Notebook

The Riots that Changed Mumbai

Mumbai riots, December 1992
Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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There has been no justice for victims of the Bombay riots

THE THING ABOUT being in a riot-afflicted city in an age before social media is the remoteness of what is happening. There were parts of the city burning and murderous groups scouring neighbourhoods for people to kill, but if you were in a middle-class enclave of flats, then the violence passed you by, mostly. The slums and chawls of Bombay were the epicentre, but that didn’t stop many well-meaning residents of housing societies from making vigilance arrangements of their own against potential attackers. I remember a friend then narrating an incident about being on a terrace with a few others in his building and someone breaking a bottle as a prank and all those on guard running home. He laughed, but it was a sign of what would have happened if actual rioters had shown up.

It was in the aftermath that the riots changed the city, as if the pent-up hate of communities that had been building up for decades had finally found a release, but it was so shocking that everyone decided once was enough. The riots raged on and off for two months between December 1992, after the Babri Masjid demolition, and January the next year. The Srikrishna Commission, set up to investigate the riots, lists the sequence of events in clinical fashion with dates. The first phase went on from December 6th to December 12th, largely a Muslim response to the demolition. And then the second phase from January 6th to January 20th, when Hindus, under the umbrella of the Shiv Sena, organised a retaliation. And since then there has been nothing of that kind again in Mumbai.

Mohalla Committees, a simple mechanism of Hindus and Muslims together to nip any prospective flashpoint in the bud, were set up. It was not the first time riots had happened, but no one had earlier thought that pre-emption was necessary. The result of such an attitude was soon tested two months later in March, when the gangster Dawood Ibrahim, as an act of revenge against riot brutalities, engineered a series of bomb blasts across the city. This was also something the city had never seen before, but there was no further mob violence.

One could wonder what would have happened if Dawood had not ordered the blasts. His control over the Mumbai underworld had been total until then. He had parts of the Bombay Police on his payroll. It is now forgotten just how admired he was even as a criminal operating from Dubai. Celebrities and cricketers boasted about being friends with him. Politicians did not think it was damaging to their career to take favours from him. Everyone from college students to restaurant owners knew someone who knew someone who knew Dawood. The blasts changed that at once. The sequence of events that began with the riots ended his respectability.

The other major consequence of the riots was the emergence of the Shiv Sena as a major political force in Maharashtra, something that would result in the party capturing power in 1995 in a state that had always been with the Congress. The initial riots weren’t deliberately planned by the Sena, but there was no doubt that the party organised pogroms later on. The police were shamelessly communal and along with the Sena, targeted Muslims. In a PUCL Bulletin of May 1993, the social activist Ali Asghar Engineer listed some of the police actions: ‘On Dec 8 police came to Kamla Ramnad Nagar, opened fire and then set fire to the huts without any provocation (out of 46 huts, 44 belonged to Muslims)… According to the Govandi Relief Committee, 92 persons had died in police firing and 210 injured. Almost all the persons killed were Muslims... What is significant (in Dharavi) is that there was complete polarisation between Hindus and Muslims. All Hindus—Tamil, Maharashtrian, Gujrati, and others —were on one side, and all Muslims, whatever their origin, were on the other. The police came (Dec 8), fired in which three Muslims were killed and four injured in Chamba Bazar. The police arrested 27 Muslims. In Social Nagar police opened fire in which 6 Muslims died. In Mukund Nagar, five persons, all Muslims, were killed in police firing.’

There has been no justice for victims of the Bombay riots. The Justice Srikrishna Commission held enquiries over a period of five years and submitted a comprehensive report that held the Shiv Sena primarily responsible for the violence. About 900 people reportedly died in the riots that convulsed the city, but only one leader, Madhukar Sarpotdar of the Sena, was convicted. And he never served his sentence, which was only a year of rigorous imprisonment.

If there was anger among Muslims at the caving in of the justice system, then the years have long since tempered it. It was not just the Sena. Even after the Congress returned to power, it didn’t pursue the riot cases or take action on the Srikrishna report. No one wanted old wounds reopened. Can a society function in the absence of justice? What happens when there is no closure? Nothing, apparently. Whether that is a good thing is anybody’s guess.