Caught up in his own lies

Now that the Liberhan Commission report is about to be tabled in Parliament, I am curious to know what it says about Bal Thackeray and his role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The Srikrishna Commission report on the 1992-93 Bombay riots was pretty damning – Justice Srikrishna has unequivocally indicted the Sena supremo and held L K Advani marginally culpable, too. Advani, with his rath yatra, created an atmosphere that was ripe for a communal conflagration, said Justice Srikrishna. “And into this boiling cauldron, like a general leading his troops, stepped in Bal Thackeray…”

I have never found another line more poetic or more evocative of the situation on the ground in any report of any commission than this one.

Of course, the Shiv Sena-BJP government, which was in power when the report was submitted, rejected the findings of the Commission – they could really not have taken action against their own supremo, after all.

But Thackeray and his cohorts could not have manipulated (or dismissed as they tried to) the findings of the Liberhan Commission as easily as they did with Justice Srikrishna, both the Commission (which was abolished in 1995 to be revived in 1996) or its report. I remember every time Thackeray was about to be summoned to Allahabad or wherever the Commission so pleased, he ended up with an ailment. I don’t think he ever appeared before the Commission – though his lawyers might have pleaded his case before Justice Liberhan.

But while all this was going on, I actually felt sorry for Thackeray – for he had really had no role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid though he was quite happy to take the credit for it when he thought it would be politically expedient.

When the Srikrishna report was tabled in the Maharashtra Assembly, Shankar Gaikar, the local Bajrang Dal chief called me to spew venom at Thackeray. “How can he claim credit for it when none of the Sena leaders were present in Ayodhya on that day?”

Actually Gaikar was right – Manohar Joshi, Sudhir Joshi and Pramod Navalkar had reached Ayodhya just a day before the demolition and by then all the good accommodation (in hotels or guest houses) was already taken. They were asked to camp out on cots in tents and felt highly insulted by that. So in a huff they boarded the next train back to Bombay and were actually in Calcutta en route when the mosque was brought down by the kar sevaks.

Knowing the enormity of the crime and its consequences, some BJP leaders in their first reaction promptly blamed it on the Shiv Sena. Now Thackeray did not know whether to be flattered or wary. He knew none of the Shiv Sainiks were in Ayodhya that evening, yet he was not great enough to let go of the political mileage that this demolition offered in those polarised times.

I was working for a wire service (UNI) then and called him for a reaction. “I will consult the editors of Saamna and tell you later,” he told me. “Call me in an hour.”

He actually needed the time to connect with Joshi and others (there were no mobile phones then) to seek advice on whether or not they should claim credit for the demolition. The dilemma was: how to let go of the mileage that was coming his way despite the fact that he was not deserving of it? So when I called him back he told me, “If my sainiks were really involved in the demolition, then I can only be proud of them.”

That was the reaction flashed on the wires that was then picked up by the whole world and paraphrased to make it sound as though Thackeray were claiming credit for the demolition (`Thackeray said he was proud that his sainiks had demolished the mosque’ etc). Thackeray was only too happy to go along with that – until the summons from the Liberhan commission arrived at his doorstep.

If there is one thing that Thackeray is really afraid of (actually he is afraid of several things) it is a court of law (or, in this case, a judicial commission). He knows there is no escaping the consequences of a contempt case and so would rather not take on the judges or even appear before them, lest his uncontrollable habit of breaking into abuse every so often get the better of him. So there were ample excuses then for not turning up before the Commission. But once when I dug that original quote out to re-use it in another story I was writing (then for the Indian Express), he saw red.

“Who told you my boys had demolished the masjid?” he asked me.

“You did,” I said. “You gave your first reaction to me, so this is not
hearsay. I have quoted you verbatim in my report.”

Thackeray then quite lost his temper – not at me but at the BJP. “That Sundersingh Bhandari, that *%&*! (word of abuse), he just did not have the guts to accept that it was an act by the BJP. So to escape the consequences he just blamed my boys. I knew they had not done it, that is why I said `if’. But you did not underline the `if’. If my boys had indeed done it, then I would still be proud of it. I am not afraid of anyone. Why should I backtrack on any of it?”

But, in fact, he did backtrack – at his next public meeting at Shivaji Park he openly abused Bhandari and other BJP leaders and dissociated himself publicly from the demolition so that every newspaper and news channel (there were not so many of them then) would get it right and convey the fact to the Liberhan Commission.

But, of course, he has never been able to live down that dishonest attempt of his to take credit for a despicable act when he thought it was going to be politically bountiful. No matter how much he denied it after that, no one quite believed Thackeray.

Perhaps, he should have taken Justice Srikrishna’s advice seriously. Justice Srikrishna, if I recall correctly, has quoted the scriptures in his report (I don’t remember in what context) to say: Akritvaa para santaapam, agatvaa khalamandiram, anutsrijya sataam vartma, yat svalpamapi tadbahu.

Translated it means: without causing distress to a fellow human being, without having to go begging to a crook, without swerving from the path of rectitude, whatever little you earn should be enough for you.

But Thackeray always caused distress to others in ample measure, always preferred crooks to good people and never had any rectitude. And it still was not enough.

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