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The Shadow of Violence

Meena Menon (meenamenon@gmail.com) is an independent journalist and author based in Mumbai. She is the author of Riots and After in Mumbai: Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation (2012).

The 1992–93 communal riots in Bombay scarred the cosmopolitan nature of the city, leading to greater ghettoisation, discrimination, and communal division. Yet the city bears stories of hope and sorrow, of alienation and hurt, all swallowed up in the vigour of eking out one’s daily existence.

The scale of violence in the communal riots in Bombay following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 scarred the cosmopolitan nature of the city permanently. It led to greater ghettoisation, divisions and hatred, and a deep distrust and suspicion between Hindus and Muslims. Twenty-five years later, these differences may be papered over and time may have healed some wounds but Mumbai is not the same city it was.

Ever since the 19th century, the city has had a long history of violence and each riot has only paved the way for religion, or so-called religious beliefs, to be used as a basis for violence, distancing the two communities. The first Hindu–Muslim riot in Bombay took place on 11 August 1893 against the backdrop of a nascent “cow protection movement” that was gaining ground in the country. The Bombay Society for the Preservation of Cows and Buffaloes or the Gaurakshak Sabha formed in July 1887, with Sir Dinshaw Maneckji Petit as president, was pushing for a law to ban the slaughter of cows and buffaloes. There were meetings against cow slaughter and public collections to build cattle shelters. The Muslim community was resentful of such a move. The situation worsened after speeches made by proponents of the ban proclaiming that protecting the cow was akin to protecting the country and its people (Menon 2012: 20–26). Echoes of that sentiment can be heard again in the country these days.

Although the communal riots were controlled within a few days, they left behind “a bitter legacy of sectarian rancour” (Griffiths 1971: 282). After a peaceful period interrupted by the clashes between Shias and Sunnis during Muharram, a series of communal riots, at least 10, took place in Bombay city between 1929 and 1938 and then 1941, followed by prolonged riots in 1945–46, in the years leading up to partition in 1947.

The Bombay Riots, 1992

The 1893 riots had already set the stage for people moving out of their localities and seeking the safety of their co-religionists. But there was little to indicate that a century later, Muslims for the most part, and even some Hindus would hunker down in ghettos. The events that led to this divide began much earlier but gained momentum from the day the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992, in what seemed like a well-planned move egged on by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwarts in Ayodhya. The trial of those involved in its destruction is dragging on, just as cases demanding justice for riot victims languish in the Supreme Court.

News of the mosque being demolished had been transmitted by evening on the BBC. As a shocked nation watched, anger was already being manifested in the streets and corners of Bombay. Soon mobs roamed freely, burning, killing and looting, while people fled, often barefoot and with only what they were wearing, to seek shelter at the many camps that had opened up almost overnight. The role of the police in curbing the riots came under the lens and its partisan role was in evidence many a time. Unlike in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, when only mosques and Muslims offered relief to a people devastated by violence, Bombay, despite being in the throes of a vicious upheaval, showed its compassionate side.

Women walked into these camps, their children in hand, proclaiming that they would never go back. The worst violence in Pratiksha Nagar, Sion in the transit camp tenements, was curbed with great difficulty and the Indian Army held flag marches to deter rioters in the city. Residents of that locality till date have failed to find permanent shelters. They live at the mercy of their landlords in small rooms and their current miseries crowd out the memories of those days when they escaped certain death. Their original homes—transit camp tenements which most of them had illegally rented—have given way to swanky buildings, where they can never hope to live.

No one had anticipated the baseness of mob fury that unravelled in the wake of the Babri demolition in a city like Bombay. By end-December 1992, over 500 people were dead and many injured. Homes were destroyed, businesses looted and wrecked, and those who witnessed the exodus at Victoria Terminus will never forget those scenes. It may not have been as dramatic as the overflowing trains and the never-ending caravans of people during partition, but it was gripped with a similar anguish and desperation. Even in Dharavi, where myriad communities lived together, people left to set up small businesses in their native states of Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan. So great was the fear that entire colonies emptied out. Even today, although Dharavi has mixed localities, people tend to prefer their own religious community. There are Hindustans and Pakistans here too. Some of the families who left did return as their ventures back home did not sustain.

The city’s hospitals overflowed with dead bodies, piled up in corridors and courtyards of the two major hospitals which would do the post-mortems. By the end of January 1993, the city was a shadow of a vibrant, cosmopolitan business hub. The destruction of that spirit would be complete on 12 March 1993, when it was stunned once again by 12 serial bomb blasts.

