In the days before the advent of technology and television channels in the country, it was among the most original of stings ever mounted on any politician – and with deadly effect. Had it not been for Yuvraj Mohite, then a young reporter with Mahanagar, a Marathi evening newspaper which had taken on Bal Thackeray in no uncertain terms, the truth about Thackeray's involvement and complicity in the riots might never have come to light.
Mohite had wandered into the office of the then mayor of Bombay, Chandrakant Handore, after working hours on the evening of 8 January 1993 when sporadic incidents of violence were already being reported from some parts of the metropolis. The worst spell of riots in December 1992 had been bad enough and Handore was worried about the situation getting out of hand. He was a member of the Republican Party of India, which had been an ally of the Congress at the corporation elections and so was not bound by the usual chain of command in the ruling party. Having seen how slow the then chief minister Sudhakar Naik had been to swing into action in December – Naik was later described by Justice BN Srikrishna, who enquired into the riots, as another Nero who fiddled while Bombay burnt – Handore decided to take the initiative and do something about the fresh spell of violence before it got out of hand again.
Handore's staff had left for the day, so he was very glad to see Mohite. He needed help to draft an appeal – to be signed by leaders from both the Hindu and Muslim communities – asking people to maintain peace and harmony and avoid getting into conflicts with each other. He asked Mohite to write out the appeal.
Mohite sat down to do just that, in his own handwriting. Once done, both set off for the homes of these leaders. It is a sad commentary on the state of the Muslim community in those days that they had no leader. So Handore could find none better than Haji Mastan to sign the appeal. Mastan was a notorious smuggler of his times who had once tried to enter Bollywood and later, influenced by Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan, had set up his own political party – the Dalit-Muslim Suraksha Sangh – with little success in either venture. He signed the appeal readily enough and Handore now moved towards the home of the leader who would have been able to stop the riots from happening by just lifting a telephone but who, on the contrary, was using three instruments to do just the opposite.
What awaited Handore and Mohite at Matoshree was very different from what they had hoped for, and it shocked them to the core. It was also the story of the century as far as a journalist was concerned and Mohite soon realized he might be sitting on a time bomb as Handore's conversation with Thackeray got under way.
The most mystifying thing about the events that followed was the fact that Thackeray did not recognize Mohite as a reporter even when he began to take notes. According to Mohite, Thackeray and his son did object to his writing but they probably believed he was Handore's aide trying to minute the meeting. And Thackeray might have been so sure about escaping the consequences of what he was doing that Mohite's presence did not inhibit him.
In the days before mobile technology, Thackeray was speaking on several telephones almost at the same time. The phones would not stop ringing and every time one rang, he would pick up the receiver and direct various Shiv Sena shakha pramukhs on how to mobilize their forces in various parts of the city to mount attacks on the Muslim community.
'We must teach these landyas (his derogatory word for minorities) a lesson. They are getting too arrogant by far! They must not be allowed to get away.'
He also called up a minister in the Naik government, considered close to Sharad Pawar, to let him know in no uncertain terms that he thought it was Pawar who was ordering the riots. When Thackeray could finally take a breath, he asked Handore what business he had at Matoshree. Handore extended the appeal to Thackeray. The Sena leader was outraged that the mayor should have gone to Haji Mastan before coming to him and refused to sign the statement, point-blank. A chastised and numbed Handore silently exited Matoshree an hour later with Mohite at his heels. As he dropped the reporter off at his office in Mahim, he told Mohite: 'You have heard nothing and seen nothing. You will not write about what has just happened.'
Mohite, however, did write out his story and waited for his editor's approval. But, with the wisdom of his years and greater experience, his editor thought the report would be too explosive to publish the next day as it might well set the entire city on ?re and lead to an immeasurable tragedy. Instead, he decided to call the chief minister and warn him about what Thackeray was planning for Bombay. Reporters of the time will testify that Naik was never to be found after a certain hour when he was busier with more leisurely pursuits, so the duo contacted the then home minister Babanrao Pachpute and asked him to take preventive action against Thackeray. Pachpute probably had no authority to do so, for he reported to Naik but drew his powers from Sharad Pawar, who was then Union defence minister in the government of Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. Nothing was done. By 11 January, Bombay was well and truly on fire. One of the worst riots of independent India had broken out and among those who died were a large number of Muslims.
