#Mumbairiots 1992-93 were so brutal, it seemed Mumbai would never recover

15 December 2012, Open Magazine

In Remembrance of Horrors Past

The riots of 1992-93 were so brutal, it seemed Mumbai would never recover. Yet, despite no signs of justice, victims of the violence are beginning to move on
Tagged Under | Mumbai | riots | 1992-93
WANTON DESTRUCTION Charred remains of a house in Bombay’s Tulsiwadi slum that was burnt by a  Hindu mob

WANTON DESTRUCTION Charred remains of a house in Bombay’s Tulsiwadi slum that was burnt by a Hindu mob

Is there a point in making people remember events they wish had never occurred? Reading and listening to the testimonies of Mumbai riot victims made to the Srikrishna Commission, a single thought consumed me: this city must never forget the full extent of the evil committed by the police and groups acting in the name of Hinduism. Twenty years later, I am not so sure. There are those who cannot forget even if they want to. Reminding them of what happened is an act of cruelty in itself.

For this story, I avoided Hazira Bi, who saw Shiv Sainiks from the neighbourhood shakha kill her husband after cutting off his hands. They then threw her from the verandah. When she regained consciousness, she was in a refugee camp for Muslims on a school campus. Her eldest son, aged 18, was missing. He never came back. Her youngest children, Shabana, then seven, and Rizwan, three, escaped. They were visiting relatives. Though Hazira Bi told the police that her husband’s killers were Shiv Sainiks, she did not know their names. Her case was classified as ‘neither true nor false’.

Hazira Bi, Shabana and Rizwan have gone through life protecting one another. The children often ask each other how things would have been had their father and brother—or either—been alive. Shabana would not have had to go to work, they reckon. Rizwan may have been more than a commerce student who failed in one subject and did not bother to re-take the exam. He wanted to start earning as soon as possible so his mother could stay home. Determined to fulfil her husband’s desire to see his youngest son educated in a convent school, Hazira Bi had been going house-to-house teaching Muslim children the Quran for a fee of Rs 50 a month, often passing out from exhaustion on the road.

But the children make sure their ‘what ifs’ are not discussed near Hazira Bi. They have not forgotten the days when the family had to survive on one meal a day in a house with walls that still bore bloodstains, even as their father’s killers roamed the streets outside free. But they will not mention this, nor allow anyone else to in their mother’s presence. Their aim in life is to see that she lives in some peace at least now. Rizwan did not attend the protest rally called in August by religious leaders against attacks on Muslims in Assam and Myanmar. Doing so would have alarmed his mother. Even news of his new job in a Hindu-owned company had sent her blood pressure sinking.


Pawan Patil did not even know who fired the bullet that left him paraplegic at the age of 19 as he walked home that January afternoon. He remembers pain so unbearable that he did not want to live anymore. Even today, he walks unsteadily on crutches and cannot urinate normally. Seated at his phone booth on a busy street in Muslim-dominated Dongri, Pawan watches the world go by and often wonders, ‘Why me?’ Outside his home, where he lives with his mother and brother’s family, is a Shiv Sena sticker. The Patils are diehard Shiv Sainiks, but except for a corporator who helped once, the party did nothing for him. And Pawan refuses to go to them. His brother helped locate this phone booth, and Pawan had to travel all the way to Pune to get it transferred to his name. He has named it after his parents. But with the spread of mobile phones, his earnings have dropped so low that he can no longer pay for his medicines.

Soon after Pawan was shot, his family had sent him to a centre for paraplegics in Navi Mumbai. There he was trained to walk and type, and encouraged to appear for his class 10 exam. The seven years there did him a world of good. Unfortunately, the rules made it impossible for him to stay on once his training was over. For years after that, he roamed the streets on his three-wheeler chair—till he got this booth. Today, tired and pessimistic, all Pawan wants is to go back and work in that centre. To return to that cocoon where everyone is like him, and he is no burden on his family.

