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The Mumbai Story that Must be Told

The Mumbai Story that Must be Told


Since everyone – or almost everyone – seems to have a Sanjay Dutt story to tell at the moment, here is my blast from the past. I was the city editor of The Times of India in Mumbai in the winter of 1992-93, easily the most traumatic period I have experienced as a journalist after what will soon be 30 years in the profession. I was lucky to be part of a team of incredibly talented and intrepid reporters at the Old Lady of Boribunder and the newspaper was at the vanguard of covering the biggest story of the times. For over four months, we had dutifully tracked the spiral of violence – first, the riots and then the blasts – that had unmasked Mumbai’s cosmopolitan veneer to leave behind a gory tale of blood-letting.

One late evening, a few weeks after the March 1993 serial blasts, one of our reporters got a call from a ‘source’ in the police commissioner’s office. He sounded excited: ‘A big fish from Bollywood could be in the blasts net chief,” he warned me. He promised more details the next morning. Those were the pre-breaking news days, an era where ‘slow’ news could be processed without the mind-numbing competition from private television channels. Waiting for a day for more information seemed a fair call. Next morning, we realized that even in the newspaper age, 24 hours could be an awfully long time: the tabloid newspaper, The Daily, with its crack crime reporter, Baljeet Parmar, had ‘scooped’ the story of Sanjay Dutt’s alleged link to the Mumbai blasts. We had been well-beaten but those were the days when reporters didn’t fret too much: we did a story and simply moved on to the next one with no attempt to undermine a rival or not acknowledge their exclusive.

We had missed the story but were determined to do a solid ‘follow-up’. The Times of India was, as it still is in Mumbai, by far the most dominant newspaper in the city (it was also the most credible at the time). As we planned the next day’s edition under the supervision of our resident editor, the fine gentleman-journalist Darryl D’Monte, we got another call, this time from Sunil Dutt. “I hope you people will be fair to Sanjay, he is not a bad person,” said Mr Dutt, then the Mumbai North-West Congress MP. Darryl knew Mr Dutt well – both were Bandra residents – but not once did he ask us to ‘go slow’ on the story. As more details unravelled of how Sanjay had not just hidden an AK-56 in his home but also got it destroyed, the story kept getting bigger. A few days later, Sanjay, who was then shooting in Mauritius, was forced to return and was immediately arrested.

The day after his arrest, Dutt senior called again, this time with a request for a personal meeting. We met at the Oberoi coffee shop where he told us the Sanjay Dutt story. This was a father, an actor, a parliamentarian, a public figure, trying to make us understand what was happening to his son. More than once in our conversation, Dutt saab appeared to choke up with emotion, even as he reiterated, “My son may have made mistakes but he is not a bad guy!”

This weekend as I went to see the film Sanju with my children I was reminded of Dutt saab all over again. Only this time, the father as story-teller has been replaced by an indulgent friend-director, Raju Hirani, who seems to have taken upon himself the task which Dutt saab could not quite achieve in his lifetime: rehabilitate Sanjay Dutt in the public imagination. Raju is a brilliant director but he is also a prisoner of an industry which has little place for complexities which is why the biopic is eventually more hagiography than history, an attempt to project Sanjay as a ‘victim’ not a villain, as a flawed but loveable hero who deserves our sympathy not our condemnation. In the Hirani worldview, it’s the media which branded Sanjay as a terrorist, the actor was just a pawn in a terror plot. So, when my 21 year old daughter who wasn’t born in 1992-93 asked me the question, “So, was Sanjay really a terrorist or not,” my honest answer was: ‘Well, yes and no.’

In the black and white world we now inhabit, where the universe is neatly divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘heroes’ versus ‘villains, my answer with its underlying shades of grey must seem like a cop-out. But it actually isn’t. I don’t have the luxury of a film-maker to make a multi-crore big budget film or to gloss over a crucial period in Mumbai’s contemporary history, or indeed, to thank a Raj Thackeray in the credit lines (for pray what, tell us Raju?). What I do have is the memory lens of a reporter who had a privileged ringside view to what was happening to Mumbai in those distressing times. My job is to show the mirror to the powerful, and even if in this age of media-bashing, the film portrays us as scum, here are ten ‘scummy’ facts about Mumbai circa 1992-93.

