Bombay burned as Babri fell. The scars remain, 25 years on
Twenty-five years after the 1992-93 communal riots, Mumbai has moved on, but it is still on guard and will always be
In the narrow and congested by-lanes of Jogeshwari lies Gandhi Chawl, one of the last remaining structures that witnessed the worst-ever riots in Mumbai. On January 8, 1993, six people were burnt to death in one of its 11 rooms. Known in Mumbai’s 1992-93 riots chronicles as the Radhabai Chawl incident, the deaths of these six Hindus became one of the defining moments of the riots and unleashed retaliatory violence against Muslims from January 6 to 20 in 1993.
Since then, the four rooms in this chawl, taken over by the NGO Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) in 1993, are known as the ‘Sadbhavana Bhawan’ (communal harmony centre). Over two decades, the work by YUVA and others has borne fruit, spurring eight to nine local youth groups to bring the two communities together over common issues such as sanitation, civic amenities and education.
“I would like to think we have moved on from the horrors and hate. The real culprits were never found. Today, there is an understanding that communal hate works more for politicians than people,” said Sajid Sheikh, whose Modern Youth Association has been working with the community here since 1986, but has been more involved after the 1992-93 riots. Shaikh was a 19-year-old living in Prem Nagar, close to Gandhi Chawl, in 1992-93.
However, despite efforts by youth groups, the ‘border’ between the Hindu and the Muslim clusters here is crystalised – an almost invisible physical barrier that less than 5% from both the communities dare defy.
Divisions that stayed
Sudarshan Bane, who lost both his parents in the Gandhi Chawl incident, has not been able to go back to the house and locality he was born and brought up in. “The riots displaced us from our home, livelihoods and family. There is no going back for us, and no moving on either. There is no closure,” said Bane, who now stays in a rented home at Gorai.
Like Bane, thousands of families were displaced and pushed into the safety of ghettos across the city. “While Mumbai had a history of riots and ghettos existed even before 1992-93, these riots led to complete polarisation and intensified existing divisions. Many among the affected people I interviewed were not happy living in these ghettos. Muslims got pushed into ghettos outside the city limits,” said journalist and author Meena Menon.
Menon in her 2012 book, Riots and After in Mumbai, revisited the affected families and places to piece together the personal and public after-effects of the riots.
Firoz Ashraf, a lecturer, was among those who had to leave his home in a mixed community building in Malad and move to Jogeshwari West, in a Muslim ghetto. “We were only two Muslim homes in the building. Our neighbours told us to not leave, but when our homes got marked and our son was targeted, we were forced to leave. I have missed the colours of Holi and lights of Diwali every year since. For someone brought up in a liberal, mixed milieu, it has been a very difficult transition,” said Ashraf.
Along with the physical barriers, the March 1993 serial bomb blasts, which followed the riots, also led to stereotyping and targeting of the Muslim community.
“In the popular city psyche, the Muslims became those to avoid; the troublemakers and the terrorists. They found it difficult to get jobs and houses. There was a clear schism in the way justice system operated for perpetrators of the blasts and those who caused riots,” Menon said.
A former senior Mumbai cop admitted that the impact of these divisions and alienation immediately after the riots and blasts was felt on intelligence gathering, with police losing informers and sources from the community.
“Mohalla committees did help. Since then, efforts have been made to build the trust, but it is a slow process. More Muslim men in uniform would help,” he said.
Former state home secretary Chandra Iyengar said, “After having gone through fire, I think Mumbai, foremost a financial capital, will be always on guard. There continues to be a concern of integration of Muslims into the mainstream and that can only happen with more opportunities in jobs and education.”
But Sheikh has a counter point. “It’s nice to think that riots can never happen again. But, in the back drop of cow vigilante groups and mob lynching, there is fear that communal sentiments can be fanned. No Hindu or Muslim will want this, but who can vouch for the politicians?”