That September evening, the usual hubbub filled Bombay’s Kalbadevi area as people rushed in all directions, vehicles honked their impatience as they slowly made their way through the crowded street, fruit and, vegetable vendors screamed their prices in a musical crescendo,and customers were busy bargaining with shopkeepers. And yet, despite the commotion all around, the message on the RSS blackboard – installed at the Cotton Exchange Junction – was still the loudest of all.

It was nothing less than a right winger’s Twitter account of the pre-internet age. A major link of communication between the RSS and the people, the board regularly updated messages – ideas ranging from the formation of a Hindu Rashtra to the sacrality of cows, from threats surrounding Hindus, the appeasement of Muslims by the Opposition party, calls for abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir to a Uniform Civil Code, and their philosophy of Akhand Bharat.

That day, while returning from my tuition classes, on the blackboard, I saw a picture of a bald, bespectacled man with a grey moustache, beaming through the saffron poster placed over the board. His name, Lal Krishna Advani, flashed in a bold font, and the text below announced his upcoming visit to the city in a rath – a chariot.

Those were the days when Doordarshan telecast Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1987) and BR Chopra’s Mahabharata (1988), in which characters appeared to be fighting with each other while standing on chariots. Though the period-specific prop of the chariot appealed to me, as a ten-year-old, I could not help but wonder why anyone would use such a primitive vehicle to travel across cities.

After this first poster appeared in Kalbadevi, Advani’s rath yatra became the talk of the town. Hundreds of banners and posters were printed with pictures of Advani and Lord Rama, assuming an aggressive posture, holding a bow in his hand. Every day, newspaper reports about the progress of the rath yatra galvanised everyone even further.

Just a year ago, in June 1989, the BJP, in its Palampur convention, had adopted Ram Mandir as its agenda, and the rath yatra was its first on-ground manifestation. At the convention, it was resolved that the BJP would take up the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) demand for constructing the Rama temple at Ayodhya as a political issue. The resolution was based on the premise that, in 1528, the Mughal emperor, Babur, had invaded Ayodhya and demolished the temple that stood, marking the place where Lord Rama was born.

A mosque was constructed in that location, which was named Babri Masjid. It was alleged that the incumbent Congress Party didn’t care for the sentiments of Hindus. After adopting Hindutva as an ideology, the BJP’s clout skyrocketed. The party emerged as a major political force in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections that happened five months after the Palampur convention. With 85 seats in the election, the BJP was now the third-largest party in the country after the Congress, with 197 seats, and the Janata Dal, with 143 seats.

The next step was to launch a movement on the ground to implement the resolution passed at Palampur’s Rotary Bhavan. Thus, the rath yatra commenced at Gujarat’s Somnath temple on September 25, 1990. Somnath is one of the twelve jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva and, like the Babri mosque, was considered a reminder of foreign invasion. The Turkish ruler Mahmud Gazni was the first one to attack the temple in the eleventh century, followed by other Muslim rulers in later centuries. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The present temple was restored after India attained Independence.

Crossing a distance of over 10,000 kilometres via different states, the rath would eventually reach Ayodhya, where karsevaks would seize the mosque and start constructing the Rama temple. With a target of covering approximately 300 kilometres a day, Advani was now headed towards Bombay.

He addressed five to six public meetings every day, while heading towards the destination. With the rath yatra being an expression of cultural nationalism and militant Hinduism, the reported stray incidents of violence en route came as no surprise.

The centre stage of the film and television industry, Bombay, had by now also become a theatre of communal conflicts. From 1893 to 1990, the city witnessed seven major Hindu–Muslim riots. As per recorded history, the first clash between the two communities happened on August 11, 1893, over the issue of cow slaughter. To control the violence, the British summoned the army that opened fire in the Grant Road area. 80 people were killed in the riots that raged for over three days.

In 1929, a rumour spread among mill workers that members of a particular community were abducting children, which led to a rampage in the city. This time, too, the army was called, and the death toll was 149 people. In 1932, Bombay once again came under the grip of violence, when a place of worship was demolished in the CP Tank area. 96 people were killed in the riots that ensued for five days.