Naik, once again, delayed the process of requisitioning the army to quell the riots. This added to the impression created by Thackeray that the con?agration was engineered by Pawar to settle scores with the man who had been handpicked by him for the job of chief minister. For Naik had been exposing his own mentor's alleged connections with unsavoury elements in the Congress and outside. Pawar had earlier persuaded the party high command to give tickets to two noti? ed criminals, Pappu Kalani and Hitendra Thakur, in the previous assembly elections. Both had been exposed by Naik and were marking time in jail. According to Naik, Pawar had called him up to plead for mild treatment of the duo at the hands of the police. That statement caused the Maratha warlord tremendous loss of face and gave him a reputation for cohorting with gangsters and the underworld. Now Naik's slow responses forti?ed the initial impression created by Thackeray in the minds of the people that Pawar was behind the riots. Pawar's supporters, on the other hand, believed that the chief minister might have had a reason to ignore Bal Thackeray and allow him to, literally, run riot in the city for his own personal and political gains.
If it wasn't for Mohite's courageous deposition before the Srikrishna Commission that was set up by Naik's own government to probe the riots, those impressions would have prevailed and Thackeray would have been given the benefit of doubt. Mohite's inside story of the events leading up to the riots was eventually published by Mahanagar in April 1993, three months after the event, when both embers and tempers had died down. From then on, he was a marked man.
'I was almost the last person to depose before the Commission. Justice Srikrishna kept it so to make it as easy for me as possible because I was receiving threats throughout the life of the Commission. I did not even know if I would be able to depose after my af?davit had been submitted.'
That stands to reason. The Congress, led in Maharashtra by Pawar, who had replaced Naik as chief minister soon after the riot, had lost power to the Sena–BJP alliance in 1995 and almost the first act of the new government – apart from changing the name of Bombay to Mumbai – was to dismiss the Srikrishna Commission, which was only halfway through its examination of witnesses.
But then, the BJP came to power a year later in New Delhi, in 1996, and discovered that no political party in India was willing to touch it with even a bargepole because of its alleged complicity in the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed in Bombay. As a means of restoring some measure of confidence in the BJP among the minorities and other people, the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee reinstated the Srikrishna Commission on its seventh day in government, six days before the prime minister was set to seek a vote of confidence in parliament. It did not help save his government but it did have the effect of restoring the faith of some Muslims who had voted for the Sena–BJP alliance in Maharashtra in 1995 as a way of teaching the Congress a lesson for its failure to protect the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The Commission had been the only source available to victims of the riots who had nowhere else to go with their complaints. Thackeray, though shocked beyond belief at what his ally had done, had to accept the decision to reinstate the Srikrishna Commission.
Without Mohite's testimony before the Commission, it might all have gone down to just the words of a few victims as against those of the local Shiv Sainiks, and both Thackeray and the Sena leaders knew that well. They blocked his deposition when Justice Srikrishna brought it up before taking up Sharad Pawar as his last witness, so he gave them a week to study Mohite's affidavit and come back with their rebuttal.
'That week was the longest, darkest night of my life so far,' Mohite told me. 'I had to lock up my house; the family, including my siblings, were scattered. Every member of the family was sent to a different part of the country to escape attacks that would surely have followed. I went into hiding until the week was up and it was time to appear before Justice Srikrishna.'
The Shiv Sena by then had already got to Handore, who had ceased to be the mayor. He denied that he had ever gone to Thackeray's residence on the night of 8 January 1993 with an appeal to the Sena chief asking for peace. But Justice Srikrishna was a determined man. He had been entrusted with the task of doing justice to the victims of the riots and he decided to get to the bottom of the issue. The police were asked for records of VVIP movements on that day and it was established that Handore's official car had indeed docked in at Matoshree a few minutes after nine that evening. When Handore admitted under oath that he had called on Thackeray, he threw another spanner in the work of the Commission: Mohite had not been taken by him to Matoshree, he said, and so could not have been privy to the meeting.
'But Thackeray forgot that he was under a tight security cover and no one is either let in or out of his house without a meticulous noting of the name and identity of the visitor,' says Mohite. Justice Srikrishna called for the records again and when Mohite's name too was found entered alongside Handore's as among the visitors at Matoshree at the same time that evening, the cat was finally out of the bag. There was not a thing the Shiv Sena's lawyers could do to convince the good judge otherwise.