Like Pawan, Rubina Shaikh’s eye was injured by a stray bullet during the violence. She was nine years old. Twenty years later, she still has shrapnel. Her mother quit voting after the incident because no politician would help them. The police were not sure which jurisdiction the incident fell under—their home is in Dongri and the bullet came from the direction of Pydhonie. “Had you been a policeman, I would have slammed the door in your face,” says her mother. “Had you been a male, I’d have chewed your head off. It’s only because you are a woman that I let you sit here.” And yet, this woman, so full of rage, refuses to let me leave without a Diwali gift.

Riot victims have banged the door or slammed the phone down on me many times. So it was with some nervousness that I approached Ruksana. I first met her in 1998 when she was struggling to get compensation for her ‘missing’ husband. Her mother-in-law, who lost both her sons in the riots, sold her belongings—clothes, ornaments, et al—to pay the school fees for Ruksana’s children. Weeping bitterly, the old woman had told me then how she had started hating Hindus but had to live among them.

Ruksana has chosen to work with Hindus. Given the job of a cleaner in a BMC Urdu school on compassionate grounds (her husband was a BMC employee), she opted for a Marathi school when due for a transfer. “I could have been packed off anywhere,” she says, “I applied to this school because it was convenient for me. My Muslim colleagues warned me that Marathi principals are very strict. But I found the principal and entire staff very considerate, even more than my Muslim colleagues were. There, despite knowing my story, they wouldn’t let me leave early, even though my kids were small. Here, no one knows anything about me, but if I’m unwell, they tell me to lie down in the rest room. And they don’t eat until I join them.”

Ruksana is the only Muslim in the school. This was her first close contact with the Hindu community. “On my first day, I told them I didn’t want to hear any nagging as long as I did my work well. I had decided I wasn’t going to take any nonsense—it was their community that had killed my husband, after all.” Despite the camaraderie with her new colleagues, Ruksana still misses her old school. “Gair toh gair hi hain ” she shrugs. Others are still others. Yet, she has no regrets about her leap into the dark.

“You have to take risks, or you can’t get ahead,” says Shama Inamdar, whose home in Pratiksha Nagar was looted and her husband’s brother killed during the riots. It was only a couple of years ago, after his grandchildren were born, that her husband stopped brooding over his loss. The family had fled with just the clothes on their backs to their old building still under repair in Madanpura. “We broke into our own home,” recalls Shama, “we had no choice.” They needed a safe enclave. “It was heaven,” adds her daughter, “You wouldn’t know there were riots on outside had it not been for the Muslims pouring into this area from all over.”

This heaven lies in Gosht Bazaar—an area, mother and daughter tell you gleefully, that makes Hindus break into a sweat. “The computer mechanic asked me how I could live here. I told him we have grown to love the very things that horrify outsiders,” says the daughter. (When Hazira Bi finally left her old home in Wadala, it was to go to a butchers’ market in Kurla. It is safe, says Shabana, with no Shiv Sainik in sight.)

The Inamdars too have settled down to life-as-usual thanks to the risks they took. They started their garments business anew in a Hindu dominated area. Husband and wife worked from morning to night, leaving their home to the care of their nine-year-old daughter. Often, they would come back to burnt dinners; once, the house almost caught fire. Their business, however, did well. Today, they can afford to buy a bigger home in some other locality for their expanding family, but their son will not let them leave. After the riots, recalls the daughter, the word ‘Hindu’ would sear them. But now her brother has so many Hindu friends, the mother sometimes worries.

It is hard for those directly affected by the riots to shake off their distrust of the majority. This is so even of those who returned to their old homes to live among Hindus. The Satkuts lost everything—timber marts, paan shops, all their means of livelihood. But they came back to what was left of their home on a hillside in Parel Gaon because the entire neighbourhood stood on land that belonged to them. Gradually, their relatives moved to distant suburbs. But, says Razia Satkut, she will never leave—even though hers is the only Muslim home there now. However, she believes that once buildings come up on their land (which she has sold to a builder), it is best for her children to move out. “I have no fear, but I have to think about their safety.”


That is perhaps the most enduring legacy of the riots: a gnawing need to live among one’s own. The violence spelt a ghettoisation all too stark for a city with claims to a cosmopolitan identity.

In January 1993, six Hindus, five of them women, were burnt to death in Jogeshwari’s Radhabai Chawl. Hindus moved out of the chawl, and all over Jogeshwari, their co-religionists swore they would never step into Muslim localities just across the road.

