Bombay riots revisited

Across the chasm: Children of the Bombay riots share stories of reconciliation – and anxiety

25 years ago, India’s commercial capital was gripped by two months of violence that left 900 people dead. Since then, has the city really managed to heal?

Until 1992, many in India’s commercial capital believed that they lived in a cosmopolitan city that was too preoccupied with making money to waste time squabbling with their neighbours over religious matters – like people in the rest of the country seemed prone to do. But the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, shattered that Mumbai myth.

The destruction of the shrine tipped the metropolis – which was still known as Bombay at the time – into two months of rioting. By the time the violence had abated, 900 people had died, the majority of whom were Muslim. When the state-appointed BN Srikrishna judicial commission that inquired into the violence eventually issued its report in 1998, it had strong words to say about the role of the Shiv Sena and the bias in the city police force.

The riots seemed to have sharpened the divisions between the city’s Hindus and Muslims. But amazingly, many of the children who experienced them seemed to have overcome any feelings of bitterness they may have had towards members of the other community. In the first part of this series, Scroll.in spoke to people who had been children when the riots broke out and had experienced the violence firsthand to identify some of the institutional factors that had helped close the religious divide. These factors included the participation of young people in social-work groups that brought them into contact with people of many faiths, and the Mohalla Committee movement established in most of the most troubled neighbourhoods expressly to help keep the peace.

In the second part of the series, five people who witnessed the violence of 1992-’93 as children describe their relationships with people of the other community, their efforts to reach out to them – and their continuing fears.

Shivaji Khairnar, 37

Auto showroom employee and social activist, Jogeshwari

Shivaji Khairnar was only 11 when he experienced the sting of tear gas and the destructive power of Molotov cocktails. As the riots raged in his neighbourhood of Jogeshwari in western Mumbai, he helped barricade his area against people he heard being described as “the enemy”. He heard two Hindus who had been killed in police firing being hailed as shaheed or martyrs. He listened to the fiery speeches of politicians after the Radhabai Chawl incident, in which six Hindus living not far from him had been burnt alive in the wee hours of January 8, 1993. Overnight, his daily routine of playing with Muslim children was stopped.

But even as a school child, Khairnar recalled, he and his Hindu friends realised that the violence they had witnessed between neighbours was wrong. Besides, his parents did not let the polarised rhetoric infect the atmosphere at home. “Both my parents worked,” Khairnar said. “The motto was: if we have to eat, we have to work. My mother remained friends with her Muslim co-workers in her factory.’’

When he isn’t at work, Khairnar runs a social work group called the Janta Jagruti Manch, which conducts free medical camps and operates a shelter for street kids in Jogeshwari. In 2015, the Manch decided to give its International Women’s Day award to Munira Shaikh, who has dedicated herself to looking after stray dogs in Jogeshwari. said Khairnar: “She told me she sees [the god] Vitthal in every stray animal.’’

When Khairnar’s father was seriously ill five years ago, Khairnar followed the advice of a Muslim friend and decided to observe a fast on the 27th day of Ramzan. His father recovered. Khairnar continues the practice, breaking the fast with his Muslim colleagues.

The same year, Khairnar hesitantly invited Sajid Shaikh, who runs a Muslim youth group in Jogeshwari, to be part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Shyam Nagar Ganpati mandal. Shaikh accepted.

Said Khairnar: “Individuals may do wrong, not an entire community.”

Aadil Khan, 36

Process Head at call centre, Goregaon

Every evening during the riots, they would switch off the lights and pile the furniture against their door. But after their home in the western suburb of Kandivili was attacked with stones in January 1993, Aadil Khan’s father decided that the family should seek refuge in a relative’s home near Bombay Central. Theirs was one of only two Muslim homes in that colony.

“My father was highly regarded in his bank,” he recalled. “Our Hindu neighbours, his colleagues, didn’t want him to move away, and when he insisted, they dropped us all the way to Bombay Central. We returned two weeks later, and lived there till my father retired.”

Today, Khan lives in Hindu-dominated Goregaon, and reciprocates greetings of “Jai Ramji Ki” with the same words. He has been visiting temples with his Hindu friends since his teens. Most of his mother’s friends are Hindu, as his is elder brother’s wife.

Khan voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014 both in the Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Assembly elections because he believes that Narendra Modi is “good for the country’’. The lynchings since then by cow vigilantes remind him of the time when he and four friends – one of them Hindu – were beaten by villagers and police in Uran, just past Mumbai’s northern edge, who thought they were terrorists. The five bike-borne men had been unknowingly taking photographs on naval property. They were finally let off late at night.

Despite this experience, Khan does not feel afraid in Modi’s India. “Why should I be?” he asked. “This is my country. My nationality is Indian, I have an Indian passport.’’

