I honestly don’t remember what I was up to on December 6, 1992, when an old, defunct mosque was destroyed in Ayodhya. Considering that it was a Sunday afternoon, like the prime minister of the country of which Calcutta was not quite a part of even then, most probably I was taking a nap. Not being a newspaper-reading or television news-watching man those days, I doubt whether I knew the existence of Ayodhya beyond the context of the text of the Ramayana.
In fact, now that you mention IPS officer Anju Gupta’s deposition in court this Friday about L.K. Advani being there at the site where baboons in kar sevak costumes had congregated and then proceeded to smash the three domes of the Babri to rubble, I vaguely remember that Advani had once launched the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Yes, I believe the BJP was even in government at the Centre for a while. I just can’t seem to recall when.
I also don’t remember where I was when Rajiv Gandhi’s government passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act in 1986. All I got to know much later, when I got interested in gathering such useless bits of information, was that in 1978, Shah Bano, a 62-year-old Muslim woman and mother of five, had approached the courts to secure maintenance from her husband after he had divorced her. The Supreme Court invoked Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which applies to everyone regardless of caste or religion, and ruled that Shah Bano be provided maintenance money by her ex-husband.
Misogynists in orthodox Muslim costumes, however, perceived this as an encroachment on Muslim Personal Law. Which is why the government decided to pass a law that would protect India’s second largest religious community from the whims and fancies of every divorced Muslim woman passing through town. But being
more interested in catching the Friday late night ‘art movies’ on Doordarshan, I wouldn’t have recognised secularism those days even if it stood in front of me wearing a pajama and a frilly top.
I would be lying through my ugra kshatriya teeth if I said I remember what I was up to the day Delhi University student Rajiv Goswami set himself aflame in 1990 to protest against Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations for reservations along caste lines. If memory serves me right, it was about this time that I got piss drunk for the first time in my life, after kidding myself that my temperament would allow me to withstand any amount of beer.
The fact that I was precariously perched on the ‘second waiting list’ of the English Literature Honours course in the university I had applied to study, and that people who had never heard of Dylan Thomas had already got in, remarkably failed to spur me to want to set myself on fire.
So even as the Supreme Court mulled over the constitutional legitimacy of the Andhra government’s 4 per cent quota to ‘backward’ Muslims in jobs and educational institutions this week, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to remember all those ‘pivotal’ events of Indian contemporary history. Perhaps Ayodhya happened. I’m pretty sure the Gujarat riots did. I’m less sure about whether the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 took place. And let’s see, the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team is investigating the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, right? Or is it the 2000 Chittisinghpura one? I get so confused.
But while I forget all those landmark events that shouldn’t be forgotten, I do remember — as vividly as those who stay awake remember the previous night the next morning — being there with my grandmother at Calcutta’s landmark New Market on December 12, 1985, a Thursday. And how do I remember that? Because I was so excited to learn that a large portion of the historic building had been gutted in a terrible fire the very next day.