The Maiden Testimony

There was something uneasy about the red brick building of ICCMRT. Few cars were parked outside. Inside, the ground floor was spick and span. There was no one in receptionist’s chamber. I stood there for almost a minute trying to fathom the situation. I was in that building to appear as a witness in Babri Mosque demolition case – my maiden appearance in court.

As a reporter I had come to this building almost a decade back when senior BJP leaders including LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi had appeared in the same court. The building was then brimming with people. Police, BJP workers, advocates in black coats and onlookers had thronged the building. That day I did not have to ask anyone where the court was. I just became the part of the crowd and flowed like a river in sea of multitude till I reached the court.

Today was different: The building was desolate. There was no semblance of court being operating from this building. I stood there for a minute waiting for someone to appear from somewhere. In the lawn I saw a gardener, working at a feverish pace trying to give the hedge an umbrella shape.

“Ayodhya court … on the third floor,” the gardener said without bothering to raise his head. “Judge sahib has not come as yet. Still you can go upstairs,” he continued in same vain.

I looked at my watch. It was five minutes to 10 am. The court expects me to reach there by 10 sharp. “You should not be late” – was the terse warning given through summon in black and white. I climbed 66 stairs and found myself face-to face with collapsible gate. Inside the gate was the make-shift living-cum-bed room of police contingent posted there to protect the high-profile court. A police inspector, in his 50s, was creasing his well-oiled hair with a comb. A radio was playing a Kishore Kumar song: “Mere sapno ki raani kab aye gi tu…”

I walked straight. At the farthest corner was the court. It was exact 10. I was staring at the big hall. This was the court room. Few chairs were neatly placed in one corner. Two people were sweeping the floor. I stared at Judge’s chair, threw a glance around the court where I would give my maiden statement as witness.

“Are you a CBI witness?” asked one of the men sweeping floor. “CBI people are in their chamber”, he said pointing towards a gallery on the right side.

The chamber was just another shabby room. The chairs were strewn around. The lone occupant of the room was a ‘Vakil sahib’ who was staring at the ceiling. My presence broke his reverie. He raised his left eye-brow in a question mark. I stood there waiting for a command. “Uh! You are Chattopadhaya”, he said pecking his nose. He rubbed his index finger with his thumb, looked at the finger and cleaned it at the side of the table.

“Oh. You are Banerjee. A Bengali. You remember everything, na,” he said. “Try to remember everything. Every minute detail … it is very crucial,” he said pointing the same finger which he had used a few minutes back to peck his nose. The sight was nauseating.

“Sir, the story I wrote was on December 1992. Almost 19 years back. How can I remember the details,” I argued.

He threw a cursory look at me and said: “We will make you remember everything. We are CBI.”

A chill went down my spine. Horrible scenes of movies in which police beat up witnesses and make them dance at their tunes flashed my mind. Will he and police go physical with me and beat me up forcing me to say what they want.

“Oh, you have come, nice,” a soft voice from my back made me to turn my head towards the door. A smartly-dressed middle-aged man walked in. The Vakil sahib stood up and greeted him. Impulsively I also stood up. “I am Negi. I was in touch with you,” he said in a soft voice extending his right hand towards me. I grabbed it.

“I am Deputy SP with CBI. Thanks for your coming. Have you seen the report you have written. Just go through it and please try to recollect the sequence. I know it is very hard to remember the details after almost 20 years. But, still please go through it,” he pushed an old newspaper towards me.

His soft words had a soothing effect on me. So many `pleases’ made me comfortable. I sat down, looked at the newspaper. The Pioneer, December 19, 1992. The time had paled this black and white newspaper. Its top edges were torn. It smelled of crumbled old paper.

“We will build Mosque at that place, Chavan” was the top story. Besides there was a box item: SC summons Kalyan 6 other official. At the bottom of page 1 was the story “By Dec 5 we knew Mosque would be demolished,” with my byline Biswajeet Banerjee. In this innocuous looking story the CBI found ammunition enough to pin down their opponents.

On December 18, 1992 I went to interview injured kar sewaks who were brought from Faizabad to King George’s Medical College and Associated Hospital for treatment. They were kept in a special ward. Security outside the ward was tight. I knew entry inside the ward would not be easy. I saw a young man coming out of the ward and going towards canteen. I followed him. He was from Azamgarh and was going to get milk for some Om Prakash Pandey. I introduced myself and sought his help to interview injured kar sewaks including his relative. He gleefully agreed. He was carrying a pass which could allow entry of two persons. I went inside masquerading as relative of one of the injured kar sewaks. I spoke to them and all of them more or less said one thing that they had come well prepared to demolish mosque.

I went through the news twice, closed my eyes trying to recollect minutest of details. I was blank. The sight of vakil sahib pecking his nose flashed at my mind. I opened my eyes with a jerk.

