Sidharth Bhatia is the Founder/Editor of The Wire and writes on politics, society and popular culture. In addition, he is a great fan of rock music.

Selective memories

Published Aug 1, 2015, 6:28 am IST
Updated Mar 28, 2019, 8:45 am IST
Yakub Memon. (Photo: Twitter)
 Yakub Memon. (Photo: Twitter)

In December 1992, as violence spread in different parts of Bombay, as it was then called, I met a young man who had indulged in a bit of stone throwing and general mayhem. The circumstances of the meeting were quite mundane — he had come to see me in my newspaper office on a quite unrelated matter and during the conversation this fact came up. He mentioned it in a somewhat embarrassed manner and then moved on to other things.

Soon it became clear why he was queasy. He worked for a multinational firm as an accountant and did not want this fact to get out. He said he had just gone out one evening, after work, and joined some neighbourhood friends to go and set fire to a few shops. Before doing that, they had systematically looted these stores, making away with whatever they could get their hands on, from electronics to small eats and snacks. A few shops were owned by Muslims, some were not — the idea was to loot and pillage. “I did not beat up anybody,” he insisted.

 

His friends were professional rioters. A few were political activists, ready to follow the orders of their bosses, others were simply criminals, brought in for their expertise, which ranged from arson to stabbing. Many were drunk. The young man told me he had got carried away, “But I am an educated person, not a faltu (wayward) and have a job to go to.” He was not a member of any party, but was fully convinced that “these people need to be taught a lesson”.

“These people”, of course, were Muslims. During the peak of the rioting in 1992-93, which happened in two stages, there was a lot of targeted violence, of Muslims’ homes and more important, commercial establishments. The leaders of the rioting gangs had provided these lists and in some cases led the violence; their presence also ensured that the police was less than enthusiastic about chasing away troublemakers.

 

No riot can be successful without the help, active or passive, of the state apparatus. The police need not participate — but it can hold its hand or even come down with a heavier hand in some areas rather than others. A riot also needs political leadership, which provides infrastructural and financial support. Then come the foot-soldiers, who are out there in the field, beating up people and setting property (and humans) on fire.

This combination has been seen in riot after riot. What I saw for the first time was the emergence of a new class of rioter, the freelancer, who was different from everyone else — he (it was mostly males) had no personal animosity against anyone, was not a violent person in normal life and was educated and gainfully employed. But there was still simmering resentments and prejudice hidden deep down which bubbled to the surface in the frenzy of a communal disturbance. Once that died down, he would go back to his normal life. Social scientists may call these people the lumpen bourgeoisie, rootless in the way lumpen often are, but yet not from the dregs of the social order; indeed, many of them were upwardly mobile.

 

Another notable shift in 1992-93 was that while it was not unusual for violence to break out in different parts of Bombay, these remained large localised affairs, usually in more middle-class or lower middle-class neighbourhoods. This one was different — the violence came to the tiniest areas of the city and it was quite interesting — more accurately, frightening — to see how the elite reacted. In one of the most prestigious buildings of the city, neighbours wanted a Muslim family to leave to avoid any trouble.

Was there a direct connection between the participation of educated rioters and the fear in the posher areas? Maybe or maybe not. But one way or the other, it demolished the notion of the cosmopolitan, tolerant city that Bombay had nurtured about itself. Ghettoisation, which was always present in the city, but in somewhat less blatant manner, became more pronounced — building societies began turning away tenants and buyers from the “wrong” background more brazenly.

 

It is also often forgotten that tens of thousands of people left the city forever. These were not just the riot affected or from the less affluent classes; many professionals quietly packed their bags and moved elsewhere, disgusted with what their city had become. Bombay changed in fundamental ways. For those who lived through days, there is a pre-1992 Bombay and a post-1992 one. The Srikrishna Committee report, which went over all the aspects of the riots, has been quietly put away in some locked cupboard. And it hurts that those responsible for most of the violence have got away with it; government after government has done nothing to bring the perpetrators and the leaders to justice. Thousands of families suffered, many people lost their livelihoods — their stories have been forgotten.

 

I haven’t met that young man again — he must be much older now and has probably moved up in life. I wonder if he ever thought about the violence he took part in and whether it ever gave him a twinge of regret. The hanging of Yakub Memon brought back horrific memories of the bomb blasts of March 1993. Never before had something like this ever happened in Bombay, or anywhere else in India either. It was the city’s and the country’s brutal introduction to modern- day terrorism, which is now a fact of life. But somehow, the hanging also reminded us of the madness just weeks before the bombings when the city turned on its own with a brutal ferocity not seen before.

 

Memory can be very selective — that is sometimes the only way to survive. The city has not forgotten those dark days, but wants not to be reminded of them. Despite being so affected, often people cannot recall which came first, the riots or the bombings — that can change the entire argument. But once in a while something happens that triggers a chain of thoughts after which one must confront one’s darkest truths.

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