People, in general, feared returning to their homes, and Muslims, in particular, were hounded and burnt in taxis and their homes. The curfew and army patrols gave the city’s once bustling streets an eerie, desolate look. Twenty-five years later, such a scenario seems difficult to imagine, though the city has been targeted by bombs repeatedly, culminating in the 26 November 2008 terror strike.

Divided by Fear and Religion

The 1992–93 riots were the last straw for many people, and the basis for a city to be divided by fear and religion in many ways. The fragmentation also occurred in the minds of people, gullible to political propaganda and rhetoric. The “border” dividing Hindus and Muslims is very much evident today in Jogeshwari (East), in Meghwadi which begins where a mini fort-like shakha (branch office) of the Shiv Sena has been built. The two communities live on either side of this border that was in existence much before the 1992 riots. Even before the Babri Masjid was demolished, there were many riots in Jogeshwari (East) since the 1960s. The pressure of shrinking availability of housing and relentless influx of migrants has made it a tinderbox. Sometimes, natural calamities like floods bring the two communities together and when religious festivals coincide, there are committees to ensure that peace is maintained. Despite all this, there are hardened views on both sides and that extremism is unlikely to disappear. It could take little to provoke violence here, just as in the past.

While the riots claimed many lives in December 1992, it was in January 1993 that this area witnessed an event which eclipsed all previous violence, at least for the Shiv Sena which made it the reason for bloody revenge. The burning of six people (the Banes and four neighbours, including a handicapped girl) in Gandhi chawl in Jogeshwari 1995 (also known as Radhabai Chawl) on the night of 8 January 1993 became the defining moment of the riots and the Banes’ grief was exploited by politicians for years. Sudarshan Bane, who lost his parents, recalls meeting one leader after another, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, without any relief. It did not give them any justice or even a house to live in.

The Banes moved away from Gandhi chawl and went to live in a “safer” locality. The face of the Bombay riots, as his sister Naina Bane was known, lives outside the city. Naina sustained severe burns and spent months in hospital. They do not ever want to live in a “mixed locality” ever again despite their early years in Gandhi chawl surrounded by Muslims. Many Hindus moved out of Jogeshwari to form ghettos of their own. The fear of what happened to the Banes and the handicapped young girl who perished in the fire was a trigger for leaving the area. There were shelters set up for the Hindu residents in Jogeshwari at that time by political parties among others and some of them were helped with land and housing later on. This heinous incident is cloaked in mystery and the 11 persons who were arrested for this crime were acquitted by the Supreme Court in 1998 as the entire case was shoddily investigated and eyewitness accounts were not found to be credible.

But it served to drive a wedge between the two communities and was the reason for more violence against Muslims in January 1993, even though eyewitnesses could not identify many of those arrested. Fears of a Muslim attack came true for a moment and the Shiv Sena scented imminent electoral victory with its open endorsement of violence. The saffron coalition was voted into power in Maharashtra and at the centre. The parties had hit on a formula bereft of any development agenda, solely focusing on creating division and hating the other.

In 1993, Bombay city (renamed Mumbai in 1995) commemorated a century of riots, paving the way for segregation (in terms of housing) and a mindset that was anything but cosmopolitan. The bomb blasts capping the riots did not give the city any time to recover, and soon leaders swayed their followers with hazy comparisons between the two. The new Shiv Sena–BJP government in Maharashtra rejected the report by Justice B N Srikrishna and wanted the bomb blasts to be investigated as well, not just the riots. Srikrishna was berated for devoting little space to the impact of the bomb blasts. Unlike 100 years ago when rioters of all creeds were punished, impunity would soon become the norm.

Politicians spun stories that belied the truth—what can be called post-truth now—that the riots came after the blasts; that Muslims rioted and killed; and that the Muslims would come, probably from the sea, and attack the city (an overarching dread during the two months of December 1992–January 1993). Otherwise, sensible men and women formed squads, installed bright lights and patrolled the streets awaiting the enemy—which did not come.

In the midst of all this violence, there were stories of compassion, of rescues, of people of the two communities helping each other, of a city that opened its heart out to salvage wounds and fed the hungry but in the cloud of distrust and ill will that prevailed, that was lost. The Times of India was assailed for siding with Muslims and reporting only about them, with its reporters receiving threats from the Shiv Sena. On the other hand, some newspapers published false stories and hate speeches to provoke the mobs.

