I consider December 6, 1992, when the Babri Masjid was razed, as the day of the demise of what I thought of as India. Many will challenge my statement, and they would be right – their idea of India wasn’t murdered that day.
I was in Vadodara that day, visiting my wife and infant children at her parent’s home. Their home, outside Panigate, sits on the ‘border’ – on one side is a Hindu basti and sharing a compound wall with Bank Colony is Memon Colony, a settlement of Muslims or, as they are now referred to in Gujarat, the ‘Ms’. Since early morning, from the Hindu side, recordings of Sadhvi Ritambhara’s hate-filled speeches were blared on loudspeakers aimed at Memon Colony. The atmosphere was charged. Vadodara had lived through a period of communal flareups and another was expected.
We were glued to the TV; there were no 24X7 channels addicted to breaking news then but everyone knew something was going to happen. Then the news of the attack on the Babri Masjid was accompanied by the sound of firecrackers. Then came news of the first dome collapsing and there were more crackers. The Babri Masjid had ceased to exist.
By the next morning, riots had erupted amidst claims and counter-claims of who had triggered them. At some places, Muslim mobs had gone on the rampage, triggering responses from Hindu fanatics. At others, celebrations by Hindus turned violent and Muslims were targeted. What ensued was a cycle of rioting, murder and arson.
Initially, my in-laws’ neighbourhood remained tense but calm and the administration enforced a curfew. We were locked in the house. For the next few days, only my mother-in-law was allowed to step out for a while to stock up on milk, vegetables and other provisions. When she would return, she would bring news of riots in other areas.
I heard that trouble had erupted in the Muslim localities of Central Bombay (my city was still called ‘Bombay’ then). Muslims had taken out protest marches, which had turned violent. This was when the Shiv Sena was thirsting for power and the late Balasaheb Thackeray saw this as an opportunity. He unleashed his Sainiks on Muslims and made it seem as if he was the sole saviour of Hindus and Mumbai. Most people accepted it.
After the first outburst of violence, it was portrayed that Muslims were trying to carry out a genocide of Hindus and capture Bombay, sparking a pogrom against them. The police force was communalised, as was revealed by the Justice Srikrishna Inquiry Commission.
The journey home
After six days, curfew was relaxed in Vadodara and my brother-in-law Sunjay, unfortunately no more now, dropped me to the station on his scooter, taking detours around the troublespots. I got into the first train that rolled in (I think it was the Sayaji Nagari Express); it was deserted, except for several paramilitary forces. There were a few civilians like me trying to get back home. We locked the doors from the inside and downed the window shutters, fearing stone-pelting and firebombs. It was a tense journey. We were told to keep only one door open and I remember sitting there throughout the journey. The small towns and hamlets we passed were calm but you could see no one outdoors.
The first sign of trouble I saw was as the train rolled into Bharuch. The station had been ransacked and there was smoke rising from the city, its streets deserted. The platforms were littered with debris and broken glass. Not many boarded the train there.
The horror of what had happened hit me when we reached Surat. The station had been trashed, the stalls shattered, looted and set ablaze. This was the first place I saw large patches of dried human blood. As my train crossed the Tapi, there were crowds in the Hindu smashanbhoomi on its banks, many funeral pyres were burning and there were crowds in the Muslim kabristan too. The city was deserted, and I saw buildings ablaze and bastis burnt down, the fires still smouldering. I shut and barred the door.
When we entered Maharashtra, it was calmer, there were no signs of violence but it was tense. Groups of the police and paramilitary had alighted at various halts in Gujarat. Now we, the few passengers left, were on our own. Everything was normal when we reached Borivali, apart from the heightened police presence. There were announcements advising people to rush home since parts of the city were under curfew. I got home unmolested.
Then news about attacks on Muslim localities – Jogeshwari, Mahim, Dharavi, Nagpada, Dongri, Mohammad Ali Road – started coming in. The newspapers were full of news of the riots. Hate was on the boil.
‘Us’ and ‘them’
For the first time, I heard Bombawalas speaking about “us” and “them”. Till then, we had always just been Bombaywalas. The death toll was divided into “so many of us” and “so many of them”, like the score of a cricket match. The soul of my city was dying.
After a few days, the violence was under control but the night curfew remained, and stray stabbings and burnings continued. Rumours added to the panic. One day, no one drank milk because it was believed that the supply had been poisoned. I had my coffee made from that day’s milk supply in the morning. In the afternoon, a relative called to ask me if I had drunk milk. I said I had, first thing in the morning. There was pin-drop silence. Then she asked if I was all right.