Yet, those divides are blurring. Over the past two decades, Muslims have turned to education, and given the intermingling this assures, they now have more Hindu friends than ever before. Hindu youngsters can be found studying with Muslim friends at their homes. After the riots, Muslims of Mohammed Ali Road had been afraid to linger in Hindu areas. Today, topi-clad boys fearlessly race motorbikes across the city.

Other ties remain. When the Parmanand Wadi dargah at Parel was attacked in 1993, Hindu devotees escorted its priest Azmatullah and other employees to Sewri. Even now, Hindus continue to bring their children to the dargah for blessings and often give Azmatullah a lift to the shrine when they see him trudging up the incline. A Hindu performs the main ritual at the shrine’s annual urs.

But living alongside each other is another matter. Part of the reason is that Muslims are unable to get homes in Hindu-dominated housing societies. “Our building has an unwritten rule—we sell flats only to Marathis,” says Nilesh Sane, a proud Shiv Sainik of Cement Chawl near Masjid Bunder. “No one dares attack us.” Interestingly, though, other buildings near that chawl have seen a steady influx of Bohra businessmen who’ve bought properties from Gujarati Hindus. It is Shiv Sainiks who regulate traffic whenever the Syedna, the Bohra high priest, visits the area. But that could be an exception. Social worker Faridbhai Batatawala has seen Hindus leave his building one by one despite its prime location near Jogeshwari station. “When an area becomes Muslim dominated, Hindus leave,” he says, sadly.

Ghettoisation results in heightened religiosity. Farrukh Waris, principal of Burhani College, finds religious fervour—alongside exposure to the world via the internet—a striking feature of her students. Almost all were born after the riots, and four-fifths of them are Muslim, mostly first-generation learners from poor families with no space for “cosmopolitan excesses”. She says, “Madrassas and mohallas are their meeting grounds.” So Waris pushes them to take part in off-campus activities: helping cops clean up Chowpatty after Ganapati immersions (one parent objected) and internships with Mohalla Committees (cross-community groups of peace volunteers), et al.

Waris finds Muslim mothers especially keen to get their daughters educated. For this, some of them do not tell their husbands about field trips that their daughters have to go on. Still, girls are often forced to drop out. Thanks to an ‘action alert’ put in place by Waris, though, Burhani College has more than halved the dropout rate among female students from 57 to 23 per cent in the last five years. From the clerk who receives an application for withdrawal of admission to the principal herself, at every stage the girl is counselled not to leave college.

“Today, parents don’t need convincing to send their daughters to college,” says writer Feroze Ashraf, having offered free coaching to Muslim girls from poor families for the past 15 years. That is the only change he sees among Muslims since the riots. The violence forced him to leave his Hindu neighbourhood for a Muslim one and brought him in close contact with his community’s wretched poverty, ghettoised isolation and sense of utter vulnerability. None of this has changed, he says.

How then does one explain the violent outburst at the Azad Maidan rally on 11 August? Anyone who lived through the riots 20 years ago knows that a Muslim mob is a red rag to the Mumbai Police. Yet, here were Muslim youth attacking the police without provocation—and without the latter opening fire in response. If this showed how the nature of Muslim-vs-police confrontations had changed, its aftermath quickly re-established the old order. Arup Patnaik, the police commissioner who restrained his men (to avoid a repeat of 1992-93), was shunted out of his job by the state government after some fist waving at him by the MNS demagogue Raj Thackeray at a morcha held in the same maidan. Patnaik’s

behaviour, his transfer suggested, was out of line. Also, those arrested after the 11 August rally reported that the treatment meted out to them by the police was exactly the same as had been to Muslims back in 1992-93. They had their beards pulled by policemen to taunts of, “Landya, go to Pakistan!”


So, has nothing really changed in Mumbai since Justice Srikrishna indicted the city’s police force for its attitude of ‘One Muslim killed is one Muslim less’? Not at the ‘cutting edge’ where Muslims encounter cops, says advocate Yasmin Shaikh, who works with the post-riots Mohalla Committee movement led by former Police Commissioner Julio Ribeiro. If junior cops abide by the law, it is because they know someone will complain to their seniors or go to court if they do not. But, she says, and other social workers confirm this, senior police officers today can be counted upon to involve Muslims in keeping tense situations from turning ugly.