1) The Mumbai blasts were a ‘reaction’ to the totality of events in Ayodhya and Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993. These are not my words but those of the redoubtable Justice B N Srikrishna, who headed the commission of inquiry into the riots and blasts. Simply put, if there had been no riots in Mumbai in December-January, there would have been no serial blasts. Put even more plainly, if a near-five hundred year old mosque had not been illegally brought down as a brazenly political assertion of ‘Hindu awakening’ on December 6, 1992, there would have been no violence in Mumbai at all. Net-net: one criminal act set in motion a chain of horrifying events.

2) Mumbai saw not one but two rounds of horrific communal violence. The first bout of rioting was ‘spontaneous’ (again, a word used in the Srikrishna report), the result of angry Muslims hitting the streets to protest the mosque demolition in Ayodhya. The Shiv Sena did get involved after the first 48 hours but the initial flare-up pitted local Muslims against a worryingly partisan Mumbai police. The second round of violence was far more complex. No other part of the country burnt in January 1993 except Mumbai. The immediate trigger was the burning of a Maharashtrian Hindu family in a Jogeshwari slum, but there were a series of minor incidents and the inexplicable killings of mathadi (labour) workers in central Mumbai that suggested a deliberate attempt to instigate communal trouble. The Shiv Sena’s cadres too, had armed themselves with knives and kerosene bombs, and its sustained campaign of maha-aartis and Bal Thackeray’s vitriolic speeches only added a communal edge to the city’s surcharged atmosphere. A toxic mix of crime and communalism was responsible for the ‘second burning of Mumbai’. In fact, in an interview to me in February 1993, then Maharashtra chief minister, Sudhakar Naik would dramatically claim that a land mafia-underworld-neta nexus had orchestrated the January riots to oust him from office because he was trying to rein them in. Just days after the interview, Naik was removed and replaced by Sharad Pawar who, within days of taking over, had to deal with the blast fallout.

3) The Mumbai underworld which was deeply involved in the second phase of rioting also underwent a fundamental metamorphosis in this troubling period . Till December 1992, the underworld was mostly ‘secular’: Dawood’s gang, for example, included the likes of Sharad Shetty, Chota Rajan, among others, all of whom had parceled the city’s growing real estate riches amongst themselves, and were, in fact, perceived to be attached to local politicians (the Maharashtra elections of 1990, for example, saw the rise of gangster-politicians like Hitendra Thakur, whose brother and Dawood gang member, Bhai Thakur, controlled the then nascent Vasai-Virar suburban belt. Thakur was elected an independent but later supported the Congress government). By January 1993, the same Dawood gang was sharply divided amongst Hindus and Muslims. In the second phase of rioting, and even more specifically, by the time of the blasts of 1993, Dawood’s prime gang-leaders were now all Muslims: Tiger Memon, Chota Shakeel and Abu Salem were key accomplices in the blasts conspiracy (for more details, read S Husain Zaidi’s compelling book Black Friday and watch Anurag Kashyap’s superb film by the same name). Net-net: the 1992-93 Mumbai riots communalized its underworld, perhaps forever. It certainly ended the age of Mumbai’s wide-eyed innocence that had never heard of RDX: the underworld ‘don’ was no longer the local neighbourhood toughie aka Arun Gawli or even a ‘supari’ assassin, but actually a frightening enemy waging war against the state and citizenry.

4) Pre-December 1992, Dawood was a much-feared gangster and gold smuggler but there is little evidence to show that he was a terrorist or, indeed, an ISI agent. I have anecdotal evidence, by contrast, to back my contentious claim that Dawood was, in fact, emotionally connected to Mumbai and India at the time. In October 1991, I was sent to cover a cricket tournament in Sharjah where Pakistan defeated India in the finals. Dawood was in a VIP box (the screen grab is still available) and, as Indian players of that period will tell you, was willing India to win (the buzz was that the Indian team was offered Toyota cars if they defeated Pakistan). In fact, the Indian tricolor was spotted in his box (later, I would write an article that led me to being dubbed anti-national for pointing out this simple fact to those who wanted Indian Muslims to go through a ‘patriotism test’ of waving an Indian flag when playing Pakistan). The 1992-93 riots changed all that: from being a flag-waving ‘patriot’, Dawood was now a RDX-wielding Pak-sponsored terrorist targeting the city of his childhood; Tiger Memon was his chief henchman (Tiger’s travel agency office that was a cover for his criminal activities was attacked in the January riots) while Tiger’s brother Yakub, who was hanged in 2015, actually ran a successful chartered accountancy firm in Mumbai’s Mahim area with a Hindu partner, Chetan Mehta. Net-net: the 1993 blasts were a diabolical awful ‘Muslim’ criminal conspiracy but whose origins lie once again in the tragic events of December 1992 and January 93.

