’t also been robbed of Mukul Sinha’s presence at this hour.

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A Combative Hero: Mukul Sinha

Vol – XLIX No. 23, June 07, 2014 | Mihir Desai

Scientific Forever

So who was Mukul Sinha? In recent years, of course, he had become prominent as one of the most vocal and ardent critics of Narendra Modi, a sane and secular voice amongst the cacophony created by Hindutva supporters. He was a man not just of words but of action. A large number of us know Mukul as a Modi baiter but Mukul was much more than that. His death would have been mourned as intensely even if Modi had not existed.

Mukul was a Bengali. His father worked with the Indian Railways and the family moved every few years. Mukul completed his Bachelor’s degree in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh. He was attracted to physics, observing “It is a logical, objective discipline. It was the 1960s and we had great hope that science would take India forward.” He did his Masters from IIT Kharagpur and then started on his PhD in physics at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) at Ahmedabad as a research scholar. It was here that he met the 22 year old Nirjhari, who was working as a research assistant. They fell in love and got married.

Nirjhari came from a conservative wealthy Jain Gujarati family and predictably enough there were objections, but the families reconciled themselves to the marriage. At the memorial meeting a large number of Nirjhari’s family members were present and one of them spoke vividly about their love for Mukul. It needs to be emphasised that Mukul would not have been what he was without Nirjhari’s support. She stood by him through thick and thin, and participated in organisational activities and struggles. Without her the decoding of telephone records after the Gujarat carnage would not have been possible.

In 1979, Mukul completed his PhD and accepted a research position in PRL. While in subsequent years he gave up science as a career, the scientist in him never died. Two instances come to mind. The first was soon after the massive earthquake which shook north Gujarat in 2001 causing widespread destruction in Kutch. Using his scientific knowledge, Mukul came to the conclusion that the epicenter of the earthquake was different from the one claimed by the Gujarat government. He filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court and the state had to accept that Mukul’s analysis was correct. When I asked Mukul about the significance of this, he pointed out that for him it was not just a case of scientific accuracy but the fact that the rehabilitation measures, especially rehousing, etc, depended a lot on where the epicenter was. Similarly, following the burning of the railway coach in Godhra in 2002, Mukul spent considerable amount of time in scientifically establishing that, contrary to the claims of the investigating agencies, the petrol could not have been poured from outside the coach. I remember him making a power point presentation, with detailed photographs on the coach burning at various meetings, discrediting the theory that it was a well planned conspiracy to burn the train.

A Trade Unionist Is Born

In 1979, after he accepted the research position in PRL, his life underwent a dramatic change. As he said in an interview “I will never forget the date: 13 September 1979. One hundred and thirty three people were laid off from the university.” Sinha formed a labour union and began fighting for the workers’ rights. A few months later, Sinha’s services were terminated. He fought the termination unsuccessfully right up to the Supreme Court but this sowed the seeds of his trade union, legal and political career.

During this period he also organised a federation of various employees of educational and research institutes all over India and formed the Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions. Finding himself ill-equipped to deal with the various legal issues which the workers faced, he enrolled for a law course and took his law degree in 1989. Realising that the mandate of a trade union was limited, he formed the Jan Sangharsh Manch to deal with the human rights issues of marginalised communities in 1990. Mukul and his trade unions were involved in organising a number of workers in Gujarat including bus drivers, employees of Reliance, the Gujarat Steel Tubes and various pharmaceutical companies and other establishments.

In the 1990s, when it was hazardous for anyone in Gujarat to criticise the Narmada project (and this fanaticism-tainted situation was even before Modi came to power), Mukul stood with the Narmada oustees and was a vocal critique of the kind of development taking place in Gujarat.

Skilled Cross-examiner

Mukul’s legal skills were always at the service of the suffering masses. Apart from the victims of the 2002 riots and various fake encounters, Mukul also handled large number of labour cases. He represented thousands of slum dwellers in courts against eviction drives. He also filed public interest litigations (PILs) in matters concerning environment, including a major case against Reliance. He was known for his boldness in the courts and respected for his legal acumen.

In 2012 after the Supreme Court took action concerning fake encounters in Manipur, Mukul rushed to Manipur to represent the victims in the enquiry. A large amount of credit for the report that proved the encounters to be fake goes to Mukul’s skills as a cross-examiner.

Undiminished Zeal

Mukul’s life was not a mere emotional response to the situation around him. He was an avowed Marxist and a critique of neo-liberal economics. As he wrote in an article,

Globalisation is gobbling up labour laws and workers’ rights besides resources – land, water, mines and minerals. Courts are setting new precedents diluting the Constitution and thereby putting both democracy and people at a grave risk. Yet the courts are content with the applause they get from mighty corporations.

This led him to ultimately start a political organisation called the New Socialist Movement.

The Gujarat carnage of 2002 brought out the combative best in Mukul. One should bear in mind that it was after this carnage that Mukul suffered a major heart attack and Nirjhari was detected with cancer. Despite these personal challenges Mukul fought with a lot of zeal. To begin with Mukul devoted a large part of his energies in representing the victims, day after day, month after month and year after year before the Nanavati Shah Commission, appointed to probe the 2002 carnage. He realised that the Commission was not very responsive to the victims and that he would have to battle his way through. He was not deterred by the fact that the end result may not reflect the evidence and left no stone unturned in grilling the government officials. On three occasions he unsuccessfully tried to get the commission to summon the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Had that been done, I have no doubt that Mukul would have exposed the conspiracy. Nonetheless he was instrumental in getting Rahul Sharma to bring the telephone records of the carnage period and, with substantial help from Nirjhari, these records were decoded minutely which ultimately contributed to Maya Kodnani’s conviction.

Opening another front against the Modi government’s functioning he took up the encounter cases of Sadiq Jamal, Ishrat Jahan, Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsi Prajapati which landed several Gujarat police officers in jail and forced the resignation of the then home minister Amit Shah as he had himself been arrested for the murder of Sohrabuddin Sheikh.

In 2007, Mukul and the trade unions associated with him decided to affiliate with the Trade Union Centre of India (TUCI). In 2010, he was elected president of the TUCI at its 6th conference in Kanpur and was re-elected to the post in the 7th conference in Kolkata in 2012 and continued holding the post until his death. The Truth of Gujarat, a website launched by Mukul and colleagues contributed much to deconstructing the media hype and propaganda around Gujarat’s development and Narendra Modi. His son Pratik has been instrumental in keeping this website alive and updated. As he said in an interview,

What both 1992 and 2002 did was to fool people into believing that the communal divide is greater than the class divide. As soon as you convince a society that Muslims or whatever group is the problem, you have tricked them into overlooking the real problems like labour laws, corruption, housing shortages, and poor infrastructure.

Mukul had an excellent sense of humour. No matter what the adversity, I have never met him without a smile on his face. Another important contribution was his ability at team building.

Mukul suffered from lung cancer which was detected about eight months ago but it did not affect his devotion to the cause of justice. Just two days before he died (12 May) I got a call from him. He wanted to discuss the so-called clean chit issued to Amit Shah by the Central Bureau of Investigation and how it could be countered in court. By this time the doctors had already told him that no further treatment was possible and he was aware that his time was up.

Perhaps it was good that he died before the election results were declared. But I am sure had he survived, he would have told me with a smile “Theek hai. Abhi to ladai shuru hui hai.” (It is ok. The battle has just begun.) I have lost a friend but of more significance is the fact that the civil society in Gujarat and India has lost one of its most combative heroes.

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