Gory Winter: Bombay Riots of 1992-93 Frontline

02, Feb 2018 | Teesta Setalvad

Bombay in December 1992-January 93 was Hindu Rashtra in action. By TEESTA SETALVAD

THE fault lines were sharp and deep in that December of 1992 when for nine days the urbs prima of India, hailed for its cosmopolitanism, saw this veneer shredded. Painfully. All of December, including the week of Christmas and New Year celebrations, public temper in Bombay (now Mumbai) was fragile, as the mal-intended maha arti programme launched by the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine released a fresh bout of venom and hate against “the Muslim Other”. This is what led to the violence of January 1993, when for at least another nine days violence instigated by Saamana, the mouthpiece of the Shiv Sena, ensured that homes and properties were targeted with chilling precision. Officially, 900 people were killed in mob rioting and firing by the police, 2,036 injured and thousands internally displaced. Three rapes were reported and registered. According to People’s Verdict, a staggering 141 incidents took place in 1992 and 1,411 in January 1993. As many as 16 per cent of the incidents went unreported.

It is 25 years, a quarter of a century, ago that Bombay burned. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in faraway Ayodhya was the immediate and obvious provocation. But as the meticulous documentation by citizens for People’s Verdict and the petition seeking a first information report (FIR) against Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in the Bombay High Court, and thereafter corroborated by the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission, revealed, the public temper had been kept on the boil by hate-filled, provocative writings on the pages of Saamana since July 1992. The Congress government led by Sudhakarrao Naik chose to let these crimes pass, the Bombay Police chose not to act, and the rest, as they say, are dark pages in India’s history.

The vicious campaign unleashed by the L.K. Advani-led rath yatra to demolish the mosque had set the stage for what was to follow. Within the larger picture of a targeted anti-minority pogrom, there were periodic and repeated retaliatory incitements by minority communal outfits and vicious killings of Hindus by Muslim criminals (stabbings in the later part of December). All this kept the communal pot on the boil.

The first stone

Who cast the first stone? It is a theoretical formulation related to targeted communal violence that I developed while closely covering the Bombay violence of 1992-93. From December 6, the day the Babri Masjid was brought down by a calculated act as a 3,000-strong posse of Central paramilitary forces mutely looked on, there were crude attempts to justify the crime and false theories floated about the assaults on the minority being “just a retaliation”. This was simply not borne out by facts. Even as the mosque was being brought down, the members of the Shiv Sena, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were holding “victory processions” and “temple ringing” (ghantanaad) ceremonies in Dharavi, Pydhonie and other locations. Rubbing salt on raw wounds.

When angry Muslims came out to express their anguish at this betrayal by the Indian state, the Bombay Police displayed a distinctly communal colour. Of the 163-odd deaths caused by police bullets, an overwhelming two-thirds were of Muslims. Women and girls were shot dead inside their homes.

As the violence continued for weeks, the BJP and the Shiv Sena tried, without substance, to attribute the violence to the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and to “Bangladeshi immigrants”. The official report of the Srikrishna Commission debunked these theories and clearly linked the March 12 serial blasts to the anger and alienation caused by the targeted violence in December 1992 and January 1993. Months and years later, senior functionaries of the saffron organisations continue to distort the narrative. They say the blasts came first, causing the anger to spill into riots.

Partisan behaviour

So much more than a 400-year-old mosque was brought down on December 6, 1992. The secular fundamentals of India were shaken to the core as law enforcement agencies stood mutely watching. Their actions displayed an unprofessional, majoritarian bias. In Bombay, brazenly partisan behaviour was evident in large sections of the force, epitomised by the Commissioner of Police S.K. Bapat, who was severely chastised by Justice Srikrishna in his report. Additional Commissioner of Police V.N. Deshmukh’s testimony opened our eyes to how the rank and file of the Bombay (even Maharashtra) police force had been infiltrated by the rabid, anti-constitutional ideology of the Hindu far Right.

Eight years earlier, when Bhiwandi burned, and parts of Bombay with it, the subtle east-west divide (of class and location) had insulated large parts of the city’s consciousness from the brutality of several Muslims being burned alive at Ansari Bagh or the stabbings at Gowandi. All this was breached that winter in Bombay as every area felt the fear and hatred, as posh housing colonies erased Muslim names from their residential lists and Muslim men shaved their beards. Electoral lists had been accessed by marauding mobs, which made it easy for them to pick out their targets. Cocktail parties spewed a newly legitimised hatred. As Mahim’s timber mart was set ablaze on January 9, an urbane Maharashtrian was heard making this chilling remark: “I felt a [sense of] satisfaction. Next year my Ganapathy procession will not have any obstruction as it makes its way to the Mahim bay!”

This then was the changing Indian discourse, a glimpse of what was to follow, first in 2002 (Gujarat riots) and then in 2014 (the electoral victory of the National Democratic Alliance). The legitimisation of a Hindu nation on the back of hate and killing.

