Bal Thackeray's self-confessed love for the city of Mumbai was legendary, he never failed to display it. Yet, one of the darkest chapters in the city's history, the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots of 1992-93, bears his signature.
Bombay burned, twice, in December 1992 and January 1993, for four-five days at a stretch and simmered in between. The violence left nearly a thousand dead and 2,036 injured. "It completely changed this city, for the worse," said Justice (retd) Hosbet Suresh, who co-authoured a citizen's inquiry report, whose findings were later corroborated by the justice BN Srikrishna Commission that probed the riots.
Thackeray kept a safe distance from the violence but played a pivotal role with his writing in his newspaper Saamna and pro-Hindutva Navakal. The Srikrishna Commission noted that these papers had carried "communally inciting propaganda" for days. On January 1, 1993, for instance, Saamna carried an article headlined, 'Hindunni Akramak Vhayala Have' (Hindus must also become aggressive now). Sena leaders planned attacks and led rampaging Sainiks. "Shiv Sena pramukh Bal Thackeray," the Srikrishna Commission report states, "…like a veteran General, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims." Thackeray refused to appear or respond to notices issued by the Commission.
Eyewitnesses and journalists who testified to the Commission were abused, hounded, and threatened, often on the pages of Saamna. Journalist Yuvraj Mohite recalls: "I heard Balasaheb direct his men on phone, saying 'not a single landya (circumcised person) should survive to give oral evidence'. He also told someone to send then additional commissioner AA Khan "to Allah's home". In my cross-examination, they tried hard to disprove this." When the Babri Masjid dome was felled, and BJP leaders had attempted to shrug off responsibility, Thackeray had declared: "If any of my boys have done it, I am proud of them."
On December 6 and 7 1992, groups of Shiv Sainiks out on "victory processions to celebrate" the demolition of the Babri Masjid clashed with groups of angry Muslims out to protest it. The police, caught on the backfoot, adopted a shoot-to-kill policy. Sainiks organised "maha aartis" in temples which spilled onto the streets (to counter namaz on the streets) and left a trail of attacks on Muslim establishments. Violence peaked for four days in January. The Mumbai Police, the Commission noted, displayed its communal bias and subversion by the Sena: "incidents of violence, looting went on unchecked."
Mumbai had changed, forever. Thackeray had dealt his beloved city a double whammy: a trail of communal violence and a compromised police force. He escaped legal culpability, because either the state government did not sanction his prosecution, or the Sena-BJP government withdrew sanction given by its predecessor Congress government, or by managing a farcical "arrest" at the Mayor's bungalow nearly ten years later. The apex court came down heavily on him, but he remained unrepentant.