“Common let’s go to the next room. That is more airy,” Negi, the Dy SP said. I crained my neck to see the room he was talking about. It was long office room with three big windows opening towards the forest. The sight was pleasant. From there I could see the sky covered with dark monsoon clouds that were threatening to open up in a torrential rain. Big teak trees were swaying in the air. The room was airy and pleasant. I sat down as Negi picked up a soiled cloth and started wiping dust from table and chair.

I was still wandering about the `Vakil Sahib who pecked his nose’ whether he would argue on behalf of CBI. “Here comes our Advocate General,” Negi said still wiping the top of the table. A bespectacled man entered. He threw a cursory glance at me and sat opposite me. I did not know how to react. Negi had addressed him as Advocate General and I started staining my brain whether he is really A-G.

“He is Singh. Advocate of CBI,” Negi said and pointed towards me said: “He is Biswajeet Banerjee. He is Witness from our side.”

I did not know how to react. I sat there. I looked at Singh. He had an oval face. His receding hairline gave him an intelligent look. In his white shirt and advocate-like black stripped pant he looked like an immaculate lawyer. Negi passed on the Xerox of my statement and the newspaper report.

“Another journalist,” Singh said in his very loud tone. He then started reading the statement which was in English. He took out pen from his shirt pocket and started underlining few words. “I bhas asked bhy management to intribhiew kar sewaks” … he read it loud. I wanted to laugh at his pronunciation but kept quiet and tried to look as serious as possible. By that time I knew he had come without preparation. He underlined a few more lines … “I entered the special bhard” Singh continued reading aloud. Now, I was enjoying his English. His English transported me to my childhood when in Shimla our neighbour called `satayees wali aunty’ because he lived in flat number 27 used to learnt English like this. `Enter-tain-ment’ she used to repeat while making ‘aaloo ka parntha’. Entertainment was the word she had learnt that day.

“In your school days you must have made precise. Today, you will repeat the statement you had given in an abridged form in front of judgesahib. I will ask questions and you will answer,” Singh said pulling me back from Shimla to Lucknow.

Judge Sahib had not come by then. It was almost 12 noon. “Judgesahib has said he is busy… The statement of witness could be recorded,” Negi said.

I was taken to the court. There was a podium where Judge sits. Adjacent to Judge’s table was another table where an elderly man was sitting. He was ‘Peshkaar’ who would write down my statement. Singh stood by my side. My heart was beating very fast and loud. I could even hear my heart beats. I looked outside. The clouds were still grey. The teak trees were still swaying in cool breeze.

“Take oath that you will speak the truth – only truth,” Singh said. I looked around for Gita as I have seen in innumerable movies about a court clerk uttering similar words before pushing Gita before the witness. There was no such excitement… I murmured that I would speak the truth. The Peshkar started writing my statement in Hindi which was narrated by Singh. I was supposed to make the precis, and here Singh was dictating the precis of my statement that I had given almost 19 years back to a CBI inspector Milkiyat Singh sitting in old building of The Pioneer. I kept quite occasionally nodding my head.

The Peshkar or the court clerk was writing in disjointed Hindi. The Peshkar must be in his 60s, lean and thin writing head down like an obedient pupil. Raising his head occasionally to clarify what Singh meant and then writing painstakingly in an A-4 size paper pinned up with carbon. He had four or five sets of papers, pinned up with carbon, ready on his right hand side. Singh continued dictating him and he wrote word by word.

I looked out. The leaves of the teak trees were still fluttering in breeze. They were wet. Drizzling has begun. The drop of water, it seemed, rejuvenated the trees. They looked greener as if they were smiling; waiving their heads thanking God for the bounty of rain. The rain has picked up. I could now hear pitter-patter of the rain drops. The clouds were menacing indicating it was ready to burst at its seam.

“Anything more,” Singh asked removing his spectacles. I looked at his eyes without specs which looked sunken and bit grey. “It’s all,” he said.

I did not answer. I wanted to go out … run out of this room and enjoy rains. I wanted to get drenched. “Don’t go, you have to sign this statement,” Peshkar said removing pins from the handwritten papers. With the shivering hands he removed pins from four sets of papers. It looked ages as pitter-patter of rains intensified as if inviting me to join them. I again looked out. It was pouring. Rain drops were like shinning beads hitting the parapet and disintegrating into water with a splash.

“Sign here,” he said. I grabbed the pen from the Peshkar’s hand scribbled my signature at the places he pointed. I looked around. Singh and Negi were conferring at a corner. I went there, bid them good bye. “Let’s go and have tea,” Negi offered. I declined. I wanted to be with the rain, the splashing water and the puddle it creates on the roads.

I came out. Passing through collapsible gate I saw the police inspector having his lunch and cursing rain on his mobile while his radio was blurring out some advertisement.

I came down the flight of stairs… almost running sometimes jumping two stairs in one jump. In less than a minute I was at the ground floor. People were standing at the foyer of the ICCMRT saving themselves from the fury of rain. The gardener was still working at the feverish pace. All drenched trying to give his labour of love a final shape.

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