History

Violence in Bombay and the Death of an Old Milkman

There are always those who say let’s move on, but then what do we move on to?

Rioters in Bombay, January 1993. Credit: Sudharak Olwe

Rioters in Bombay, January 1993. Credit: Sudharak Olwe

Violence began in Bombay almost immediately after the events in Ayodhya on December 6, when a huge, frenzied mob of religious bigots brought down a medieval mosque because they believed it was built over the birthplace of a Hindu God. Muslims fanatics in the city had retaliated by burning public property and a few of them were shot dead as the police tried to quell the rioters.

Then, after several days of violence, an eerie silence descended upon the city. The silence exploded once again in January when the political party I mentioned earlier, organised their storm-troopers and let them loose onto the streets. Maha Aartis, which were loud prayers, designed to provoke, were held on the streets. And this time round, for about fifteen days as the state administration looked on helplessly, many say deliberately and callously, the rioters were given a free hand to kill, loot and burn. Even in the residential societies of mixed middle and upper middle-class neighbourhoods, nameplates of all Muslim residents in their building lobbies were removed for fear of an attack. It was a fascist onslaught. It was also surreal as identities and existences were erased.

I still remember those days in January when my friend Anand Grover and I travelled around the city to see for ourselves the mayhem and slaughter the thugs of a political party had unleashed on a hapless Muslim population. Quite a few innocent Hindus died too in those xenophobic times. They were butchered by Muslim thugs. I apologise for dividing deaths by religion but when more than 90% of the fatalities in communal rioting are of people belonging to one community anybody with any sense of balance would know it was a targeted massacre.

We visited the camps at Govandi, Jogeshwari and Antop Hill, and heard the stories of the poor. It was heart-breaking as these people actually believed we could be of help as they recounted tales of slaughter, callousness, savagery. We did, occasionally, hear tales of hope and compassion as these same people told us of the help and protection extended from the ‘other’ side.

Later I travelled to other areas of the city, especially on the eastern side and the sights I saw were horrific. More than a thousand people were killed, whole neighbourhoods destroyed and the empty shells of shops, trucks and workshops burnt down. It was a graphic message sent out to the minorities that it would take a long time for them to rebuild their lives.

I had read and heard stories of other communal riots that had regularly occurred in the country in the north and west of the country over the years, but what I was seeing now was a first-hand experience of violence on this kind of scale.

In all of this devastation the image that stayed with me the most was that of an elderly milkman on a bicycle who tried to furiously peddle away to safety from a mob baying for his blood. The mob caught up with the old man and lynched him and then burnt his bicycle and trashed his milk cans.

I remember seeing that image as the broken man lay face down on the road as blood flowed down from a head wound. His battered bicycle lay a few feet away and his overturned milk cans on the other side. It was an image that turned my stomach.

After this second round of violence yet another uneasy calm descended upon the city. I was left numbed and a thought kept creeping into my mind: If this kind of slaughter could happen in the heart of the financial and entertainment capital of India what would the future be like?

Finally, less than two months after the violence had subsided, the silence ended when a series of bomb blasts ripped through the city in March 1993, and killed hundreds of innocent civilians. Two of the blasts were so huge that several buildings in the vicinity were reduced to rubble and body parts of human beings were splattered all over. It was sickening and also an act of random, indiscriminate reprisal. Behind this brutal retaliation was hand of another thug, a Muslim underworld don, and his cronies.

I am aware that I have once again reduced these events on the basis of religion: Hindu and Muslim. In fact, it disgusts me. What further disgust me are the empty slogans that camouflage deep-seated bias: ‘Terror is terror’ thunders the prime minister. His home minister echoes the same thought. ‘Don’t give terror a religious colour’ they say.

It sounds good in principle because that’s the way the law ought to be and its enforcers ought to think. What I have noticed in my country, however, tells another story. In fact, over the recent years, the role of religious identification has gotten much worse. It almost seems that there is a tacit arrangement for religious bigots to attack with impunity as an administration looks the other way. Very often innocents belonging to the minority community are falsely arrested for crimes they never committed, shoved into jail and horribly tortured and then finally released for lack of evidence. There is enough documentary evidence of hundreds of such cases by civil rights activists, investigative journalists, honest police officers and even senior judges that have revealed what really happens on the ground.

Can anyone imagine the scars these encounters leave behind? It will soon be 25 years since those ghastly events occurred in the city in which I was born and as my own memory begins to fade the only image I can remember vividly is that of the old man, his battered bicycle and his trashed milk cans.

I wonder about the members of the mob who lynched him. Did any of them feel ashamed of what they had done? How did they sleep that night? What dreams did they have?

And then I think of the old man. Who was he? Where did he live and who were the members of his family? Did he have children, grandchildren? What were the dreams that he had for them? On the day of his murder did his children try to stop him from leaving home under such stressful circumstances? Did he have a choice of staying home for a few days till things calmed down or was there none? Did he not know how dangerous it was to go to work as riotous mobs were on the streets destroying everything that came into their path? Did he not know that for an uncaring administration it did not matter whether he lived or died? And finally, does anyone even mourn him?

The other, greater tragedy about those terrifying days is when people today say ‘It happened a long time ago…we need to move on.’

‘Move on to what?’ I wonder.

Saeed Mirza is an award winning filmmaker.