Bombay riots revisited

Meet the Mumbai heroes who helped families of 225 people missing during 1992-’93 riots find closure

When the police failed to help, NGO workers conducted their own investigations to prove that many people who had mysteriously vanished were actually dead.

The last time Narendra Shinde’s family saw him was on January 3, 1993, when the musician left his home in the central Mumbai neighbourhood of Dharavi for the western suburb of Kandivali. The city had been in the grip of intense riots since December 6, 1992, when the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya sparked violence across India. Even though mob attacks and arson were widespread across Mumbai, Shinde insisted on going out to visit his sister-in-law.

For months after the riots subsided, Shinde’s relatives searched for him in the city’s hospitals and made inquiries at police stations.

Across Mumbai, which was still known as Bombay at the time, families like the Shindes had been left distraught by their inability to find information about how their loved ones had vanished – and unable to claim the compensation of Rs 2 lakh that the state government had announced for the riot victims.

For the Shindes and scores of other families, help presented itself in the form of Pappubhai Qureshi, a social worker who had worked as an assistant director in the film industry before joining a non-governmental organisation called Citizens for Peace. The organisation had been formed by several prominent city residents to help riot victims rebuild their homes.

Around 1995, the Maharashtra government realised that its records showed that 155 people were still missing after the riots, and that their families had been unable to apply for compensation. It decided to ask NGOs like Citizens for Peace as well as the Society for Human and Environmental Development, or SHED, to help families obtain the documents necessary to establish a legitimate claim for compensation. Unlike in the case of the missing fishermen, who could be declared dead if there was no information about them for seven years, there was no such protocol for riot victims.

Action plan

The trustees of Citizens for Peace drew up a plan to help. They decided to divide the city into four areas, asking government officials to give them the official list of missing persons to help them investigate further. The NGO put together a team of 16 people to help with the task.

Qureshi was introduced to all senior police officers in the city at a specially convened meeting by the senior state government official appointed to oversee the task of rehabilitating the riot victims. The police were told to extend all help to the NGO’s initiative to trace the missing people. The government decided that relatives could file for compensation if Qureshi was able to produce a panchnama – a sworn statement from people who had witnessed the death of the person who had gone missing.

Pappubhai Qureshi worked with a group called Citizens for Peace. Photo credit: Meena Menon
Pappubhai Qureshi worked with a group called Citizens for Peace. Photo credit: Meena Menon

The Citizens for Peace team identified the places around Mumbai where violence had occurred and interviewed locals about these incidents. Many of the missing people had last been seen in the city’s north-western suburbs: in Malad East, Kandivali East, Goregaon East and Borivali East. As a resident of Malad, these were areas that Qureshi knew well and where he had a social network. The residents were quite forthcoming in describing what they had seen – giving him details they hadn’t told the police.

That is how he was able to discover the circumstances in which Narendra Shinde was murdered in Kandivli. Shinde, then 26, had been walking through the Ban Dongri area on January 3, 1993 when he saw a mob setting fire to the bodies of some Muslims they had killed. Realising that he had witnessed their crime, the mob killed and burnt him even though he was identified as a Hindu. A passing police patrol ordered the mob to erase all trace of the bodies.

But establishing the circumstances of these deaths was not the end of Qureshi’s task. For the families to be eligible for compensation, the team had to obtain a panchnama that the person had been killed during the riots.

Qureshi still has stacks of old files with handwritten and typewritten sheets – lists of missing people, applications to the authorities and newspaper cuttings from two decades ago. But when recounting his tales about the people who went missing, he does not need to look at the papers: he knows most of the information by heart.

He recalled long hours trying to track down witnesses. Sometimes, Qureshi would go to the coroner’s court, where post-mortems had been conducted on people who died in unnatural circumstances, to examine the records and correlate them with the dates when people he was seeking had gone missing.

As a member of the Bombay Aman Committee social work group, Fazal Ali Shaad was on duty at the JJ hospital morgue and helped survivors and their families during the 1992-93 riots. Photo credit: Meena Menon
As a member of the Bombay Aman Committee social work group, Fazal Ali Shaad was on duty at the JJ hospital morgue and helped survivors and their families during the 1992-93 riots. Photo credit: Meena Menon

Among the other missing people whose stories Qureshi established was Abdul Sattar Nadaf, a stove repairer, for whom going to Ban Dongri was a daily routine. Despite his wife’s pleading not to leave their home nearby on January 3, 1993, he went out for work and was surrounded by a mob. The owner of a shop intervened and Nadaf escaped. An old Hindu couple hid him in their house. But their grandson ran out and told the mob about the man hiding there. Nadaf was killed.

Though there were three eyewitnesses to the murder, the police refused to lodge a first information report. But after Qureshi had a panchnama prepared, they had to register a case. The government acknowledged that Nadaf had been killed in the riots and awarded his wife Ayesha the Rs 2 lakh compensation. As it turns out, Nadaf’s was among the bodies Narendra Shinde had witnessed the mob burning.

Qureshi wasn’t the only person helping families find resolution. Performing a similar task was Fazal Ali Shaad, who runs a book shop on Mohammed Ali Road in southern Mumbai. As a member of a social-work group called Bombay Aman Committee , he stationed himself at the coroner’s court in South Bombay in December 1992 and January 1993 to help families find the bodies of the dead and, later, to get compensation. He became such a fixture at the court that the coroner whom he didn’t know before invited him to his son’s wedding.

Mariam Rashid, then 28, was also plunged into helping riot survivors as a social worker with SHED. In Dharavi, where trouble started on December 6, 1992, after the Babri Masjid was demolished, she was busy identifying the affected people, preparing lists of burnt houses and caring for survivors. After the violence subsided, she too began to help families find out how their relatives had disappeared.

Like Qureshi, Rashid still has many of the old green files with fading typewritten sheets listing the families of people whose disappearance she and Qureshi had tried to investigate. In 1994, she wrote to all the people on her lists for an update on their situation. Eleven years later, in 2015, she received a letter from a man in Uttar Pradesh thanking her for her message. The man’s family had left Mumbai because of the riots and hadn’t returned.

By the time they wrapped up their task in about a year, Qureshi and Rashid said they had actually managed to establish that, contrary to the government list of 155 missing people, 225 people had gone missing in the Bombay riots. They were able to ensure that most of their families were compensated.

Mariam Rashid of SHED helped trace people who went missing during the Bombay riots of 1992-93. Photo credit: Meena Menon
Mariam Rashid of SHED helped trace people who went missing during the Bombay riots of 1992-93. Photo credit: Meena Menon
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