Shaikh says Muslim youth hate the police because they see their community as an unfair target, whether for petty traffic offences or terror charges. Mohalla Committees, especially in Muslim areas, have to work overtime to prevent mobs of Muslims coming face-to-face with battalions of armed cops. There is a distinct possibility the former will attack the latter. Often, Shaikh has asked senior cops to withdraw their forces while she runs around calming members of her community. This happens whether the initial provocation is from the Bajrang Dal or from hotheads among Muslims.

That is why, feels social worker Harun Mozawala, there should be no let-up in educational efforts. Battling indifferent BMC officials to get Urdu schools running can take months, but Mozawala does not give up. “Muslims react emotionally,” he says, “They have to learn not to take the law into their own hands.”

What about the Shiv Sena, which went all out against Muslims in 1993 and won power in alliance with the BJP in Maharashtra two years later? To their surprise, local Muslim leaders found the Sena-BJP government more willing to fulfil their long-standing demands, be it granting a change in floor-space-index norms for mosques or handing over Mumbai’s Hajj House to them. Sena MLAs, even those who had led riotous mobs only a few years earlier, proved more approachable than their Congress predecessors, they say.

At that time, Muslim disenchantment with the Congress was at its peak for the party’s failure to prevent the BJP-led Babri Masjid demolition. Today, many believe that Muslim youth are being falsely implicated in bomb blast cases by the Congress-led regime. Some say that they are keen to give the Sena a second chance, but cannot risk openly campaigning for it until the party puts up at least a couple of Muslim candidates in Hindu areas.

The Sena may oblige. “We are looking for good Muslim candidates,” says Sena leader Jaywant Parab, a man who was convicted of a hate speech in the 1992 riots but forged ties with Muslims during a brief stint in the Congress. He is not the only one. Baburao Mane, acquitted in a riot case, has started a multi-lingual school in Dharavi where Urdu teachers feel freer than they did in Urdu-only schools. Former Shakha Pramukh Hemant Koli, whose name featured unfavourably in the Srikrishna Report, today assures people that no riot can break out in his Masjid Bunder area: “We are all friends now.”

With Bal Thackeray gone, Muslims who have interacted with his son and successor Uddhav feel the Shiv Sena may soften its Hindutva stand. Some Sainiks regret the riots, they note, and the party does not need such violence as a political tool anymore.

The greatest enemy of Muslims to emerge over the past 20 years, according to Nabeel Shah, an RTI activist, is the community’s political and religious leadership. “They prevent us from working alongside our humwatan (compatriots) in citizen movements like India Against Corruption. They feel threatened, so they label these movements ‘anti-Muslim’.”

Activists Sajid and Siraj, both of whom have worked closely with non-Muslims, believe that this is a moment that Muslims must seize. Sajid started propagating education in the slums of Jogeshwari even before the riots; Siraj heads the Mumbai branch of the Movement for Peace and Justice, a Jamaat-e-Islami outfit that focuses exclusively on social, non-religious issues.

Today, it is education that is everyone’s aim, Sajid and Siraj point out. Globalisation has opened avenues for Muslims that the State had denied them. Moreover, the Judiciary remains secular. The hatred of the Ayodhya years and riots of the time belong to a century that is more than a decade past.


Bal Thackeray– A Politics of Violence

Vol – XLVII No. 47-48, December 01, 2012 | Jyoti Punwani: EPW

Bal Thackeray, the son of an anti-caste reformist, came from a background rich in learning and culture. Yet, he chose to use his learning and wit to destroy rather than create. Under his direction, the Sena resorted to intimidation and terror, first against south Indians, then communists and Muslims.

Jyoti Punwani (jyoti.punwani@gmail.com) is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist and human rights activist.

It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon on a sleepy road with people, desultorily going about their routine. Suddenly, the scene changed. Women pleaded with vegetable vendors who were hurriedly shutting shop; people ran after buses, autorickshaws fled. It reminded you of scenes shown in Hitler movies, of Jews out on a peaceful street when they suddenly hear the sound of a Nazi patrol approaching. It was as if a malevolent spirit had descended like an ominous cloud.