5) It wasn’t just the Indian cricketers who were being wooed by the Dawood-led underworld in the early 1990s but even the film industry would happily attend his Dubai parties and even agree to dance at them. There are several pictures of our top stars with Dawood’s gang at the time (Dawood’s brother, Anees, was in charge of networking with the stars). This was around the period when the film industry was being increasingly financed by the underworld: producers would even be called to Dubai to finalise which actors would star in which film. Among these producers were Samir Hingora and Hanif Kadawala of Magnum Videos. These were not small-time film-makers: Samir was the treasurer of Indian Motion Pictures Association (IMPA). Samir and Hanif had signed up Sanjay for their film Sanam, which was to be shot during the period when the riots erupted. A year earlier, Sanjay had been introduced to Dawood for the first time in Dubai by Feroze Khan during the making of a film ‘Yalgar’ and had attended a private dinner. Net-net: Sanjay Dutt was gradually drawn into Dawood’s film circle, like many other stars at the time, for whom a relationship with the Don was both a financial necessity and a social obligation.

6) Sanjay’s ‘terror’ tryst with the underworld begins post the January 1993 riots. While he kept in touch with them routinely on the phone and had built a personal connect, it was in mid-January that he sought their help to ‘protect’ his family and for ‘self-defence’. In his confessional statement, Dutt claims that it was his producers Salim and Hanif who offered him the AK 56 gun which was delivered by a ‘man called Salem’. Whether it was Dutt who sought the gun or the film producers who pushed him to keep one, it is difficult to accept that Dutt had no clue to Salem’s gangster links, or indeed, the role of the underworld in Mumbai’s gun trade. He may not have had the faintest idea of the March 1993 blast plot but he was in a tight social embrace with its conspirators. Net-net: Dutt may have been a foolish man-child but he wasn’t that naïve not to know the antecedents of the people around him. Fact is, the underworld wore the ‘respectable’ garb of machismo and high society at the time (a bit like our bank fraudsters and richie-rich industrialists a generation later), and Dutt and his friends were happily flirting with the gangster sub-culture, like many other high-profile Mumbaikars of that period.

7) It is true that Sunil Dutt was threatened for his relief work during the riots by those who had split Mumbai into Hindu versus Muslim. I had interviewed Dutt senior at the time and he had claimed that he was being targeted as a ‘Musalmano ka tarafdar’ or pro-Muslim (his senior actor and fellow-Bandraite, Dilip Kumar had also been targeted in almost similar terms in the late 1960s and even dubbed a ‘Pakistani agent’). This was the pre-social media pre-internet era but that didn’t stop the abuse and name-calling on the phone. In today’s parlance, Dutt would be classified as anti-national because he had tried to help families in Behrampada, a Muslim-dominated Mumbai slum in his constituency, which the Shiv Sena had labelled as a ‘den of illegal Bangladeshis’ at the time. Significantly, Dutt had little support within the Congress at the time: he was never in any political camp, the Narasimha Rao government was already being seen as ‘soft Hindu’ for allowing the Babri mosque to be demolished while Maharashtra’s strongman, Pawar was being attacked for failing to call in the army into Mumbai swiftly enough as union defence minister while chief minister Naik was politically weak and mostly somnolent. Net-net: Dutt senior was a bit of a solitary figure during the riots which left him vulnerable. Whether there was any realistic threat to his life is uncertain but this was, remember, a city that was badly scarred and fearful, sharply divided by escalating communal violence. That again is no excuse for anyone in the Dutt household to keep illegal weapons at home, least of all an AK-56, and then seek to destroy it when exposed: delinquent behavior is not a defense in a criminal case.

