Twenty years after the Babri Masjid riots, a survivor recounts her tale of horror

It may be 20 years for everyone else but for Safia (name changed on request), it seems like 20 seconds. Overwhelmed by the nationwide outrage over the Delhi gang rape, she is anguished that no one helped when she and her 19-year-old daughter were stripped and gang-raped.

The mob burnt her daughter alive while she managed to escape on January 10, 1993, in the heat of the communal carnage in the city, after the Babri Masjid was destroyed.

“I hear there is a committee now and some new law may be announced. I am happy to hear that and I hope that this will ensure not a single woman is raped,” she said.

The events of that terrible January are carved in her mind. If she sees a crowd even now she gets palpitations. She runs a shop in a Mumbai suburb inherited from her mother. Over the years, she has developed high blood pressure and diabetes.

Those days no one thought that such an incident was condemnable. “I told my daughter not to go back to her house that day. But she insisted and I went with her, leaving behind her nine-month-old son. She wanted to collect some clothes since she had left home in a hurry. She seemed destined to meet her fate,” Safia says. She had moved to Devipada, in Borivli, a north western suburb. As the riots snowballed in January, she had come back home to her mother. The entire slum settlement of Devipada was rocked by clashes and the two women were set upon by a mob which dragged them to a maidan nearby. “I managed to escape but I had no clothes on. They had torn it off. I shouted to the police vans which were patrolling but they did not stop,” she says.

Safia’s brother, who tried to help, was killed and his fingers were cut off with a sword, she recalls. Her body still bears deep welts from that brutal assault.

They later recovered her daughter’s burnt body and gave it a proper funeral. “Her mouth was stuffed with reams of cloth so she wouldn’t scream. I remember every small detail as if it’s happening all the time in front of my eyes,” she says.

Her son-in-law managed to escape the mob fury the night before by saying he was a Hindu and giving a false name. He was beaten up, but allowed to go. After her daughter’s death, Safia had to suffer another wrenching loss — that of her grandson. Her son-in-law took away the baby to his native home in Assam and till today she has not seen the boy. “I hear he visits his father, who is believed to have remarried. To my surprise, a few days ago, he came and apologised to me for what he had done. It is too late now,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes.

‘Gruesome incident’

The Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry referred to this as a ‘gruesome incident.’ The names of the culprits were disclosed to the police by a Hindu woman in the area and though they were arrested and tried by the sessions court, they were acquitted. The panchnamas were defective and eye witnesses were not produced.

The entire process of testifying in court was horrifying, Safia says. She was asked to repeat the entire incident. She was also declared to be insane at one point, she recalls. All the culprits were her daughter’s neighbours. Before she was gagged, she asked them why they were doing this.

Sometimes the memories cause giddy spells and people in the locality escort her back home. Her younger daughter says they can never leave her alone now. Safia cannot bear to think of Devipada. “I close my eyes sometimes when I have to pass that area,” she says.

No one helped

No one helped the women and the police did nothing, except for a senior police officer, A.A. Khan, who was deputed in the area. She recalls him visiting her in the hospital. It took her almost nine months to recover from the physical damage. Mentally, she still can’t reconcile with her daughter and brother’s deaths.

Till that day, she was a firm believer in education for her daughters. Her late daughter had studied till the tenth standard and had even taught for three years in a madrasa. However, she pulled out her remaining daughters from school once they reached the sixth or seventh class and got them married. “I have one more daughter to marry off. Once that’s done, I will go back to my village where my husband lives. I have had enough,” she says.

The January 1993 phase of the riots, the so-called Hindu backlash, was more violent. Four days before the Devipada incident, two members of the Bane family and four others, including a handicapped girl, were burnt to death in Gandhi chawl, another gruesome incident that became the focal point of much violence. Two days before that night of arson, a mother and her teenage daughter were gang-raped in public, one of them burnt to death. No one will remember them. Unlike the Banes, they will never be the face of the riots that engulfed the city.