September 24, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

No, It Wasn't A Mistake

How would you describe a city that witnesses a week filled with the murder of four workers, an outbreak of stabbing that leaves many dead, the roasting alive of two men in a car, and a variety of other incidents including a religious establishment attacked, assaults with iron rods, hutments set on fire?

Would you say of such a city in such a week that it was "burning"? Confession: I would. I don't know too many better words for it.

Now let's say that week ends with the roasting alive of six people in their home. A horrible crime. Yet in what sense can we say it was that incident that caused the city to burn? Yet, again, there are good reasons some people would make such a claim. There's an issue here. Bear with me while I work my way towards it.

In Towards Balkanisation: Adivasis Varsha Bhosle wrote:

    On the night of January 7, 1993, four women, three men and two girls were locked in a room, doused with kerosene, and set on fire. When the news of the Radhabai Chawl massacre spread, including how the attackers stood around shouting "Allah-o-Akbar," Bombay burned.

The point she makes here, one that any number of people repeat, is that the Radhabai Chawl massacre set off the rioting in Bombay in 1992-93.

Which anyone with a memory of the rioting then would find hard to believe, considering that Bombay had been consumed by widespread violence beginning earlier in January 1993. (Of course, it had also burned in December, in what is usually referred to as the "first phase" of the riots). In particular, in a preview of the horror that descended on that Hindu family in Radhabai Chawl, two Muslim men were burned alive in a taxi in Pratiksha Nagar on January 7.

So I wrote to Varsha, asking her to correct this mistaken point about the Radhabai Chawl murders setting off the riots. I quoted to her the Srikrishna Report's recounting of three incidents:

  • January 4, when a mob of Hindus led by Shiv Sena politicians attacked a mosque near Jogeshwari police station and Muslims in the area.

  • January 7, the burning of the two men in the taxi in Pratiksha Nagar.

  • January 8, the burning of the Hindu family in Radhabai Chawl.

I also quoted to her something I have quoted here before: what the well-known Marathi philosopher, the late M P Rege, once wrote about the riots:

    It is generally believed in Mumbai that [the rioting was triggered by] the gruesome incident in Radhabai Chawl, in which a whole Hindu family was burnt to death. ...

    The Srikrishna Commission report corrects this picture, which has been internalised by most Hindus in Mumbai. Or rather, it presents, on the basis of unchallengeable evidence, an altogether different picture of what really happened. ... In fact, the first communal incident occured on January 1, 1993, in which a Hindu mob attacked Muslims, a few days before the Radhabai Chawl incident which took place on January 8, 1993.

Why is this belief about Radhabai Chawl so generally held, so diligently fostered, to the extent that Rege came to believe it had to be corrected? Because it serves as a cover for the Shiv Sena's own crimes in those weeks. Because explaining those crimes as a "reaction" to another atrocity reduces, in many minds, the criminality of those crimes. Justifies them. Because it ratchets up the hatred of Muslims which is the only route the Sena can see for itself to political popularity.

All of which is why M P Rege wrote what he did.

Note: all this is not to imply that there was some Hindu- or Shiv Sena-inspired crime that set off the rioting instead. For example, what if some Muslims claimed that the Pratiksha Nagar murders made Bombay burn? That would be just as logical a claim as that the Radhabai Chawl murders did so. It would serve just as well to reduce, in many minds, the criminality of Radhabai Chawl.

It would also be just as wrong. For apart from the fact that Bombay was already afire, nothing justifies burning a family in their home; nothing justifies burning two men in a taxi. Nothing justifies the subsequent violence.

So this is one very simple correction I asked of Varsha: the impression that Radhabai Chawl triggered the riots is wrong. Other crimes, by both Hindus and Muslims, at least one just as nauseating, preceded it.

Simple, but as I might have guessed, too simple. Varsha doesn't see any mistake. Instead, she writes an article that begins by proffering the "gist" of my message to her. Oddly, in this gist, she makes no mention of the Pratiksha Nagar murders I quoted to her: murders every bit as horrifying as in Radhabai Chawl. She also makes no mention of the point Rege made: that Hindus in Bombay who believe that the Radhabai Chawl murders triggered the riots will have to re-examine that belief, "on the basis of unchallengeable evidence."

And to reinforce that mistake-free conviction, Varsha sets off on an involved exploration of all that happened in those weeks, herself recounting various crimes -- like the murder of Mathadi workers -- that happened before the Radhabai Chawl massacre. Herself disproving the case she is set on proving: that it was the Radhabai Chawl massacre that set Bombay on fire.

Yes, by the time January 8 came along, Bombay was already on fire. Yes, I don't know how else you describe a city that witnesses a week filled with the murder of four workers, an outbreak of stabbing that leaves many dead, the roasting alive of two men in a car, and a variety of other incidents including a mosque attacked, assaults with iron rods, hutments set on fire. All of which, except one, Varsha herself quotes to you. The exception she chose to omit? The roasting of those two men in a taxi, January 7.

And yes, this horrendous week ends with the depravity of Radhabai Chawl. But we are asked to believe that that atrocity was the match that lit a city that only happened already to be aflame.

Again, why are we asked to do so? Because that way, a whole city will perforce blame Muslims for starting it all. This is what the Shiv Sena wants to achieve, not least because you will then overlook their crimes. It wants these tensions seen in these black-and-white terms: "The other guy is at fault, period. We are the long-suffering victims."

Which is the issue I mentioned far above. We live in an age of competitive victimhood: your suffering is nothing compared to mine. Every kind of group is able to define itself only by how horribly it has been oppressed, or brutalised, or beaten into submission; more than that, this definition works only if it can be presented as positively the worst suffering in human history. For the suffering is then used to justify any excesses the group itself perpetrates.

You see this at work in the Middle-East, where Palestinians justify their terror attacks by citing years of oppression by Israelis; to the Israelis, their heavy-handed treatment of Palestinians arises from themselves being the victims of atrocities, from the Holocaust to today's suicide bombings.

Closer to home, the reasoning differs only in the terms used. Centuries of upper-caste oppression explains Dalit resentment and violence. Muslims attacked that train in Godhra because the Ayodhya movement really aims only to stamp them down. The subsequent violence by Hindus was "more excusable and milder" (an actual quote from an alert reader) than Godhra, because it was a "reaction" to Godhra and years of Islamic perfidy.

And somewhere in there is the carnage of Radhabai Chawl. When that happened -- when that Muslim crime happened, let it be noted -- Bombay burned.

This one-upmanship of victims, despite the snarling aggression it thinks it fosters, actually sells a fundamentally weak vision: that those other guys are responsible for every possible ill. It asks you to throw out all you learned about standing on your own feet, finding your own strength, making your own life.

Besides, with the way Radhabai Chawl is portrayed, it throws out the entire panoply of complex, tangled tensions that form the tortured Hindu-Muslim relationship. Lay the blame on Muslims, that's all. Because shades of grey, which are indisputably what we saw in Bombay then, are too difficult to build political constituencies on. To build hatreds on.

Shades of grey, after all, mean minds that ask questions and think for themselves -- like M P Rege's did. Parties like the Shiv Sena have no use for such minds. They prefer ones that, when asked, will cough up Sena confections. Makes you wonder: who will not be controlled?

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