The betrayal by the ruling Congress, with its self-proclaimed secular credentials, is something that Indian politics has neither come to terms with, nor lived down. The anti-Sikh pogrom in New Delhi that followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination had taken place under the Congress’ watch. A year before that, in February 1983, an estimated 2,000 Muslims were brutally killed in Nellie, Assam. The creeping capture of sections of the Indian state by an ideology that believed in the elimination of certain sections was not checked, nor was the rule of law enforced.

In Bombay, the Congress-ruled administration allowed the marauders to have their way in 1992-93. Even the token transfer of the Police Commissioner (an action often initiated to placate outraged public sentiments) came only in early February 1993 when Amarjeet Singh Samra replaced Bapat.

Satish Sahney, an officer who meticulously tried to repair the damage to the social fabric, was brought in later.

No penalty

There is worse. In 1999, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine came to power on the electoral promise of implementing the Srikrishna Commission’s recommendations. These included, among other things, prosecution of 31 policemen indicted by the commission. No prosecution took place. A Right to Information (RTI) investigation by this writer in 2007-08 revealed that all those officers had in fact been promoted. At best, they had suffered remuneration cuts for six months! On affidavit, the State government declared that of the 18 cases filed against policemen in the Suleiman Usman Bakery case, nine were discharged by the trial court in 2003. Among them was the then Joint Commissioner of Police R.D. Tyagi. While the state dragged its feet, a survivor filed an appeal. But the Bombay High Court order of October 16, 2009, while acknowledging that the firing by the police was “cruel and atrocious”, opined that there was not sufficient evidence against Tyagi. Finally, in 2011, even the Supreme Court exonerated this intemperate act of the police. The lone case of dismissal of a constable (for the crime of throwing a young Muslim into the waiting hands of a bloodthirsty mob) was the result of firm administrative action by Sahney as Commissioner.

The response of the system to the provocative speech that undoubtedly incited mobs to loot and kill was pathetic. Fast on the heels of the violence, citizens got together and the Bombay unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties petitioned the Bombay High Court for directions to the state to file an FIR against Thackeray. In a judgment passed on September 30, 1994, not only did the High Court reject the petition, but it did worse. The judgment justified Thackeray’s provocative words in Saamana, stating that “they were made only against anti-national Muslims”.

The Supreme Court summarily dismissed the special leave petition filed by Atul Setalvad in this case. Administratively, the state was equally laggard. After the violence, the Dadar police station registered a total of nine cases against Saamana and its editor, Thackeray. Six of these ended in acquittal, while three were closed. Although applications were filed against the acquittals, the Bombay High Court, while dismissing the civil applications on February 23, 2007, observed that “no ends would be served by digging up the old cases after a lapse of seven years” (quoted from the State government affidavit to the Supreme Court in 2008). Only Madhukar Sarpotdar of the Shiv Sena was handed out a jail term, one-year simple imprisonment, for his hate speech. He did, however, get elected as a Member of Parliament from the area where he had made his speech.

It is the Indian judiciary that has been forgiving of hate speech of a certain kind. Apart from the bile that he spewed in Saamana, Thackeray had openly thrown down the gauntlet at courts and judges. In June 1993, when the High Court was about to admit the case against him for his writings in Saamana, Thackeray had responded: “I piss on the court’s judgments. Most judges are like plague-ridden rats against whom direct action must be taken.” He escaped without censure, leave alone a contempt notice.

Institutional memory

The absence of institutional memory when it comes to dealing with communal conflict is glaring. After Independence and Partition, while report after report of officially appointed judicial commissions have analysed certain discernible trends behind escalating violence and pogroms, the formal judiciary and courts did not appear to have internalised these findings and recommendations. The very fact that a significant part of the Justice Srikrishna Commission report contains recommendations of the Justice Madon Commission report on the Bhiwandi Disappearances of 1970—28 years earlier—displays a shocking laxity of the system to correct serious shortcomings and lapses.

Some alleviating moments remain. The birth of the Mohalla Committee experiment, which floundered thereafter, was an attempt to broker a citizen-police equation at all times to deal with rumours and conflicts. One empowering moment was when an officer of the calibre and integrity of Sahney took it upon himself, as a moral responsibility, to heal the scars of a battered minority. He would spend hours at meetings with 40 to 60 people and, in the presence of strong community leaders among the minority, especially women, beg for their forgiveness for the wrongs done by the Bombay Police.

For both journalists and social activists—and there were many of us who functioned as both—there was an abiding lesson in reporting in those terrible few weeks during that Bombay winter 25 years ago. Never report on conflict without a first-person view. Look for the signs before the first signs of physical outbursts. Interrogate authority and versions about the genesis of the conflict: who cast the first stone. Always look for, and recount with the same zeal and detail, the stories of stoic courage. The good news. Because they give hope, repair unspeakable damage, and are always to be found. Finally, stay with the story even when the headlines have disappeared because that is when the anguish of the survivor, abandoned to her fate, comes to the fore and the system’s failure to offer just reparation or justice stands truly exposed. The riot in the mind festers for months, even years, before it erupts into violence on the streets. Working on erasing the fissures of the mind is crucial, then, in the prevention of conflict.

This piece was first published in the Frontline. The original article may be read here


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