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25 years after Bombay burned, justice and closure elusive

The judicial commission report — the Srikrishna Commission report — was tabled in the Maharashtra legislature.

mumbai Updated: Dec 06, 2017 20:13 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Babri Masjid,1992-93 Mumbai riots,Bombay riots
The judicial commission report — the Srikrishna Commission report — was tabled in the Maharashtra legislature.(FILE)

When Bombay came awake on December 7, 1992, parts of it were already burning in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid the previous day. That fire would spread in the following weeks. Nearly 900 would be killed, more than 2,000 injured, and thousands looted and displaced in two clearly identified rounds of communal violence in December 1992 and January 1993. Staggering numbers by any yardstick.

This, followed by the serial bomb blasts in March, cleaved into the composite culture of Bombay, created new community ghettos, let loose the slow poisons of mistrust, suspicion and communal stereotyping. Twenty-five years and many governments later, the victims of the 92-93 riots have been largely forgotten. Except by a small group of committed activist-lawyers, and tired relatives who doggedly fight from one court to another, and a tiny band of journalists.

Hundreds died, thousands were injured, thousands of others were forced to relocate, but justice somehow did not become an important, collective, national purpose. The Bombay riots are on no one’s agenda, no political leader’s speech cards, and no fiery television screens. This even as the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party keep shaming the other with reference to anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi in 1984 and anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002.

In the Bombay riots, political lines cannot be drawn as neatly. Both the Congress and BJP-Shiv Sena were indicted by a judicial commission headed by a high court judge, the former for its “effete leadership” and the latter for their “celebration of Babri Masjid demolition… and organised attacks on Muslim life and property with doctrine of retaliation”. Besides, in the last 25 years, politicians have crossed over from one party to the other. Who then will take up cudgels against the other?

The judicial commission report — the Srikrishna Commission report — was tabled in the Maharashtra legislature. Its detailed and meticulous examination of the riots and sharp observations against an array of people from the then chief minister Sudhakarrao Naik to defence minister Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, police officers and constabulary were hailed as an incredible piece of work.

Nineteen years later, the report is the best record of that bloody period of Mumbai’s history and perhaps a lesson in conducting an impartial and fearless inquiry, but nothing more. In the intervening years, under pressure from one group or the other, the following were set up: a Special Task Force, four special courts, a committee chaired by the then Director General of Police, and a high-powered committee headed by an additional chief secretary. This led to thousands of cases being re-opened but closed for lack of evidence.

A few cases continue in the lower courts and the Supreme Court. Convictions have been rare, even the very few convicted like Sena’s Madhukar Sarpotdar did not go to jail. Of the 31 police officials indicted by the Srikrishna Commission, only a handful were charged in the courts but acquitted. A few like then joint commissioner Ram Deo Tyagi were promoted; Tyagi became Mumbai’s police commissioner during the Sena-BJP government.

Muslim community leadership and politicians representing it had taken up the fight. They, their priorities and commitments seem to have dimmed in the intervening years. Many young Muslims whose families gravely suffered now prefer to focus their energies on other, more contemporary, issues. The previous Congress-led governments pretended to take some action to bring justice. With BJP-Shiv Sena government in power since 2014, the pretences too have dropped.

For new generations of Mumbaiites, the city-changing riots have become a thing of the past. In the public memory, in the national consciousness, the Bombay riots are increasingly elapsing.

But justice and closure have not happened; reconciliation is a far-off dream 25 years later. However inconvenient and messy, the Bombay riots must be remembered and its wounds addressed, because, to paraphrase Milan Kundera, to forget would be to give up the struggle against power.

First Published: Dec 06, 2017 20:12 IST