Communalism

Scars of the Bombay Riots Remain, but for Many Victims It’s a Closed Chapter Now

“Though the riots are in the past, they have left a mark. People have moved on but after the series of mob lynchings, there is fear once again.”

Rioters in Bombay, January 1993. Credit: Sudharak Olwe

Twenty five years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, The Wire, through a series of articles and videos captures how the act of destruction changed India forever.

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Every evening Abdul Sattar sits outside his bakery, Suleiman Usman  Mithaiwala, on Mohammed Ali Road in South Mumbai, with friends chatting and sampling his sweets. The area is a busy one, with pedestrians and hawkers jostling for space while traffic on the busy thoroughfare passes by.

It’s a normal enough scene but it was here that 25 years ago, the madarssa Darul-ul Uloom-Imdadiya, which is above the bakery, turned into the scene of a bloody police firing, which killed nine men – five of them Sattar’s workers. Sattar had a tough time dealing with the incident and the misreporting around it, which claimed that that there were weapons stashed upstairs. One of the madarssa teachers Noor ul Huda Maqbool Ahmed pursued the case till the Supreme Court but eventually lost. The policemen, led by then joint police commissioner R. D. Tyagi were held not guilty due to lack of evidence. Today, 25 years later, Sattar has moved on. “It’s a closed chapter, It was all in the past,” he says.

Upstairs in the madarssa, Alauddin (he didn’t give his full name), who works in the madrassa mutters that he ran away when he saw the policemen jumping up the steps and firing. Not even a knife was found in the madarssa, says Alauddin. Noor ul Huda’s son Abdul Samad says he was very young then but remembers his father was assaulted with rifle butts, an injury that troubled him all his life till his death in 2012. Beyond this, no one is willing to say much about the incident which shattered their lives. Reports in 2015 that eight of the policemen were being tried once again in the case don’t bring them any relief.

At the other end of the city in Gorai, Sudarshan Bane now earns a living as a driver. His parents were burnt to death, along with four others including a handicapped girl, in the infamous Gandhi chawl incident in January 1993, which led to another bout of prolonged carnage. His sister Naina escaped with severe burns and was in hospital for some months.

The riots which began on the evening of December 6, soon after news of the Babri Masjid’s demolition spread, had subsided in a few days, but after the Gandhi chawl incident, flared up again. The Shiv Sena described Naina Bane as the “face of the riots” and used the incident as an excuse to go on a rampage.

The party promised the Bane family many things including a house but those promises remain unfulfilled to this day. Sudarshan, like his siblings, lives on rent, and has struggled over the years to earn a living and educate his children. His son is studying computer engineering and he has a working daughter. He has not returned to that place where his parents died.  His big regret is that no one did anything for the “Marathi Manoos” in the riots.

The suburb of Jogeshwari, where Gandhi chawl is located, was a troubled area even before 1992-93, where riots broke out repeatedly. A  ‘border’ between Hindu and Muslims localities is intact. Sajid Sheikh, who has a real estate business, said there is still a wall between the two communities but sometimes they come together, especially when there are heavy rains or floods, to help in relief, like in 2005 when the city was flooded. Though the riots are in the past, they have left a mark. Everywhere there is someone who has suffered and memories of killing and looting remain. People have moved on, but there is fear once again, after the series of mob lynchings and the rampaging gau rakshaks, he adds.

In the riots during the two months – December 1992 and January 1993, 900 people – 575 Muslims, 275 Hindus, 45 unknown and five others – were killed according to the findings of the Shrikrishna Commission. The Congress government of Sudhakar Naik appeared powerless in controlling it till the army was called in. The Commission’s report indicted 31 policemen and also blamed the Shiv Sena and the incendiary speeches of its late leader Bal Thackeray. Twenty five years on, there have been few convictions, including that of former Sena MP Madhukar Sarpotdar and a policeman. Neither went to jail.

In the vast slum of Behrampada, Bandra, Gulzar Sheikh, a former municipal corporator during 1992-97, said once the troubles subsided, many Hindus had moved out of the area which had witnessed serious violence. “People are getting on with their lives, but no one will forget that the Babri Masjid was demolished, ” he said.

Kar sevaks on top of Babri Masjid during its demolition on the December 6, 1992. Credit: T. Narayan

In Dharavi, where the riots began on December 6, social worker Mariam Rashid, now deputy CEO, Society for Human and Environmental Development, recalls that her main concern during the violence was the children who were orphaned, or had lost a parent, and their safety.

“Most of Dharavi was vacated, specially the areas where the Hindus stayed. My own house was refuge to some Muslim families. Someone found out I was letting them stay with me and one night when I returned home late, some boys were standing outside my door asking me to come out and threatening to burn down the area . They had swords in their hands. Luckily the police came on time. The families in my home were scared. They told me, ‘if you are not safe what about us.'”

That night she was saved because many marauding rioters went around asking for Mariam, which was her name after marriage. But in her old area she was still known as Lina. She almost got killed another time while walking in the streets when she heard two men say in Tamil that this woman helps Muslims, let’s kill her. She and her colleague beat a hasty retreat. This time it was her knowledge of Tamil which saved her.

Many of the families, both Hindu and Muslim, fled Dharavi during the riots; a few of them returned. Many of them prefer to stay with their own community now. There is fear of living in a mixed locality and many Hindus have left the area. Dharavi had set up mohalla committees headed by social workers like Bhau Korde and others, which has been documented by activist Sushobha Barve in her book, Healing Stream: Bringing Back Hope in the Aftermath of Violence. Now the police are working to keep peace and the two communities have mutual discussions to avoid violence, especially during religious occasions, she says. The riots divided the city, created more ghettos, and while it may be a closed chapter for some, for many the memories and scars still remain.

Meena Menon is a journalist and author of Riots and After in Mumbai.