In January, mathadi kamgars, were allegedly murdered by mobs of Muslim fanatics. Then a whole family, including a disabled girl, was burnt alive at Radhabai Chawl in Jogeshwari. This triggered a Hindu backlash, mostly spearheaded by Shiv Sena workers. It was claimed that Balasaheb’s “soldiers” were saving the Hindus. Most people believed it; it was a clever strategy to grab power.
I was alone; my parents and sister lived in the US and they were worried about me. My wife and children were in Vadodara. Vivan, my son, was born in May 1991 and my daughter, Kasturi, was born in September 1992. My wife, Sonal, and her parents were worried about me being alone. But I was fed up of being cooped up at home.
So, one morning, just after the Radhabai Chawl arson, I decided to tour the city. One of my favourite modes of transport was the BEST bus, route 81 Ltd, which started one stop away from my home stop of Arya Samaj and went up to Mantralaya. I used to call it “Bombay Darshan” because it meandered through many localities of the city. The first sign of trouble I saw was while passing Lucky Restaurant at the Bandra station intersection; it was closed and boarded. Lucky was never shut, so this was unusual. From there onwards, all shops and restaurants, all small establishments were shuttered. There were a few taxis near the Bandra Masjid with their glasses shattered.
As the bus drove down Mahim Causeway, we started seeing smouldering cars and others with the glass shattered and tyres slashed. When the bus crossed Mahim Church, I saw fires raging and shops ablaze. I didn’t know it then but one of those shops was owned by Tiger Memon.
Now I began questioning the prudence of venturing out that day, but I stuck with it. The few people on the bus started panicking, but did not have the courage to alight in a locality that would be nicknamed ‘Pakistan’. Most of them alighted at Shiv Sena Bhavan. The bus went via Portuguese Church and Siddhi Vinayak temple to the passport office. It was there that I saw something I will never forget – a taxi was burning furiously in the middle of the road, the driver trapped inside. He had died by the time I arrived and the roaring flames were consuming his body.
At Haji Ali, the famous juice centre was shut and so was the path leading to the dargah.
Then the bus entered the elite area of Peddar Road, and it seemed like a different city. You couldn’t tell that not far away people were being murdered and their homes set alight.
‘Go home immediately’
As we reached Victoria Terminus (as it was known then), I decided to not continue my journey further. I was worried for my dear friend Najmuddin Roopawala, or Najju as we used to call him. His family’s printing press was on SA Barelvi Road off Gunbow Street. It was where I got all my printing done. I ran a business of typesetting and layout on DTP systems from home. I would take orders and get them printed at Najju’s press. I wanted to make sure he and his family were safe.
When I arrived at the press, I saw that his father was stashing everything inside the gala. Generally, they had so much work that part of the stock, reams of paper and stacks of printed stationery would be piled up on the pavement outside. He asked me what I was doing there and I told him I was just visiting. He looked at me as if I was an idiot and told me return home immediately. I remember his words: “Don’t loiter; go back home immediately. There is going to be trouble.” Saying that, he pulled down the shop’s shutter. I helped him padlock it and then, advising me again to return, uncle hurried away.
Najju’s family, his parents and brothers, lived just one lane behind the shop in Bazaar Gate Street.
I heeded the advice and this time I decided to take my other favourite route, 84 Express, which was to be boarded across from the VSNL office. After a long wait, I was told that buses had stopped plying and I should rush to Churchgate station to catch a train because there a curfew was likely to be imposed. The only traffic I saw was police vehicles and a couple of trucks carrying paramilitary forces.
As I started for Churchgate, I saw a Maruti 800 driven by a young Dawoodi Bohra priest. I did not pay any attention and rushed to the station. I was fortunate that I got to a train that departed immediately.
As the train rolled into Charni Road station, I saw a mob setting fire to a Maruti 800 car and I saw the panic-stricken figure of the young Bohra priest scampering over the barricade separating the tracks from the road and rushing onto the platform. He jumped into the train I was travelling in as it started. When I looked back, his car was engulfed in a raging fire; he was lucky to have escaped.
The few commuters hurriedly downed the window shutters and half-closed the door of the compartment. At various spots, the train was pelted by stones; we heard them smashing against its metal body. When the train passed under bridges, stones were thrown at it from above.
Finally, I made it to Santa Cruz. I started walking through the market, which was hurriedly shutting amid talk of an impending “invasion” by Muslims from across the tracks. There was panic. “They are coming with AK-47s,” some said. Others claimed the Muslims had grenades.
