(Secular Perspective December 1-15, 2017)
On 6th December 1992, I was in judicial custody in Vansda (Gujarat) jail. We were struggling for the rights of adivasis on forest and forest produce which often led to friction with state and a couple of times had to face false cases being lodged on me and my comrades in the struggle. I must have been in judicial custody for about a week. Eager to read daily newspaper, I would ask night duty prison guard, who was from an adivasi community, to buy one for me while he went to the market for a cup of tea and he would oblige me. On 7th December I did not ask Bhikubhai to buy newspaper for me but he nevertheless got one for me. I protested and told him that I had no money to pay him for the newspaper. With a smile on his face he told me not to worry about the price of the newspaper and to read it. It is only when opened the newspaper that I understood why he wanted me to read the papers that day. There was news of demolition of Babri Masjid. I was horrified, not because a mosque was demolished, but the implications it would have on the polity and future of democracy in our country.
I shared the news in my cell with all of 8 to 10 other adivasi inmates. They were arrested for various petty crimes like consumption of alcohol when there was prohibition. They would not believe me. One of them said, why would anybody demolish house of the Supreme Being? I had to show photograph published on the front page of the newspaper with people dancing on the dome of the mosque with saffron flags in hand. They too were horrified. Then I heard something that sounded like a victory procession and bursting of crackers outside the jail. After a few days I was bailed out. Bhikubhai advised me not to go towards the market where police station was located as the cops were prepared to arrest me in another false case. I hitch hiked and went to Adv. Paresh Chaudhary’s home in Vedchhi (Dist. Surat). In the adivasi dominated area of the Dangs and Surat district, Babri Masjid was a non-issue, although Ramshila pujan processions – where consecrated bricks for construction of Ramjanmabhoomi temple were accompanied with DJ to attract people – had been taken out largely consisting of non-adivasi people.
For the adivasis, their main issues were their right to forest land and forest produce; access to quality education and health care and cultural space to sustain their way of life and their identity. Temple-Mosque conflict was for the ujaliat (non-adivasis). Most of them were unaware of existence of Babri Masjid or Ramjanmabhoomi temple. A few who were, never discussed it. Their world then was so insulated from the rest, that going outside the district of Dangs was going to Gujarat! To adivasis, Dang was not a part of Gujarat and the world outside Dang was Gujarat where they sometimes had to travel to access health care or markets both of which were instruments of oppression. All temples belonged to the ujaliat who were by and large seen as oppressors and if some of them were not oppressors, they were had condescending attitude towards them.
In the second week of January 1993, I headed towards my home in Mumbai. As I disembarked at Dadar Station, I learnt about the riots in city. I managed to reach Anand Patwardhan’s residence and learnt that a Hindu friend living in Andheri (West) feared attack on her. Preeti had a running dispute with her landlord and she feared that the landlord would take advantage of riots to get her to vacate her home. I decided to be with her and confront the Muslim mob that she feared would come to attack her.
I called my father to inform him that I was in Mumbai safe and would be going to Preeti’s home. My father pleaded me to come back home. It was not usual for him to plead in this manner as I was going to help a Hindu friend. But the time was not usual as well. I went to Preeti’s residence assuring my father I would return home soon and wouldn’t take unnecessary risks. When I reached her home, some other friends too were there. The next day after I returned home, we were getting frantic calls from survivors of communal violence for help. All we could do was contact police officers known to us for their integrity and fire brigade, only to learn that they too were inundated with calls.
Communal violence in Mumbai drew me to work for communal harmony – an issue to which I was not paying much attention otherwise as I was working among Adivasis since 1989. My father, Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, was heading a coalition of organizations – Ekta – which worked for communal harmony and included trade unions, women’s organizations and organizations working for civil liberties. Ekta had campaigned for peace in Mumbai and other riot prone towns for peace by organizing peace marches; public meetings and street corner meetings; bringing out publications countering demonization of minorities; and organizing perspective building camps for peace workers. Ekta had opposed kar seva and called upon religious Hindus not to join it, as demolition of Babri Masjid and construction of Ram Janmabhoomi Temple was with a political motive. However, Ekta’s outreach was limited on account of limited resources. Communal violence post demolition of Babri Masjid was on a limited scale and the casualties were mainly from the police firing on Muslim mobs protesting demolition of Babri Masjid.
Shiv Sena was not satisfied and bayed for violence on a larger scale with the sainiks controlling and participating in street violence. Only deeper communal polarization would ensure electoral benefits they aimed at. Daily published by Shiv Sena – Saamna – started hyping up inferno of Gandhi Chawl (popularized as Radhabai Chawl) in Jogeshwari and murder of two Mathadi workers in South Mumbai which they blamed on the Muslim community. They organized series of Maha-artis to arouse communal hatred against Muslim community on the two issues and those dispersing after Maha-artis indulged in violence against minorities. The efforts of Shiv Sena resulted in second phase of rioting which began from 9th January.