Bal Thackeray’s death had just been reported in his city.

Thackeray would have been proud that in death, as in life, he generated fear among ordinary citizens going about their normal lives. He would have praised his “boys” for vandalising a hospital because the owner’s niece commented on Facebook that the city need not have shut down for his funeral. As the girl in question realised, there was nothing anyone could do when faced with the wrath of a Shiv Sainik mob. For the leader of the Shiv Sena was also the “Saheb” of those paid to protect you from Sena bullies. So it was but natural for the police to haul her to the police station. The Mumbai police’s advice to citizens not to step out on the day of Thackeray’s funeral was not surprising. It was not their job to ensure that the city went about its work as normal. It was their job to facilitate the Sena supremo’s grand funeral.

This advice from the Mumbai police was in line with the advice some of them gave to Muslims during the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots of December 1992 – January 1993. “We made sure they left the area safely”, many of them proudly told the B N Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the riots. They did not think it their duty to protect Muslims from Shiv Sainiks. They just wanted them out of harm’s way so that they could sit back as Sainiks looted and burnt the Muslims’ homes at will. That was a deed to be proud of, indeed, considering the number of policemen found by the Commission to have actively encouraged the Shiv Sainiks to riot, or to have looked the other way as they killed defenceless Muslims.

1984 Riots Pave the Way

Early on, in 1984, just before Mumbai saw its first major post-Independence Hindu-Muslim riot, Bal Thackeray had told the city’s police force to take a leaf out of their Punjab counterparts. The latter, he had said in a speech at Chowpatty that acted as the trigger for the riots, supported “anti-national Khalistanis”. He went on to say, “Here you should at least not arrest your own people when they are fighting traitors”. In the fortnight of violence that engulfed the city and its outskirts soon after the speech, the police followed his advice. 1984 was when Mumbai’s Muslims, appealing to the police for help from Shiv Sainiks, heard for the first time, the phrase that would define the police’s relationship with Bal Thackeray: “We are Shiv Sainiks under our uniforms.” Official confirmation of this relationship came in the form of a circular issued by the city’s tough police commissioner, Julio Rebeiro, wherein he asked: “I want to know who is ruling this city – the administration or the Shiv Sena? When orders were given clearly to use force and beat the Shiv Sainiks who are going around ordering shops to close, the local police failed to do so’’ (Indian Express, 30 June 1984).

The 1984 riots were not one-sided. Apart from two Urdu newspapers which inflamed passions by deliberately mis­reporting Thackeray’s speech, there was the Congress-I Muslim MLA who garlanded Thackeray’s bust with slippers in Parbhani. On the ground too, Muslims in Bhiwandi and Govandi, to name just two areas, were the aggressors, and in areas such as Nagpada and Dongri, they did retaliate.

But the case of Thane during the 1984 riots was revealing of the way the Shiv Sena operates when it is in control. A local Bharatiya Janata Party leader told this reporter after the riots that of the 57 persons killed in Thane, 55 had been Muslims, and two others had been killed for sheltering Muslims. There was no retaliation by Muslims in Thane. As the former Sena mayor and later Member of Parliament put it: Thokaichey hotey, thokle (we decided to hammer them and we did). Even Muslim Shiv Sainiks, as well as those old-timers who were so integrated with their Marathi-speaking neighbours that you could not tell them apart, were not spared.

Thane had been the Sena’s early triumph – it emerged as the single largest party in the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) in 1967 itself, a year after the party was launched, and controlled the TMC from 1974 to 1981. The 1984 riots paved the way for the Sena’s triumphant entry into Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation the next year. In this it was helped generously by the then Congress chief minister (CM) Vasantdada Patil’s mischievous announcement that the centre (ruled by his own party) was planning to separate Mumbai from Maharashtra, a possibility he knew did not exist. After the 1984 riots that claimed 258 lives, Patil refused to prosecute Thackeray for his Chowpatty speech, saying that Thackeray had denied making any derogatory remarks against prophet Mohammed. He also rejected the demand for a judicial inquiry into the riots. He did, however, arrest shakha pramukh Madhukar Sarpotdar under the National Security Act, as well as underworld leaders Haji Mastan and Karim Lala. All three were freed after the Sena helped the Congress elect its nominee as the speaker of the Maharashtra Legislative Council a few days after the riots.