8) While the Congress in Mumbai was on the retreat in 1992-93, the Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray were on the ascendant. Thackeray had been in Maharashtra politics since the 1960s but it was only during the riots and its aftermath that he acquired a political saliency that went beyond his original ‘Marathi manoos’ constituency. This is the period when he was transformed into a Hindu Hriday Samrat, or a savior of the Hindus in the polarized narrative of communal riots, a larger than life image that would win him the 1995 Maharashtra elections (in a twist of fate, it was Thackeray who later pushed for Sanjay’s charges to be watered down after the father had paid him umpteen visits). The Shiv Sainiks were on a ‘high’: as the Srikrishna report (which was later dumped into the Arabian Sea the moment the Sena-BJP government came to power in 1995) has graphically documented, the Sena ‘controlled’ Mumbai’s graph of riots as the state government receded into the margins. Not only was Thackeray ‘proud of his boys’ for the December Babri demolition, local Shiv Sena leader Pramod Navalkar admitted to me in an interview then that, ‘yes, our Sainiks were involved in the Mumbai violence to protect Hindus.’ As it turned out, only one Shiv Sena leader, Madhukar Sarpotdar was convicted for his role in instigating the riots but was granted bail soon after. Net-net: more than a 1000 people died in the Mumbai riots of December and January, a majority killed by sword-wielding political thugs, but there were less than a dozen major convictions. In effect, the Mumbai riots were treated a bit like most post-independence riots where the ringleaders invariably get away (yes, yes, just like the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and the 2002 Gujarat riots) even as the blasts in which 257 people died were prosecuted under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA) and a majority of the accused were convicted (the exceptions remain the chief conspirators Dawood and Tiger who still reside in Pakistan).

9) The debate over TADA lies at the heart of the Sanjay Dutt ‘terror’ culpability question. TADA was the Indian state’s first legislative effort to define ‘terrorism’, shaped in 1987 against the backdrop of growing terror in Punjab at the time. It was branded a much-needed law by some, marked as draconian by others: which side of the debate you were on was dependent on how the fight against terror was perceived as a legalistic weapon. By 1995, the ‘TADA as draconian law being misused’ human rights activists had won the intellectual battle, their cause boosted by a track record of just a handful of successful convictions and the harsh reality of even protesting farmers being arrested under it. TADA was permitted to lapse in May 1995 but cases initiated under it continued to hold legal validity. Net-net: had the Mumbai blasts occurred prior to 1987 or, indeed, possibly even after May 1995 (the next anti-terrorism law, POTA, was finalized only in 2002), there is a fair chance that Sanjay would have been prosecuted only under the less stringent Arms Act and got bail. But in the spring of 1993 when Dutt was first arrested, TADA was the law of the land and under its tough provisions, getting bail was never going to be easy. Once the Mumbai blasts had been justifiably seen as a TADA-fit conspiracy, Sanjay was always on the backfoot since his AK-56 was linked to the consignment used to terrorise Mumbai.

10) Sanjay Dutt is one of many Mumbai blast accused to face an extended prison term. While he was later acquitted of charges under TADA, he eventually spent five years under the Arms Act for illegal weapon possession. Does that make him a ‘victim’ of a harsh media trial as Hirani appears to insist? While answering that question, spare a thought for the now 75-year-old Zaibunissa Anwar Kazi. She too, like Sanjay, was arrested for a similar offence: hoarding ammunition that was later linked to the Mumbai blasts. Like him, she too also pleaded ignorance. She was prosecuted on the basis of a confession of a co-accused that was later retracted. While Sanjay was acquitted under TADA and later sentenced under the Arms Act, Zaibunissa was convicted as a terrorist. Unlike Sanjay, she didn’t get parole even when she was seriously unwell, her family could hardly meet her, she didn’t have a battery of top lawyers to assist her and, no, there is no Rajkumar Hirani to do a film on her life. I did a tv news show with her and her daughter once: it wasn’t a box office hit (ie TRP spinner) but a poignant story that left me wondering if the law is equal for all. But then, I am a journalist, and if you watch Sanju, you will be convinced that journalists are just hungry for a sensational headline. Yes, Sanjay Dutt made the front pages, Zaibunissa did not. Which is why who really cares if she deserved a lesser punishment or not. Her story, like that of many other anonymous Indians, will always remain an area of acute darkness. Net-net: Definitions of criminality, justice, and possibly even who is seen as a terrorist and who is not, may depend on social status and just who is available to stand up for you. Sanjay, a VVIP, had a few good people ready to be by his side whereas an elderly Muslim lady had no one.

Post-script: For anyone who might want to read more of Mumbai in that harrowing 1992-93 period, some of us TOI journalists penned a book at the time: ‘When Bombay Burned’ (UBS publishers). Since none of us were famous tv anchors or celebrity editors, the book got very little publicity (the book publishing industry itself was in nascent stage) and only a thousand or so copies were sold. I hope one day the book can be re-published, not to be made into a mega-movie, but if only to set the record straight.

(the writer is senior journalist and author who covered the Mumbai riots and blasts of 1992-93 extensively)

© 2020 Rajdeep Sardesai. All Rights Reserved.

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