In a city that lived together for the most part, people suddenly became acutely conscious of their religious identity—Hindu or Muslim—and it mattered so much that it became a question of life and death sometimes; much as it did 10 years later in Gujarat after the Godhra train burning. Localities became Hindu or Muslim depending on the residents, and Muslim areas became synonymous with notoriety. Such stereotypes were already in place before the riots, especially for areas such as Behrampada and Jogeshwari and there was a refusal by certain political parties to accept that people in these areas, that is Muslims, were the victims of violence. Behrampada was already infamous as it was a Muslim ghetto and the riots only worsened its reputation with stories of horror which remained unproven. Its residents suffered mob violence in the riots and a non-governmental organisation exposed what actually had transpired in the area. People were afraid to go out and seek medical aid too, as many houses were destroyed. A majority of its residents now are Muslims but there are Hindus who continue to live there. Some of them left after the riots and never returned.

Those who were too young to remember the violence of the riots at the time have grown up in the shadow of these riots and repeated bombings. The events of Gujarat 2002 overshadowed the Bombay riots and that is what has stayed in public memory. Gujarat was already divided in many ways and those riots only awakened the world to what had been happening in that state. In Bombay, however, the divisions over a century of communal polarisation reached a climax in 1992–93.

Lasting Legacy

Bombay’s raison d’être came under the lens. A city that had its origins in a group of seven islands, which had languished in Portuguese hands before it became a commercial and trade hub under the British, had attracted people from all religions. Gillian Tindall (1992: 45) said that the founding father of Bombay, Gerald Aungier, encouraged settlers and made plans for each religious or racial community to have its own representatives. The Banias were given their own burning grounds and the 1901 Census listed at least 14 different categories of Muslims. There were business communities, including Bohras and Momins, and Konkani Muslims apart from several others. The historian Meera Kosambi (1996: 7–8) has pointed out that in 1881, the linguistic profile of Bombay showed that 50% spoke Marathi, 28% Gujarati and 12% Urdu. The proportion of Maharashtrians in the city’s population has reduced over the years. The Parsis made their fortune in opium trade, shipbuilding and textile mills and generously donated to uplift the city with their philanthropy.

Till the early 1800s, there was not much violence between communities. It was in 1832 that the Parsi–Hindu riots broke out over an order to kill stray dogs and in 1851, Muslims attacked Parsi homes after an article on Prophet Muhammad. Muharram was also the time when unrest and sectarian clashes were common between Shias and Sunnis, which was finally curbed by the police in 1911.

Events after 1929, including frequent communal clashes, propelled Bombay in a direction that was contrary to its image as a trading hub, a centre of political ferment and a city which welcomed everyone. Today, its essentially cosmopolitan character goes against suburban areas with “borders” dividing communities, “chota Pakistans,” buildings where people of a single religion live, and rising intolerance of other cultures. Muslims and meat eaters may find it difficult to rent houses and single Muslim men may not be welcome as lodgers everywhere. The harmony between communities has tattered over many years; it may not completely taper off but may not be completely healed either.

Temples and mosques have hitherto been the pivots to orchestrate violence. However, since 2014, there are new fears on the horizon. The fact that lynch mobs have carte blanche has not been lost on Muslims. The murder of Mohammad Akhlaq for allegedly storing beef in his refrigerator in September 2015 and subsequent lynchings have left an indelible mark on the psyche of people. It is a guerrilla war on culture, food habits and religion. The ban on cow slaughter and cow protection, the demand for which began in the 1800s, has finally come through after over a century. No longer are riots required for mob lynchings, now it can happen anywhere. Mob violence has taken on a different avatar, more random and more terrible.

While Mumbai has not witnessed a major riot since 1992–93, attempts to create trouble have not stopped, though they may be sporadic. The city with its diverse communities and religions finds an echo in the sprawling multilingual microcosm of Dharavi where in the last three years, there have been two concerted attempts to disrupt communal harmony, once during Muharram and another time during Ram Navami. Yet the community has joined forces against these disruptive elements. The police panchayats and mohalla committees, which are an interface between people and police, helped strengthen bonds in some ways. The police was vilified during the 1992–93 riots for its partisan role and 31 personnel were indicted by the Srikrishna Commission. Some were charged with cold-blooded murder and it is the common people, the victims of indiscriminate bloodshed who are fighting for justice even now, 25 years later. Yet, the Mumbai police has a secular tradition and a special relationship with the Mahim dargah and the Sufi saint, Makhdoom Baba. Every year during the Urs or annual festival in December, the Mahim police take out a procession led by the deputy commissioner of police. The location of the Mahim police station is believed to have been the home of the saint (Menon 2012: 7–8).

The walls that formed after the riots have not crumbled and are not likely to, but its effects are a distant memory as the city hurtles from one day to the next without pausing to think. In the families who survived the riots, there is a dark shadow lurking in the background of unforgettable killings, disappearances and displacement. There is a desire however to move on, to educate children, to find jobs, to look ahead instead of at the past, at something constructive and not revenge. But there is always the fear of being the other, of not being on top of things, afraid of what can provoke—be it the way you dress, your cap, or what you eat. Many Muslims said when they travelled they preferred to carry along vegetables or chicken and not mutton in their tiffins, to avoid becoming targets. The situation in Uttar Pradesh, too, is not giving them much confidence.