I had intended to go home but, when I reached SV Road, I made for Santa Cruz police station. I had decided to volunteer, to work for my beloved city. The police were baffled. Who was this person, they thought. “What’s this talk about volunteering? Is he mad?” Thankfully they didn’t lock me up but, after many curious looks and head shakes, I was taken to the senior officer. I explained that I wished do whatever I could to assist the police, much to his amusement. Just then, a panic-stricken trader rushed in, shouting that Muslims armed with AK-47 guns and grenades had invaded the market. The officer ordered two constables to rush to the spot and report from there. Then he turned to me, thanked me and told me to go home. He kept my contact details and promised to call when required. He never did.
Then came the blasts
The images of the 1992-93 riots that have stayed in my mind are those of the taxi with the driver still inside, bamboo stocks at Mahim Causeway set ablaze and of Jogeshwari (East) burning. I did not know then that I was to witness even greater horrors.
In March 1993, I was working in a basement office at TV Industrial Estate at Worli. In the afternoon, we heard an explosion and felt a shockwave. Initially, we thought a boiler in an industrial unit had exploded. Soon, news of bomb blasts came in and we rushed to the main road going past a parked white Maruti van, which we later found out had been abandoned by the bombers. When we reached Annie Besant Road, the first image was of a hysterical woman streaked in blood and her clothes in tatters running down the street.
When we looked towards Century Bazaar, it was like a battlefront – everything was destroyed. We saw the wounded being loaded into taxis and rushed away. All the windows of the passport office and its neighbouring building had been blown away. As we went further, we saw that the buildings opposite Century Bhavan were shattered, their front walls destroyed. And then we spotted body parts and corpses scattered all over amid pools of blood, and unrecognisable skeletons of BEST buses. At one spot, I saw a severed palm, at another a severed leg still wearing a sock and a shoe. In a pool of blood, there was a long plait of hair tied with a ribbon, the scalp still attached to it. All these images will remain seared in my memory.
Just then the police and the fire brigade arrived and shooed us away. The last image I remember was of a deep pit opposite the Crompton Greaves building. At the time I did not know what had caused it but later learnt that the car carrying the bomb had been parked there. They found the wreckage in the shanties across the road.
I heard about other blasts across the city. Just then, news came of a bomb next to Sena Bhavan. I was certain that bombs had been placed in BEST buses, so I refused to get into one. Krishna, who worked for me and lived with us, was with me. We decided to walk.
We walked past spots where bodies and human bits and pieces were being gathered. I told Krishna, no matter what happened, we were not to stop and not get into a vehicle. We walked across Shivaji Park, past fleeing crowds. There were conflicting reports; some claimed Sena Bhavan had been blown up, others said it was safe but the bomb had exploded close by.
After walking past Hinduja Hospital and Bombay Scottish School, we got onto Cadel Road. Others walking with us preferred to turn towards Sitladevi temple rather than enter “Pakistan”. I continued walking straight down the road. At the Mahim Dargah junction, a large group of Muslim men had gathered. As we crossed them, I saw a posse of cops emerge from Mahim police station and form a skirmish line. They were all armed, a young inspector pointing his service revolver straight at us charged towards where we were abreast of the Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala shop. I stopped in my tracks. A salesman told me: “Bhai, aap yahan ke nahi lagte. Jaldi se nikal jaaon. Satak lo.” (You don’t seem to be from around here. Leave immediately.”) We rushed into the narrow lane and started briskly walking towards the intersection at Mahim Church.
At the junction, there was another terrifying moment. We saw a mob of angry BEST workers, mostly drivers and conductors, armed with tools from the depot workshop, rushing to attack. Most of the buses destroyed at the passport office blast were from Mahim depot and they were angry at the loss of their colleagues. I felt as if this was my end. At the last moment, a police posse surrounded the angry mob. We ran for our lives.
As we walked across Mahim Causeway, it was lined by angry mobs pelting stones at vehicles carrying Muslims when they could be identified by their attire. Earlier, we had seen a burning scooter with a pool of blood by its side and a skull cap next to it. Just then a SUV packed with Muslim women driven by a bearded man came under intense attack. Fortunately, none of the stones hurled at it broke through the glass and the driver sped away with the screaming women.
It was only after we crossed the Bandra station signal did I heave a sigh of relief. I was still a long way from home but I felt I was in familiar territory.
Finally, we made it home, shocked and exhausted. My wife and in-laws were panicking in Vadodara and my parents and sisters were panicking in the US. Late at night, they managed to get through on the landline. There were no mobile phones or digital messengers back then. Thank God for that; I dread to imagine how mobile phones and instant messaging would have added fuel to the inferno.
Thirty years later, the fires of hate lit in December 1992 still consume the cadaver of my India. My India’s soul was destroyed along with the Babri Masjid.
Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: firstname.lastname@example.org.