By Sanjeev Nayar
Many of those who opposed the hanging of Yakub Menon for his role in the 1993 Mumbai blasts also suggest that the blasts were linked to the riots that preceded them. Justice for the blasts is one thing, but what about justice for the victims of the riots? This article seeks to share insights and put things in perspective. The two events cannot be seen as direct cause and effect, for there were other independent developments that made the whole situation combustible.
Sharad Pawar was Chief Minister of Maharashtra till June 1991 after which he became Defence Minister in the Narasimha Rao government. Pawar wanted a trusted successor and so Sudhakarrao Naik was made CM.
In 1992, former Deputy Municipal Commissioner GR Khairnar had started demolitions of illegal structures, many of which belonged to the underworld in the Muslim-dominated areas of South Mumbai. Around the same time, the Mumbai Police took action against criminals, some of whom were Muslims.
Such demolitions were unheard of till then or even subsequently, but Naik had a mind of his own.
After 6 December 1992, Muslims were angry about another demolition – that of the Babri Masjid. This offered the perfect setting for pent-up anger to surface and disturb political equations.
First, there were protests against the demolition of the masjid. Those who were affected by the demolition of illegal structures in the city added fuel to the fire. Later, even criminal elements got involved.
When faced with an aggressive and violent mob during a riot, the police tend to fire at some point. They do not always follow the normal sequence of lathi charge, tear gas and then fire. Since the mobs were comprised Muslims, the casualties were mainly Muslim.
The violence in December 1992 involved the police and Muslims. Some of the headlines and newspaper stories of that time read like this: "Two Constables in Deonar jurisdiction were killed with choppers and swords by rampaging Muslims mobs. One constable was done to death in Byculla jurisdiction". On 7th December 1992, three police personnel were killed and 216 injured.
It is clear that some of the protests were violent. In this context, the issue was this: when
faced with violent protestors who were damaging public property, should the police be passive bystanders and run for their lives, as they did in August 2012 during the Azad Maidan protests and violence, or take appropriate action? “It was sheer luck that we were able to rescue the policemen from the vans. The mob had locked them in and was not allowing them to come out,” a senior police officer told The Hindu about mob violence in August 2012.
Returning to 1992, the Shiv Sena began protests against the holding of namaz on streets and the use of loud-speakers for azaan. It started Maha-artis from 26 December 1992, and though these incidents were not violent, they added to communal tension.
It is also worth recalling the 2005 Supreme Court order on the use of loud-speakers beyond specific decibel levels, and their non-use before 6am. But to date, there does not seem to have been any concerted effort to seek compliance with the order. But in 1992-93, these too were reasons for communal tensions.
Back to 1992. As the Maha-artis continued, on 5 January 1993, five Mathadi workers (loaders) were stabbed to death, allegedly by Feroze Konkani, who is supposed to have fled to Pakistan (Note: he was arrested in 1995 for the murder of BJP's Ramdas Nayak).
On 8 January, some Hindu homes at Radhabai Chawl (in a predominantly Muslim basti) in Jogeshwari were set on fire. One male and five female members of a family (the Banes) were charred to death.
The late Varsha Bhonsle wrote: "Six witnesses declared that the attackers stood around shouting "Allah-o-Akbar" and fled only when they heard the police sirens. The Supreme Court acquitted 11 Muslims who were earlier convicted by the special TADA judge for the murder of six Hindus in the Radhabai Chawl case. Abu Azmi paid for most of the legal expenses, and advocate Majeed Memon filed the petition in SC".
When six people were burnt alive, surely someone must have been responsible for the hideous crime! Or can it be said that the Bane family set themselves on fire to provoke Hindu-Muslim riots?
The Congress-run state government cited three reasons for the Mumbai riots. "One is stabbing of two Mathadi workers. Two is killing of 37 people, following 138 cases of stabbing in 48 hours, after 6 January. Three is burning to death of four members in Radhabhai Chawl on January 8. Though the Maharashtra government has not said so, a clear inference which can be drawn from the incidents mentioned is that the attacks by Muslims provoked the riots" (excerpts from The Times of India, 19 February, 1993).
It is only after the incidents of 5 and 8 January that the rioting got worse and there was massive involvement of Hindu groups.
The final death count in the Mumbai riots was 275 Hindus, 575 Muslims, and 50 others, including unknowns. The causes of death were police firing 356, stabbing 347, arson 91, mob action 80, private firing 22 and others 4.
Prime Minister Narasimha Rao probably watched the situation unfold but was probably too busy warding off Pawar who wanted to become PM.
Did infighting in the Congress contribute to the high casualty rate in the 1993 riots? The Sunday Observer wrote this on 10 January 1993 quoting the then AICC general secretary, Janardhan Poojary: "The assertion by AICC general secretary in Hyderabad today that the Bombay riots were (be)cause of infighting within the Maharashtra unit of the party is being echoed by senior Congressmen here. According to a UNI report, Poojari said that 'some disgruntled elements within the Congress' were fanning communal violence in order to seek removal of CM Naik".
It was in this context that the Mumbai blasts took place in March 1993. Rao used the blasts to send Sharad Pawarback to Maharashtra as CM – and saviour. The situation in Mumbai quickly returned to where it was prior to his departure in 1991.
To conclude, it is not quite correct to say that the communal riots of 1992 and early 1993 were largely about targeting Muslims, though they certainly lost more lives. Two, the demolition of illegal structures in Mumbai and the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and Congress infighting, played a role in making the riots worse than they should have been. Three, violence by Muslims began in December 1992. The Hindu attacks commenced in January 1993 after the Mathadi and Radhabai chawl killings. Four, 40 percent of the deaths were caused by police firing.
Those the survivors of the riots are still seeking justice, but one cannot justify the 1993 blasts using this as pretext.
The author is an independent columnist