Helplessness and Hope
The riots in second phase were much destructive in terms of lives and properties. While police had fired to kill the mobs protesting demolition of Babri Masjid, they were by and large bystanders while the mobs mobilized by Shiv Sena were rioting on the streets. Even middle class was scared and the city had come to a standstill for days. The leaders of Industry and finance were greatly disturbed due to economic losses and future of investments in metropolis which then appeared to be chaotic and lawless. Some of them took initiative and met the then CM Sudhakar Rao Naik who appeared to be utterly helpless as his control over administration seemed to have slipped out of his hands.
Concerned activists flooded the office in Santacruz East where Ekta called for meeting. People were animatedly discussing the issue and possible interventions. All we were able to organize is relief work for the survivors. When organized lynch mobs are on the street full of fear and hatred for the ‘other’, and at times armed with deadly weapons, it is impossible to reason with them. Only state security forces could have disperse them, i.e. if they willed. But clearly in most cases the security forces and the leadership commanding the force did not seem to have any such will.
There were shining examples of citizens across religion coming together to defend their neighbourhood from communal mobs that may want to target members of either community in their locality. That was the only way to save the city from communal madness. Let me recall one such example in Sakinaka, where Ekta had organized meetings for communal harmony along with Kashtakari Sanghatana, an organization that fought mobilized the citizens from slums, on their neighbourhood problems. Sakinaka is inhabited by Hindus speaking Oriya, Telugu, Marathi and Hindi languages as well as Muslims. Muslims had provided space for electric sub-station to be installed and willing inhabitants of Sakinaka could register for electric metres in the past. Before the sub-station was installed, BSES, the electric supply company would not install metres and the residents had to buy electric connections from contractors who charged them ten times more.
The Muslims of Sakinaka were receiving threats from the Shiv Sena Shakha and were fearing attack on them. The Hindu residents told them not to worry and sleep peacefully as they would protect them from the Hindu mobs. Muslims were told not to react to any rumours and not to prepare for their defence as their houses would be defended by the Hindu residents. The Hindu residents with sticks in their hands stayed awake several nights with Muslims supplying tea for them to remain awake. When the impending mob saw the locality was protected by Hindus, they could not attack the Muslims in the area. There were some more areas in which citizens took matters in their hands while the state appeared to be collapsing.
Ekta gave a call for peace march from Khodad Circle, Dadar in Central Mumbai to Azad Maidan in South Mumbai. I do not remember the date but prohibitory orders u/s 144 of Cr.P.C. restraining gathering of more than four people was still in force. We were mentally prepared that only a few would turn up. However, over a thousand people reached Khodad Circle, including Asghar Ali Engineer, Anand Patwardhan academicians from TISS and Mumbai University, journalists, trade unionists and peace activists. As we all gathered, police asked us to disperse as prohibitory orders were in force. We defied the police assuring them our intentions to promote peace and harmony and proceeded to march with white flags and placards with slogans of peace and love in our hands, and songs of peace on our lips. We passed through areas where rioting had taken place. People witnessing the procession from their balconies waved expressing support and communal tensions melted as they saw Hindus and Muslims march together and appealing for peace through songs and placards. The procession converted into a public meeting at Azad Maidan. Police officers thanked us.
Gradually Mumbai limped back to normalcy as this commercial city does after every disaster – human made or natural. Yet it has never been normal again. Among the things that changed irreversibly is ghettoization. Muslim survivors from many areas where they suffered human and property losses during riots sold their dwellings or shops to larger Muslim ghettoes. Mumbra, Mira Road and other such suburbs witnessed bulging Muslim population. Similarly in many localities with Hindus in minority shifted to Hindu majority localities where they felt more safe. Most survivors of riots are economically worst off than they were before. Few were compensated inadequately while most did not receive even meagre compensation, let alone rehabilitation. The perpetrators of riots by and large have gone scot free due to laxity in police investigation, marshalling of evidence and lack of will to secure justice for survivors of riots.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism was established with the support of peace loving citizens of Mumbai under the leadership and vision of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer as a response to the riots in Mumbai in 1993. CSSS since has been organizing peace workshops to create an army of peace workers. CSSS undertook research and publication of a journal – Indian Journal of Secularism, which has brought out a special issue entitled “Babri Masjid, 25 Years On…”. The issue is collection of essays written by journalists, artists and activists going down the memory lane and examining what went wrong and what has changed since. CSSS also organizes lectures, seminars and peace activities through peace centres in communally sensitive towns. CSSS works through peace centres and reaches out to colleges, schools to inculcate values of peace, harmony, secularism, diversity and respect for human rights. With limited resources we have been able to bring about significant change and promote peace. However we need to do much more and need support and solidarity of more and more people and institutions. Peace loving people need to be more organized and committed than they are at present to multiply our ranks if we wish to see peaceful, secular India which respects freedom of expression and works for social justice.