Doordarshan’s recent boast that its live coverage of the Ram Temple bhumi pujan saw record viewership is reflective of a frenzied media whirl where TRPs (television rating points) are the only currency that count. Certainly, in newsrooms across the country, the bhumi pujan was played out like a made for tv spectacle where a religious epic met a political supremo. As multiple cameras tracked every move of the prime minister with breathless excitement, I must confess to switching off from the buzz around me. My mind instead was rewinding to another big news day. For long before August 5th 2020, there was December 6, 1992.
It was a Sunday and I was playing a cricket match in the genteel environs of the Bombay Gymkhana. I was at the time the city editor of The Times of India in Mumbai. When the news began trickling in around noon that the Babri Masjid had been demolished, the first reaction was to abandon the game and head for office which was just a short walking distance away. This was a pre 24 x 7 breaking news era, there were no live visuals playing out in a constant loop and the Old Lady of Boribunder newsroom was mostly somnolent at that hour. Ayodhya was seen as a ‘north’ Indian story which would be handled by the national bureau in Delhi. A quiet Sunday afternoon in Mumbai seemed another universe away from the dramatic happenings in the temple town. I recall seeking a reaction from the South Mumbai MP and city Congress chief Murli Deora who infamously remarked: “Don’t disturb me, I am playing bridge with your boss!” (The Times of India chairperson Ashok Jain was Mr Deora’s weekend bridge partner).
It was only late evening as the images of the demolition were telecast on BBC that there was a marked shift in mood. That night we got the first report of stone throwing near Minara Masjid located in the congested bylanes of Mohammed Ali Road. A police wireless van had been attacked by a mob: the men in khakhi were seen as a symbol of government authority which had failed in the task of protecting the mosque. As an ever-enthusiastic 27 year old reporter, my instinct was to reach the spot. This was a locality which was normally bustling with life even at midnight. That night there was visible tension in the air: policemen were patrolling the streets even as the stone throwing continued in some parts. The next day, the local Muslim League called a bandh, curfew was declared in central Mumbai even as the violence spread to the suburbs. For the next three months, Mumbai would be shaken out of its ‘cosmopolitan’ illusions. A riot that began in December between police and angry Muslim groups would transform in January into aggressive street mobilization by militant Hindu outfits and culminate in March 1993 in serial blasts triggered off by the Dawood Ibrahim-led underworld.
For an archetypal south Mumbai child of relative privilege, the riots and subsequent terror attack were a wake up call: under the city of gold lurked an underbelly of grime, an overcrowded, metropolis that was sitting on a combustible tinderbox. The Babri demolition had exposed Mumbai’s fault-lines and left the city at the mercy of resentful Muslim groups, Shiv Sena storm-troopers, underworld gangs and a partisan police force. As I travelled beyond my south Mumbai comfort zone, I was exposed to another Mumbai: a city of crime, violence and destitution. We met dozens of families who were caught in the cross-fire, forced to abandon their homes and flee, others whose shops and offices had been burnt down. More than a 1000 people died in Mumbai’s twin riots and blasts, a majority of them faceless, innocent Indian citizens targeted for their religious identity.
In late 1993, as an eyewitness to the carnage, I deposed before the Srikrishna commission that was appointed to inquire into the Mumbai riots. The cross-examination went on for three days: a tough Shiv Sena lawyer and MP, Adhik Shirodkar was unbending in his interrogation. At the Mumbai reporting team of The Times of India we even compiled a book, When Bombay Burned, detailing the chain of bloody events that had traumatized the city. Publishing was still in infancy: only around a 1000 copies of the book were printed. At a personal level, it was easily the most harrowing year in my professional life: a city that I loved dearly had been scarred, perhaps forever. Mumbai was sharply divided on communal lines: a Hindu-Muslim physical and psychological fracture took place in those months that has never quite been healed.
28 years later, the wheel has come full circle: here we are in a ‘new’, distinctly polarized India where majoritarian politics is now mainstream, where the lines between ‘secular’ and communal, law and illegality have been conveniently erased. The Shiv Sena, whose leader Bal Thackeray claimed in 1992 to be ‘proud of his boys’ for their role in the demolition, is now the party in power in Maharashtra with the Congress as a junior ally. The BJP for whom the Ayodhya movement was their ticket to political influence is now the country’s dominant party. Narendra Modi who earned his spurs while organizing the 1990 Somnath to Ayodhya Ram rath yatra that led to the masjid demolition is now the country’s all powerful leader. The Indian Muslim is a fearful, marginal voice, ghettoized and demonized as the ‘other’.
The law has failed to take its due course. A majority of the 2000 odd cases that were registered in connection with the Mumbai riots have been closed. There have been a handful of convictions but most of the accused are out on bail: scarcely anyone has served an extended sentence in jail. The Srikrishna report which indicted the Sena and Mumbai police officers was never acted upon and eventually was dumped by the Maharashtra government. The Babri masjid demolition trial is still going on in a special court in Lucknow with no convictions. The high profile politicians named in an FIR are now part of the power elite. No one who suffered in the post Babri violence can claim to have got any sense of justice or closure from an effete and compromised state machinery.
As for me, I remain haunted by the images of riot and destruction, of the smoke-filled skies of a city’s social fabric being torn apart, of tearful Mumbaikars with their agonizing stories of despair. The prime minister may have likened August 5 to the freedom movement but the festivities of mandir nirman will always remind me of December 6, the day when vandalism triumphed over the constitution and violence over ahimsa.
Post script: My children are the post-Babri generation, born years after the demolition and, like crores of millennials, with no link to the past. Maybe one day they will read our Mumbai riots book, if only to realize that the foundation of a glistening ‘new’ India has been built on the debris of a bloodied old order.