Earlier this week, Nationalist Congress Party chief and veteran politician Sharad Pawar stole a march over other politicians in his home state by talking about the illegal detentions of Muslims suspected to be Islamic State agents by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad. The squad was detaining persons and not producing them before a magistrate till days later, he said, declaring that he would take the matter up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But after the first major incident of mass terror in the country – the multiple bomb blasts of March 12, 1993, that shattered Mumbai and took the lives of 257 – it was the same Pawar as chief minister who declared in the Assembly: “The government will destroy every person connected with the series of bomb blasts in the metropolis.”
At that time, taking the cue from Pawar, the Mumbai police went all out to literally “destroy every person” they suspected was connected with the blasts. Perhaps for the first time, women were not spared. Mothers, brothers, and sometimes entire families were picked up and tortured to get information about the whereabouts of young men whom the police suspected of involvement in the blasts.
These were all Muslim of course, because it was soon known that Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon were behind the blasts. Muslims surnamed Memon, as well as those living in the Mumbai area of Mahim, where Tiger Memon had his family home, were special targets. This reporter remembers being told by a well-off Memon that the communal riots that preceded the blasts had not shaken his faith in the country, despite the targeting of Muslims in them. But the persecution of those who happened to have the same name as the accused had made him consider emigrating.
Many of those picked up were destroyed for a long time. Among them were the Haspatel family of Shrivardhan in Raigad district. The police found what they termed as “projectiles, Afghan missiles” from their home. These turned out to be spindles used in weaving.
By the time the police could be convinced of this, they had tortured the head of the family and his son so badly, forcing their womenfolk to watch, that the son became impotent. Former Maharashtra Chief Minister AR Antulay, then a Member of Parliament from Raigad, referred this case to the National Human Rights Commission, which ordered in 2000 that the state pay Rs 5 lakh as compensation to the Haspatels. The father had then told this reporter in hushed anguished tones that even so many years later, his son’s condition had not improved.
The Haspatels had Antulay. Most other victims had no one. A July 1993 report by democratic rights organisation Lokshahi Hakk Sangahatan titled Salt in the wounds: Communalism and the State in Bombay, revealed that the victims were left with lasting physical damage. Some families had to file petitions to force the police to produce their men.
Most of those picked up were never formally arrested. They were “detained”, tortured for days, then released, with no charge brought against them. How different is this from what Pawar alleges the Anti-Terror Squad is doing today?
The March 12, 1993, bomb blasts were an act of revenge for the December 1992-January 1993 riots. After the riots, everyone in Mumbai knew that Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and his men had played a leading role in the violence against Muslims, with the full support of the police. These popular perceptions were confirmed five years later by the Justice BN Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the riots.
When Pawar took over as chief minister immediately after the riots, he knew exactly what the situation was. Though he was defence minister, he had been camping in the city all through January 1993, during the second phase of the riots, after being sent by Prime Minister Narsimha Rao to aid Maharashtra Chief Minister Sudhakarrao Naik in handling the situation.
When he took over as chief minister, Pawar’s first task should have been to direct the police to go after the rioters, and look into the many complaints of police excesses. Instead, within days of taking over, Pawar announced a special reward scheme for the police, “to revive the flagging morale of the force”. Asked about action against the police, Pawar gave the excuse all chief ministers give: wait for the report of the judicial commission. But after the commission recommended strict action against 31 policemen for their communal conduct during the riots, Pawar’s right-hand man Chhagan Bhujbal, who was Maharashtra’s home minister, refused to act. Pawar said nothing.
Mumbai’s Muslims know Sharad Pawar only too well, for some of their leaders have been very close to him. Their faith in his secular credentials evaporated in January 1993 itself.
Community activist Wahid Ali Khan was among those who received him at the airport when he arrived that month. The small group of Muslims was hoping that Pawar would be the one leader who would understand the trauma they were going through. Instead, said Wahid Ali, they were left speechless when all that Pawar spoke about was the terrible consequences awaiting them after the Radhabai chawl incident in Jogeshwari in which six Hindus, five of them women and children, were burnt alive by Muslims on the night of January 7-8, 1993.
At his press conference in Mumbai earlier this week, Pawar said 29 Muslim groups from Marathwada had met him to complain about harassment by the Anti-Terror Squad in Parbhani. But Parbhani is the third city in Marathwada to witness such harassment. Two other cities in the region which have substantial Muslim populations, Aurangabad and Beed, have seen such arbitrary detentions of innocents for over a decade. Even for Parbhani, this isn’t the first instance of police high-handedness. The city saw a young software engineer, Khwaja Yunus, mysteriously disappear while in police custody in 2002. The trial of the policemen accused of his murder is yet to begin; and the government that sanctioned the prosecution of only four of the 14 policemen indicted by the CID, comprised Pawar’s party in alliance with the Congress.
Outside Marathwada there’s Malegaon, from where nine Muslims had to spend five years in jail for a bomb blast carried out by Hindus. The policemen responsible for such illegal acts reported to Pawar’s lieutenants. The Nationalist Congress Party held the home portfolio all through its reign in Maharashtra in alliance with the Congress from 1999 to 2014. Sharad Pawar was then a national leader, a close aide of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It never struck him then to take up those cases with Singh, as he now plans to do with Prime Minister Modi?
Has Pawar’s newfound sympathy anything to do with the forthcoming crucial Mumbai municipal elections, in which Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen is a serious contender?
Muslim victimhood is the AIMIM’s only plank.
Hopefully, Mumbai’s Muslims will see through both their saviours.