The Senas and Squandered Justice

It was first the 1984 riots in Bhiwandi and before that in 1970 in other parts of Maharashtra that set the tone for the future. Anti-Muslim slogans were being used by the Shiv Sena during Shiv Jayanti processions as noted by Justice Madan in his inquiry on the riots. Soon Hindutva became the rationale of the party which tried to organise a Rath Yatra over the Babri Masjid issue in 1986. The Shiv Sena fought a by-election on the Hindutva plank in 1987 in Vile Parle, an election that was to prove costly for its leader Bal Thackeray. The election commission barred him from contesting elections for six years in 1998 for appealing for votes for the Sena candidate Ramesh Prabhoo on the grounds that he is a Hindu.

The fortunes of the Shiv Sena were tied in with Bombay/Mumbai since its formation in 1966 to give Maharashtrians their due. Their first campaign was against South Indians and then on, its agenda was clearly set against what the party perceived to be outsiders, anti-national Muslims; its ethos was to negate multiculturalism and with a single-minded focus on justice for “sons of the soil” and Marathi pride. Mumbai’s epithet as a city that opened its arms to everyone was sought to be reversed. People, recently, have reposed their faith in the Sena’s ability to keep the outsider at bay in the municipal corporation elections of 2017.

The attrition of Mumbai’s image has a lot to do with the aftermath of these riots. The Shiv Sena’s perceptions of the city, endorsed by its followers, were clear about who were the outsiders. The same formula was adopted by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena formed by Raj Thackeray. Justice for blast victims was taken up by the Shiv Sena and the BJP and soon, a designated court under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987, was set up at Arthur Road Jail to try the accused. The riots and the violence were almost forgotten, except by the survivors and a small group of activists and media which tried to retain focus on it. It was much later in 2006 and 2007 after 100 of the blasts’ accused were convicted and some given the death sentence, that the Congress government agreed to expedite the court cases of riot victims. There were sporadic convictions including that of the late Madhukar Sarpotdar, former Shiv Sena Member of Parliament, for hate speech. The cases of hate speech against Bal Thackeray were either closed or withdrawn and the home department refused to give the required permission to file charge sheets in some cases against him, according to documents accessed by the author under the Right to Information Act (Menon 2012: 243–48).

Resilient City?

The city had acquired a beleaguered yet inhuman face. Justice, compassion, housing and livelihoods depended on which community you belonged to. This was a deliberate outcome. Moreover, the string of bombings following 1993 until 2008 did not help alleviate the image of the Muslim as a terrorist. The BJP was fond of saying all terrorists are Muslims, but all Muslims may not be terrorists. Frequently, the Shiv Sena would rant against those Muslims who supported Pakistan in cricket matches and vociferously oppose any ties with the neighbouring country—Pakistan and Muslims segued into one other, into one solid enemy.

Yet Muslims prefer to stay on, if they can, in mixed localities, not preferring ghettos and trying to put the past behind them. For journalist and writer Firoz Ashraf, who was forced to shift to Jogeshwari from a cosmopolitan locality after the riots, the ghetto gave him an opportunity to understand his community and the intense poverty and backwardness there. Instead of wailing about his fate, he started teaching children and today after over two decades, he is proud of the fact that he has made a palpable difference to the lives of hundreds of poor children on whom he lavishes great attention and care and teaches for free. He rues that progressive Muslims do not lift a finger to help him but he soldiers on, undaunted by the lack of funds and surviving on a strong will to change the status quo.

There are stories of hope and of sorrow, of drastic changes in a city built on the strengths of various communities, of alienation and hurt, all swallowed up in the vigour of eking out one’s daily existence. Over the years, Mumbai has been stretched to the maximum, it has been called resilient and unbreakable—in a sense, it is both and not both. Its long history of violence has tested its people and infused them with a characteristic spirit to move on.

References

Griffiths, Percival (1971): To Guard My People: The History of the Indian Police, London: Ernst Benn and Bombay: Allied Publishers.

Kosambi, Meera (1996): “British Bombay and Marathi Mumbai: Some Nineteenth Century Perceptions,” Bombay: Mosaic of Modern Culture, Sujata Patel and Alice Thorner (eds), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 3–24.

Menon, Meena (2012): Riots and After in Mumbai: Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Tindall, Gillian (1992): The City of Gold: A Biography of Bombay, New Delhi: Penguin.  

Updated On : 4th Dec, 2017

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