Four years later, in 1936, a major riot broke out in the Byculla area, and the army had to be called in once again. The issue was that one community’s place of worship had encroached upon the other community’s. 60 people were killed in that uproar. The next year, in 1937, riots began when a wedding procession with a music band was passing in front of a place of worship belonging to one community. When devotees asked to stop the music, a bloody conflict ensued. In 1938, the two communities clashed for a trifling reason – a dispute during gambling, which soon took on a communal colour. That violence claimed 80 lives and 86 people were injured.

Similarly, in 1941, members of the two communities fought over an inconsequential reason, which resulted in 24 deaths. Apart from Hindu–Muslim riots, Bombay had also witnessed three Parsee–Muslim clashes and sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis during Moharram.

The history of communal clashes in Bombay presents a contradictory picture of the city, which is seen as having a cosmopolitan and modern character. And Advani, with his rath, was slowly advancing towards this city where communal tensions were always ready to flare.

A public rally had been arranged at Borivali on September 29, 1990, to welcome the rath yatra in Bombay. An enthusiastic crowd waited patiently for the rath slated to arrive by 5 pm. Sweaty attendees squeezed through the limited seating area as the entrance of the rath kept getting delayed. Those who had come with children struggled to find ways to keep them occupied. The local vendors selling beverages and snacks sold out faster that evening than on other days. Despite the exhaustion, the crowd kept multiplying in numbers as the hours went by.

North Bombay BJP unit’s then vice-president, RU Singh, recounts the heavy attendance at Advani’s meeting. Finally, around 9 pm, a Toyota truck redesigned as a chariot – studded with saffron flags, garlands, speakers, and banners – carried the energetic Advani to the stage as the deafening mob shouted party eulogies. Advani was accompanied by politician Pramod Mahajan and Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister, Sundarlal Patwa.

The local member of Parliament, Ram Naik, welcomed the rath. After garlanding a statue of Swami Vivekananda, Advani began his address, emphasising the futility of the nation’s freedom and on its failure at liberating Rama’s birthplace. He claimed that people had sacrificed their lives for this land for over 450 years, and now was the time to seek vengeance. Further, Pramod Mahajan mentioned in his speech how he wasn’t against any religion, but one must demolish the property constructed by an invader despite the challenges it posed.

It was ironic that the driver of the truck used in the rath yatra, whose subtle agenda was anti-Muslim, was from the Khoja Muslim community; his name was Salim Makani. A resident of Dombivli, a town close to Bombay, Makani’s father was a member of the Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, and ran a transport business. The responsibility of coordinating the rath’s complete journey was given to the BJP’s Maharashtra unit, which had to arrange everything from spare batteries for the rath to tyre repairs, mechanics, food and venues for press conferences.

Raghunath Kulkarni, secretary of the Maharashtra BJP, was the coordinator for the rath yatra in Bombay. His amazement at Advani’s vigour is reflected in his words, “Even if he slept at 3 am, he was ready at 7 am. Whenever the rath moved into the city, he used to stand for hours on top of the vehicle. We requested him to move inside and rest for some time, but he always declined by saying that people had come to see him and it was wrong to stay inside.”

On the second day of the arrival of the rath in Bombay, public meetings were called in the Khetwadi and Colaba areas of south Bombay. That evening, Advani and Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray addressed a joint meeting at Dadar. The Shiv Sena had politically adopted Hindutva as a plank in 1987, although its anti-Muslim stance became evident earlier during the Bhiwandi riots of 1984, when the sainiks indulged in large-scale violence.

Together, the BJP and the Shiv Sena formed an alliance using Hindutva as an adhesive. While Thackeray sought opportunities to expand his party beyond the Bombay, Thane, and Konkan region, the BJP needed some local partners to strengthen its wing in Maharashtra. Pramod Mahajan engineered the alliance between the two parties. They fought the 1984 and 1989 Lok Sabha elections and the 1990 Vidhan Sabha polls together.

Bombay after Ayodhya: A City in Flux

Excerpted with permission from Bombay after Ayodhya: A City in Flux, Jitendra Dixit, HarperCollins India.