Thackeray's lawyers tore apart Mohite's testimony, asking why Handore should have needed him to draft an appeal to Hindu and Muslim community leaders when he could have asked his staff to do so. 'The staff never leaves the office before the mayor,' they argued. But when reminded that those were unusual times when everyone wanted to be home safe and dry as early as possible, they asked why his affidavit before the Commission had been almost the last to be filed. Why, since Mahanagar was a self-declared opponent of the Shiv Sena, had it not seized upon the opportunity to publish a sensational story the next day and instead, waited for three months to bring the so-called facts before the people.
They also cast aspersions on Justice Srikrishna, stating that he had failed to have Mohite's evidence corroborated by others present at Matoshree during the course of that evening. Moreover, they alleged, he had not even questioned the minister Thackeray was said to have called with allegations against Pawar, even though that testimony could have bolstered the case against Thackeray. The Sena tiger should now be given the benefit of doubt, they argued.
But Justice Srikrishna left no one in doubt about who he thought had engineered the riot and who had reaped the harvest. In one of the most memorable statements of any Commission in India, Justice Srikrishna gave a chilling account of how BJP leader LK Advani had set off on a rath-yatra from Somnath in Gujarat en route to Ayodhya as part of the temple movement, causing passions to be inflamed all along his route, which had included Maharashtra and its capital. The atmosphere was already tense and as the events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid unfolded, Bombay was like a tinder box waiting for one spark that would set it aflame.
'And into this boiling cauldron, like a veteran general leading his troops, rode in Bal Thackeray…'
Even today saffron forces accuse Justice Srikrishna of basing that premise on Mohite's testimony alone and it is true that without the courage of the journalist, who did not even know at the time that he was mounting the biggest sting ever on one of the most feared men of his times, Thackeray may never have been indicted.
It is not surprising then that the Congress–NCP government, led by Vilasrao Deshmukh, wooed Mohite assiduously when they were preparing to arrest Bal Thackeray in July 2000 for his complicity in the riots, particularly the incendiary writings in Saamna, which had contributed to the 1993 conflagration. The two parties had come to power the previous year and Thackeray's old enemy, Chhagan Bhujbal, was the home minister and deputy chief minister. They needed a strong witness against Thackeray, and Mohite tells me he was called by the chief minister to ask if he would stand by his statements to the Commission.
'I thought that was a bit much. Vilasrao told me he had received a call from his party president (Sonia Gandhi) exhorting him to offer me protection and all the support I might need before arresting Thackeray and presenting him in court. But the only thought in my mind at the time was, "Where were all these Congress leaders when I was deposing before the Srikrishna Commission and Shiv Sainiks were threatening to eliminate me and my family? Or even before that, when I was trying to stop Thackeray from engineering those riots?"'
He says it is ironic that while in 1997, one government was making every effort to see that he did not reach the court premises for his deposition, three years later another state government was pulling out all the stops to ensure that he did just the opposite and deposed before the court. 'I told them I did not have to be told to do my duty even when I was the sole witness to Thackeray's incitement of the riots and I decided to call up the chief minister to ask him to stop Bombay from burning. I also did not step back from my duty when I was under threat from the Shiv Sena when they promised that I would never live to see the inside of Justice Srikrishna's court. I did not need any inducements ever to do my duty by the people and society.'
But as it happened, Mohite was not called upon to do his duty again. A lower court threw out the government's case against Thackeray. Brought to book seven years after the offence was committed in January 1993, and mostly based on his incendiary editorials in Saamna, the magistrate held, according to law, that the case had been time-barred and, therefore, Thackeray could not now be prosecuted.
'But the government could definitely have acted on the Srikrishna Commission recommendations. Have they even moved an inch in that direction? And now the man is dead. Now I know why he did not care that we were listening in. He was sure. He knew he would get away with that crime. He did, didn't he?'
Mohite says if everybody had been doing their duty at the time, hundreds of lives could have been saved. 'Those riots changed the character of our city forever. Things have never been the same again.'
He is sad but also clear in his mind that he was not wrong and that Justice Srikrishna had been the best person for the job, or else even this semblance of justice might not have been done to the poor victims of those riots. 'I have a clear conscience. Justice Srikrishna too has done his duty. What about the politicians, though? Thackeray has gone but some of the rioters are still around, on the loose. Does anyone have the courage to punish even one of those rioters,' Mohite asks.
He clearly does not think so.