Blatant Abuse of Muslims

The 1984 riots displayed all the characteristics that came to be associated with Bal Thackeray and his party – Muslim baiting, violence against Muslims, the Mumbai police’s Sena bias, and the Congress-Sena nexus. All this was seen on a much larger scale in the 1992-93 riots, for the January phase of which the Justice B N Srikrishna Commission indicted Thackeray with the words, “like a veteran general, (he) commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims”. These attacks were not just the conventional looting and burning of property or stabbing to death. In January 1993, Shiv Sainiks were charged with stripping, burning and mutilating Muslim women, stoning unarmed Muslim men to death, and then burning their bodies to chants of “Jai Sri Ram”. Eyewitnesses told the Srikrishna Commission that they did not spare even handicapped boys. After all this, they got the best Sena lawyers to defend them.

There was one more difference between 1984 and 1992 – Thackeray’s abuse against Muslims no longer needed confirmation or denial by him. It was all there in his newspaper Saamna, which he had launched in 1989. Editorial after editorial in Saamna castigated Muslims as fanatic traitors, residing in “mohallas in which flowed streams of treason and poison”. The community constituted one of Pakistan’s “seven atom bombs placed in Hindustan”. One editorial asked the corpses of Hindus to come alive to “tell us, from which mosque was a bomb thrown at you? Which fanatic traitor aimed his stengun at you?” The news pages of Saamna celebrated the burning of mosques by “patriotic youth in this dharmyuddh, mosques which have become store houses of unauthorised arms”. Saamna, Thackeray said later, provided the “spark that lit the fire of patriotism which kept the country, god and religion alive”.

Yet, the Congress government took no action except to send the editorials to the Press Council, a toothless body! On a petition filed by two citizens, two judges of the Bombay High Court ruled these editorials to be unobjectionable, since they criticised only anti-national Muslims, not the entire community. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal against this judgment without going into its merits.

To be fair, the judiciary was not always kind to Bal Thackeray. In 1997, he, then the remote control of the Sena-BJP ruling alliance in Maharashtra, was forced to appear in person before a magistrate and apply for bail as prime accused for instigating Shiv Sainiks to attack reporters in 1991. In 1999, he was barred from voting or standing for election by the Supreme Court, which upheld a Bombay High Court order finding him guilty of having canvassed for his candidate on the basis of religion in the 1987 assembly elections. It made little difference to him – he had never wanted to stand for election anyway, preferring to be the “remote control” of the party rather than be accountable by holding a public office.

Contempt for the Law

Thackeray’s attitude towards the judiciary was consistent with his attitude towards the law, democracy, and the Constitution – an attitude of open contempt. It is hardly surprising that most of his corporators and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) had criminal cases registered against them, involving charges not just of rioting and assaulting public servants, but also of extortion, kidnapping, and murder. A tape recording of the 1988 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) mayor, Diwakar Raote, had him expressing displeasure at the meagre amount of Rs 5,000 each offered to him by Gujarati traders, and boasting that to save their lives, “I have slaughtered Muslims taking the sword in my hand… In one riot, we have slaughtered 300-350 Muslims”. No action was taken against Raote by the then CM Sharad Pawar, and Raote is now a Sena Member of the Legislative Council (MLC). The man he appointed as CM, Narayan Rane, according to police claims, started off life as a part of the “Narya-Varya’’ gang in Chembur, and had a murder case against him when he became CM. Rane is now the Congress’ industries minister in Maharashtra.

Thackeray’s contempt for the law and democracy has not arisen from any long and bitter fight through constitutional means against an unjust system. He had no patience with legal means from the word go. That was the reason for his instant popularity with the Marathi-speaking restless youth who found themselves on the sidelines of the wealth that was being generated in Mumbai in the 1960s. The new capital of the new state of Maharashtra was then the most industrialised city in India, attracting the most investment from around the country. But those who controlled it were mostly non-Marathi-speaking people, belonging to communities that had always been a part of the city. Thackeray directed the aspirations of Marathi-speaking youth against these other communities. He became their godfather, in every sense of the term. His fiery speeches and writings in his weekly Marmik drew them like a magnet to his ideology: hatred against others who have deprived you of what is yours, and snatching it from them by any means. At the same time as they put this into practice, the Shiv Sainiks through their shakhas across the city also solved problems such as water supply, and raided shops of hoarders when prices of foodgrains skyrocketed.