Shanul Syed, 36

Interior decorator and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen member, Santacruz

Before the riots, 11-year-old Shanul Syed used to accompany his friends to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh drills held every evening near their colony in the western suburb of Santacruz. But after the violence, Syed said that he was “forced into the realisation” that he was different”,’’ he said.

Muslim homes in the predominantly Hindu colony nearby, including those of his relatives, were sold to Hindus, and Hindus in his predominantly Muslim colony moved out. “Our daily visits to each other’s homes became weekly visits,” he recalled. The Tableeghi Jamaat religious organisation “became active in our area as did the Bajrang Dal in the Hindu area”.

At home, though, Syed was strengthened by a family history of struggle against communalism. His great-uncle Maulana Hasrat Mohani was a founder of the Communist Party of India, and his father, a Congressman, believed firmly in Hindu-Muslim unity. This background led Syed to the Aam Aadmi Party in 2014, and when he became disillusioned with its Mumbai leadership, he joined Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party, which he insists is not communal.

Though Syed sends his children to an Islamic school, he is glad that their best friends are Hindu. He feels it is best for residential areas to have people from all religious groups, since this offers each community the opportunity to learn about other cultures. Mixed neighbourhoods, he says, stand in contrast to the “thousands of mini Indias and Pakistans we have across Mumbai, which are so vulnerable to communal propaganda’’.

Mahesh Padval, 39

Businessman and vice president of the Shiv Sena consumer cell, Jogeshwari

Mahesh Padval is proud that he had never missed any of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s speeches at Shivaji Park from the time he was in class eight. He was 14 during the riots, and his best friend was among the Hindus who fled Radhabai Chawl in Jogeshwari the night six Hindus who lived there burnt to death. His friend never to come back.

As a staunch member of the Shiv Sena, Padval described the party’s role in the riots as “defensive’’, but admitted, after some thought, that it did go “too far’’ in its “retaliation’’ against Mumbai’s Muslim community. Today, he says, the party’s attitude has changed: of the 40 Sena ward heads in Jogeshwari, 28 are Muslim, as was the local Sena candidate in the last municipal election.

Padval’s allegiance to the Sena has not damaged his relationship with his Muslim neighbourbours, he said. One of them ties a rakhi on his wrist every year, and at Muharram ties a thread on the wrists of all the members of Padval’s family for good luck. “On Bakri Eid, I hold the goat while my neighbour slaughters it,’’ he said.

Padval’s ascribed the change in Jogeshwari’s communal temperature to the spread of education.“Muslims also realised that if they wanted good jobs, they would have to educate their children,” he said. “Today, our children go to the same school. My children take sheer korma to school on Eid, and Muslim children come dressed as Krishna on Janmashtami.’’

He is sure the violence of ’92-’93 will not be repeated. He explained: “Our children won’t let us riot’’.

Abdullah Qasim, 37

Teacher, Islamic school, Byculla

As a 12-year-old madarsa student in Mumbai’s Muslim quarter of Bhendi Bazaar, Abdullah Qasim witnessed his fellow students and a teacher being beaten by policemen who broke open their door on January 9, 1993, ostensibly looking for terrorists who had fired on them from the terrace of the adjacent Suleman Usman bakery. Qasim heard gunshots outside the room. He did not realise that his father, a teacher at the madarsa, had been killed. Qasim saw his father’s body only a few days later.

“Had my father been alive, I would have achieved something,’’ said Qasim. “He used to ask me what I want to become. Without him, I just grew up anyhow. My grandfather turned invalid hearing about his death, and never got up from bed till he died eight years later. My mother looked after him, and I had to look after my siblings. The madarsa staff became my family.’’

Qasim now teaches in an Islamic school. In 2001, he had intervened in court to oppose bail for the policemen charged with the murder of his father and seven other unarmed Muslims during the raid. He lost. He has since refused to intervene in the ongoing case against the policemen. He says it isn’t worth the tension. “How can this case take so long?” he asked. “Isn’t it a deliberate ploy to mock us?”

Qasim recalled that when his father died, some of their Hindu neighbours expressed regret at the death of a “changla manus’’ – a good man. Despite this, he notes that their children look with suspicion on people like him – maulanas with beards. Once, when he asked them if he could store some of his belongings in their home, they asked: “Sure there’s no bomb in there?’’

He still feels angry at the way his father was killed, but Islam has taught him forbearance, he said. “Islam tells us we are all created by the same maker,” Qasim said. “Those policemen were brainwashed into thinking all Muslims are terrorists. Maybe we Muslims are at fault – our conduct falls short somewhere.’’

This is the concluding article in a two-part series on the aftermath of the Bombay riots. The first part can be read here.

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