BOOK REVIEW

The Mumbai riots in historic context

Asghar Ali Engineer

There is considerable volume of writing on communalism and communal violence in India by scholars and journalists. While scholars go deep into the subject and write from socio-political perspectives as well as from historical angle, journalists are known to cover current events and often lack in depth and analysis too. Meena Menon, a noted journalist, however, falls into a different category as far as this book is concerned. She is among those few who bring to bear greater depth in their writings and use even archival material to write on a contemporary issue.

This book on Mumbai riots of 1992-93 consists of both a socio-political narrative and historical perspective. Menon tries to understand how and when communal riots began in India and uses archival material for this purpose. It is not, as the title of the book suggests, simply about Mumbai riots of 1992-93. It covers a far wider horizon of communalism and communal violence, its genesis, development and politics behind it. She does it through historical as well as contemporary narratives in a simple and lucid language.

Her introduction is quite comprehensive and scholarly. The Mumbai riots began after the demolition of Babri mosque on December, 6 1992 which resulted in devastating several hundreds of lives. Menon observes, in her introduction referring to some of the interviews of the victims, that what it (i.e. demolition of Babri Masjid) “achieved was large scale displacement, divisions and hardening of communal mindset. The temple is not yet built, the mosque lies in ruins and people's lives are shattered.” Very apt description indeed of what the demolition of Babri masjid achieved.

Background

Those politicians who instigated these riots achieved immensely of course and they came to power in 1995 and those who were instrumental in demolishing the mosque could capture power in 1999 and continued to rule until 2004. Thus communalists hardly care if thousands die as long as they can come to power. Apart from the introduction, the book comprises eight chapters. In these chapters she traces the entire history of communal violence in Mumbai as background to the riots of 1992-93 as well as details of the post-Babri demolition riots and the shattering impact of these riots. It is interesting to note that just hundred years before the post-Babri riots, widespread communal violence had occurred in 1892 in Mumbai though it was on the question of cow slaughter movement. She also traces the history of communal violence or controversies which took place in between these two riots with a gap of a century including the partition riots.

Polarisation

She discusses Jogeshwari riots and burning of Gandhi Chawl (though it was described in media as Radhabai Chawl) in which several members of a Bane family were burnt alive. She gives detailed narrative (including interviews of surviving members) in a separate chapter “Jogeshwari Riots: Old Wounds, New Ghettos”. This was the major event and though no one knows till today who set fire to this unfortunate chawl which resulted in a major tragedy as all the accused were discharged by the Supreme Court it was assumed that Muslims did it and hence it was fully exploited by BJP and Shiv Sena to instigate violence against Muslims in January 1993.

In chapter five, Menon discusses displacement and polarisation and loss of livelihood. Chapter 7 is devoted to perceptions of justice and finally she gives her concluding remarks in chapter eight. Justice is most important for the victims as well as for survivors. But it is hard to get. My experience of covering various riots clearly shows that hardly any culprit taking part in rioting and killing people or looting and arson is ever punished. Even Sirpotdar of Shiv Sena who is known to have instigated riots in Bandra East and was caught by the army with a vehicle loaded with weapons got away easily. The police are communalised and do a poor job of investigations and judges are compelled to release the accused as no evidence is available.

Also, the compensation offered for burnt and looted properties is too little and too late. Menon discusses a case of three brothers whose factory was burnt in which they had invested 10-12 lakh rupees and all they got in compensation was a pittance (Unbelievably only Rs.4000). Thus this chapter on justice is quite important. And that is why the promised bill on Communal and Targeted violence becomes very important but the UPA Government has still not salvaged its promise made in 2004 election manifesto and perhaps may not.




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