Terror Tactics

The Sena’s first rally was in 1966 in Shivaji Park. On their way out, the rallyists attacked an Udipi restaurant, marking the start of the Sena’s terror tactics. In 1967, alongside south Indians, communists became a target. Shiv Sainiks attacked the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) office in the working class area of Parel, and violently engineered splits in CPI unions. In 1970, they killed the CPI’s sitting MLA from Parel, Krishna Desai.

For Thackeray, leftists were anti-national. Four months later, backed by the Jan Sangh, the Swatantra Party, the Congress (O) and the Hindu Mahasabha, the Sena’s Wamanrao Mahadik won the by-election to become the party’s first MLA. Addressing the party’s victory rally, Thackeray said: “This is our dharmyudh. It is the Shiv Sena’s aim to destroy all those who are not loyal to the nation…Our victory is the victory of Hindutva’’ (Vaibhav Purandare, The Sena Story, Mumbai, 1999). Twenty-two years later, Thackeray exhorted Saamna readers with the same phrases during the Ayodhya campaign and the riots that followed the Babri Masjid demolition. This time, the dharmyudh was against a different set of anti-nationals.

But Muslims had always been anathema for Thackeray. As far back as 1970, the Sena was indicted by the Justice D P Madon Commission of Inquiry for its role in the Bhiwandi riots. It is just that unlike south Indians, Muslims remained his target till the very end. In 1972, Thackeray set up his Sthaniya Lok AdhikaSamitis (local people’s rights committees) in banks and government offices, and began ensuring jobs for Marathi-speaking youth. His formidable clout forced the Congress government to issue a directive to all employers in 1973 that 60% of managerial jobs and 90% of other lower category jobs in Mumbai be given to those domiciled in Maharashtra for 15 years. There was no need after that to target the yundugundus, as he described south Indians.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric – he called Muslims landyas and “green serpents” – and violence were intrinsic to the growth of the Sena. If the 1984 riots helped Thackeray capture the BMC, similar riots helped the party capture parts of Maharashtra through the latter half of the 1980s. Vaibhav Purandare’s The Sena Story details how every new city that was captured saw riots taking place: Nashik, Amravati, Nanded, Aurangabad (renamed Sambhaji Nagar when the Sena came to power in 1995). Finally, the 1992-93 riots helped the Sena capture the state in 1995.

But Thackeray’s hatred for Muslims as pro-Pakistani traitors did not come in the way of him embracing the party that still retained the name Muslim League. After the Bhiwandi riots in 1970, the Sena negotiated the presidentship of the Bhiwandi municipality with the township’s Muslim League. Both Sudhir Joshi and Manohar Joshi became mayors in the BMC with Muslim League help, the first immediately after Sena-League riots had claimed five lives in 1973. Sudhir Joshi’s victory procession was led by Thackeray and League president G M Banatwala. After the Sena took over the BMC in 1985, the Muslim League came to the Sena’s rescue whenever voting on crucial issues took place, in return for posts in important committees.

Thakri Bhasha

Alongside Muslims, Ambedkarite dalits, who rejected Hinduism and were only too conscious of their rights, made Thackeray see red. When the Dalit Panthers were formed in 1972, their first clashes were with Shiv Sainiks in Worli’s BDD chawls. In 1987, the Sena campaigned against the inclusion of the chapter “Riddles in Hinduism” in the state government’s compilation of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches. Sena leader Chhagan Bhujbal even bathed the Flora Fountain monument with gangajal after a huge dalit rally was held there on the issue.

Thackeray was the only one to openly oppose the renaming of Marathwada University as Ambedkar University, and throughout the long namantar agitation, Shiv Sainiks attacked dalits in Marath­wada, burning their homes, desecrating Buddhist temples and Ambedkar statues. Many of the “minor” cases registered against them under the Prevention of Atrocities Act were withdrawn by Sharad Pawar after the university was renamed in January 1994. The next year, when the Sena came to power, CM Manohar Joshi withdrew more such cases.

