|HOME | NEWS | COMMENTARY | DARRYL D'MONTE
|September 17, 1998
Rekindling the embers of the Bombay riots
Reading the first volume of the Srikrishna Commission report on the communal riots in Bombay in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, this columnist was left wondering what the objection to it was all about. By no stretch of the imagination can the report be construed as inflammatory or "anti-Hindu" or any other choice epithet that the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena coalition government in Maharashtra has levelled against it.
If anything, Justice B N Srikrishna, still serving in the Bombay high court, is a model of rectitude and errs very much on the side of caution. Any charge of bias can be dispelled by the fact that he did not permit his counsel, Vijay Pradhan, who was known for his antipathy to the Shiv Sena, to interrogate Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, which led to Pradhan's resignation.
Let me reveal my 'interest.' During those tumultuous months, I was the resident editor of The Times of India in the city and had to deal head-on with the riots. It is difficult to describe the feeling of helplessness at the breakdown of law that took place particularly during the second round of riots, in January 1993. While mobs roamed ceaselessly on the streets, egged on by the Shiv Sena as well as Muslim fundamentalists, then chief minister Sudhakarrao Naik appeared hypnotised by the violence - like a frog immobilised by a snake. Worse still, when Sharad Pawar, the intrepid former chief minister rushed in to quell the flames, this time as Union defence minister, he seemed more intent in settling scores with his former protégé than in calling out the troops who were the only bulwark against the marauding hordes.
The paralysis which gripped the very helm of the state administration had filtered down to the otherwise efficient Bombay police. Then commissioner S K Bapat was afflicted by his political superior's torpor and was out of his depth in dealing with a conflagration on this scale, a tragic lapse for which he was later transferred.
While top politicians and administrators quibbled and squabbled, Bombay was in flames. It was this vacuum at the top which gave free rein to the Shiv Sena, led by Bal Thackeray. As the only cadre-based party in the city, with well-greased shakhas or branches in all congested localities, it was able to go on the rampage, while the police looked the other way, if not actually abetting the rioters. It was an unprecedented situation in a city which had always prided itself on being cosmopolitan and "modern."
I vividly recall receiving desperate phone calls from besieged Muslims, asking me to summon the authorities. They were surrounded in their homes and were not receiving any assistance from the police. On one occasion, I actually telephoned the President's chief aide in New Delhi to apprise him of the mayhem in the metropolis, in the hope that the Centre would intervene. Delegations of citizens would make the rounds of the chief minister's residence, Pawar's HQ and even Thackeray's abode to implore them to stop the carnage.
The reportage and analysis of those terrible days has been captured in a book titled When Bombay Burned (UBS, 1993), contributed by The Times of India journalists. Perhaps the greatest tribute that could be paid to the press was from none other than Thackeray himself. When I met him for the first and only time two years later to do a television interview on the day that the BJP-Shiv Sena had romped home in the state elections, he at first refused to cooperate, alleging that The Times had been biased those days and did not present his side of the story.
The newspaper had been at the forefront in exposing the Shiv Sena for masterminding the riots and resorting to several other strong-armed tactics to boot. What his own mouthpiece Saamna did was conveniently ignored.
The Srikrishna Commission report has rekindled all those terrible memories. It has taken four laborious years to complete though - to be fair to the judge - there was a break of five months in 1996 when the coalition government disbanded it on the specious ground that it had taken an unduly long time and would open old wounds. Given this state government's political predilections, it had earlier sought to dilute the terms of reference by including an analysis of the bomb blasts in March 1993, although this was obviously in retaliation for the havoc wreaked on Muslims in the previous months.
A previous commission, headed by the late Justice D Madon into the Bhiwandi riots in 1970 on the outskirts of Bombay, also took four years and was openly criticised for having missed the boat.
In this case, there were interminable delays in cross- examination of witnesses. The report is even-handed in attributing blame. There are many who argue that both majority and minority community were equally responsible. However, as I instructed newspaper reporters to investigate at morgues during the riots, the casualties told the true story.
The commission finds that a total of 900 persons died in December and January, of which 575 were Muslims and 275 were Hindus. In other words, more than twice the number of victims were Muslim, although they form a tiny minority in the city. On December 6, the day of the infamous demolition of the Babri Masjid, Muslim groups came out on to the streets in protest but the police could have exercised greater restraint before opening fire at them. As the report makes abundantly clear: "If the mobs had been handled tactfully and with sensitivity by the police and accepted leaders of both communities, the protest would have peacefully blown over. The police mishandled the situation and by their aggressive posture turned the peaceful protests into violent demonstrations..." In the overall casualties in both phases, the police killed 356 - more than were stabbed. However, Justice Srikrishna rules out police bias at this stage.
The January riots were triggered off by a couple of incidents - the murder of four mathadi or dock workers, allegedly by Muslims, as well as of six members of the Bane family in Radhabai chawl in the suburb of Jogeshwari. The latter was "sensationalised by the media by giving exaggerated and provoking (sic) reports." This led to a Hindu backlash where virtual war was declared on the hapless minority who sought to defend themselves wherever they could.
Muslim criminal gangs also got into the act and stabbed Hindus, as the report cites. In area after area, Muslims were targeted and even the poshest addresses were not spared. Where the report has obviously hurt is in its unequivocal denunciation of Thackeray "who, like a veteran general, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against 'Muslims'... communal passions were aroused to fever pitch by the inciting writings in print media, particularly Saamna and Navakal."
Justice Srikrishna does accuse the police subsequently of "built-in bias" against Muslims which became more pronounced with "murderous attacks" on the force and manifested itself in their turning a blind eye to rioting - if not actually instigating and participating in them. If any clinching evidence is needed, it is surely the transcripts which Teesta Setalvad, now editor of Communalism Combat, procured of messages from mobile police vans where there were open references to targeting the "circumcised" and other inflammatory remarks.
The report makes some broad recommendations about how the force should improve its image, which is one of the few sections which the chief minister has accepted. What does now seem necessary, as a logical corollary, in the light of the report naming half a dozen Shiv Sena leaders as inciting violence is that criminal charges ought to be filed against them.
Apparently, some of the families of victims and eye-witnesses are prepared to give testimony in court and it will only be fitting if they are brought to trial. In the case of the Sikh victims of the riots following Indira Gandhi's assassination, it took several years and remains incomplete. One hopes that this will not be repeated in Bombay.
|Tell us what you think of this column
SHOPPING & RESERVATIONS | TRAVEL | LIFE/STYLE | FREEDOM | FEEDBACK