It is this licence given by successive governments in Maharashtra that encouraged the “Tiger” to roar and maul as he pleased. In 1988, he called a press conference at which Sikh leaders of Mumbai were summoned and threatened with an economic boycott if they did not get their religious leaders in Punjab to issue a directive against Khalistanis. His “roars” have been delivered in what his admirers describe as Thakri bhasha. The most creative use of this bhasha has been against women. Veteran socialist Mrinal Gore, who refused to enter into an alliance with him till the bitter end of her political career was described as “Goregaon’s buffalo”, and Janata Dal president V P Singh’s paayachidasi (meaning slave/mistress). Professor Pushpa Bhave was called a “stale nankathai” and referred to as bhavini (devdasi or prostitute) when she exhorted the terrified residents of Vasai to stand up to the “two faces of fascism – (Bhai) Thakur [a well-known don] and Thackeray”. Writing about CPI(Marxist) leader Ahilya Rangnekar and trade unionist Pushpa Mehta, Thackeray wondered how they were so active despite their “menstrual rags having long dried up”. Feminist writer Vidya Bal was described as the “hijra” of the women’s liberation movement.

Such was the man now being described as having ruled over the hearts of three generations of Shiv Sainiks for 46 years. That is untrue. Like any party, the Shiv Sena had its highs and lows. After a spectacular start in 1966, with the city burning for four days after he was arrested in 1969 (over the border row with Karnataka), the decade 1974-84 saw a low, as Thackeray disillusioned his followers by supporting Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. His workers supported Datta Samant despite their supremo’s opposition to the textile strike led by Samant. The 1984 riots helped him bounce back, but he lost control over the BMC in 1992, only to return with the 1992-93 riots.

The next stage of disillusionment came ironically, when he was in charge of the state. When the BJP-Sena wrested power from Sharad Pawar’s Congress in early 1995, the reaction among most Marathi-speaking people, cutting across classes and castes, was “our people are in power now”. By the end of their rule in 1999, voters had realised that Shiv Shahi was no different from Congress rule. Since then, the Sena has been kept out, thanks to his nephew Raj Thackeray forming his own party.

Five-Year Rule

However, his five-year rule deserves attention. Coming as it did two years after the 1992-93 riots where he played a leading role, the Sena-BJP rule started off as hell for Muslims. His government scrapped the state minorities’ commission and the Urdu academy. After Saamna received a call threatening to kill Thackeray from someone claiming to be a Bangladeshi, the Sena chief threatened that the entire Muslim community would be wiped out. The Sena-BJP government passed an anti-bigamy bill and also a bill prohibiting the slaughter of cow progeny.

But Thackeray’s government also fulfilled many long-standing demands of Muslims which the Congress had never cared to, including increasing the floor space index (FSI) for mosques. The community found Sena MLAs, even those who had been in the forefront of the riots, more approachable than Congress MLAs had ever been. Also, the five-year reign of the Sena-BJP saw just one minor riot which was controlled within 48 hours. Today, a similar situation exists as did in 1995. Muslims are fed up with the Congress, especially because of the continuous targeting of its youth on terror charges. A section of them want to teach the Congress a lesson and give the Sena another chance.

However, the Sena-BJP regime established Thackeray as the ultimate censor. Even after he lost power, nervous directors would show him their films if they felt anything in their content could annoy him. Only those with a hotline to the centre could dare to have their films run despite his disapproval, as Shah Rukh Khan did with his My Name Is Khan in 2010.

Ugly and Impoverished

Bal Thackeray, like many other Marathi-speaking politicians, came from a background rich in learning and culture. In addition to being exposed to literature, music and drama, he had the advantage of being the son of an anti-caste reformist. Yet, he chose to use his learning and wit to destroy rather than create. He debased the Marathi language when he could have enriched it. As a sophisticated Marathi-speaking orator, he could have used his power over his followers to turn Mumbai, already a flourishing cosmopolitan city, into one of the world’s great metropolises. He chose to render it ugly and impoverished.


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October 2021
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