When water set fire to a city

Hundreds of vehicles specially lorries with TN registration were burnt on 13th December 1991 Photo: K. Gopinathan   | Photo Credit: K_GOPINATHAN

The Chief Minister performed the Bagina Puja to salute the full reservoirs. I can proudly say I'm as happy as any farmer in the riparian basin today. Not because I own any farmland but because of those terrible early days of December 1991 when a bandh called by pro-Kannada organisations on the 13th against the Cauvery Water Tribunal led to unprecedented violence, in and around Bangalore, Ramangaram, Mysore and other places.

On the bandh eve, a team of reporters and I (I was with another daily then) went round Bangalore for a recce. Everything was peaceful till we reached BEML Circle on Mysore Road where we saw thick smoke coming from the Gali Anjaneya Temple direction. We rushed there to find firemen dousing two lorries that were burning. Enquiries revealed that it had nothing to do with Cauvery. A temporary bridge of MEG & Centre across an open drain was removed and the locals had protested violently. Unfortunately, the lorries bore Tamil Nadu registration and our story the following day played up the fact.

On the bandh day, December 13, I left home early. The first caller to my office was Vatal Nagaraj. “Gopiavare,” he said, “we are going to have a unique demonstration. Come over and we will take you to the spot.” I went, only to be bundled to the Raj Bhavan. And then Nagaraj he locked the gate of the gubernatorial residence and handed over the key to a flunkey who vamoosed. It was left to the flabbergasted police to struggle with the big lock. I was trying to keep a straight face when I noticed a huge column of smoke on the western side: I knew it was going to be a long day.

I hopped on to a colleague Babu Raj’s vehicle towards trouble. As we neared the Malleswaram police station, a group of youths confronted us. “Go back,” they said. They were somewhat mollified when we showed our IDs. At that moment, our driver said: “ Polama?”

All hell broke loose at this terse Tamil query and our driver was collared, abused and roughed up. It took all my persuasive powers to convince the mob we had come to do something good for Karnataka. Finally they let us go. I was acutely aware that the mob was armed with the cheapest and deadliest weapons: stones and Molotov cocktails, that there was no police around, the issue was turning language-based and that career criminals and second-line politicians were fishing in troubled waters.

We were stopped every few 100 metres but luckily we managed to spot some known faces in the crowds and were allowed to proceed. Disturbingly, in some places there were even children in the mob.

When we reached Modi Hospital Road, a big mob, armed with flags and torches, stopped us. Using all our diplomatic skills, we convinced the leader to sit on the vehicle’s bonnet with the flag and guide us to the epicenter. He took us through labyrinthine alleys where vehicles, factories, buildings and tent cinemas were being torched or were already in flames.

Every so often, mobs would rush to our vehicle with wicked glee, thinking this was one more to be torched till we held up our camera and screeched: “Press photographers!”

It was no less than a battlefield. We had our pictures and we knew it was unwise to linger. Every time a mob turned on us, the leader on the bonnet would order them to back off. On our way back, we saw people being attacked, mobs trying to break into a bank. In a surreal scene, I saw a lorry engulfed in flames even as women were calmly filling their water pots from a nearby borewell.

As soon as I reached the office I busied myself with the negatives and prints. Just then, the crime reporter knocked on the dark room door. “We should go to Rajkumar Road. One killed in police firing.” This time, our transport was my moped. I was nervous because not only were we exposed but the reporter was a motor-mouth. I asked him to keep quiet as I knew if he spoke, there would be trouble. It came soon enough. “Who are these (expletive) da?” he shouted, pointing to a mob. Immediately we were swamped by the hostile crowd and it was a close call.

At Rajkumar Road, we saw all boards, except Kannada, had been pulled down and burnt. “Kole madibitru, sir,” the crowd chorused even as they laid siege to an MLA's house. The legislator was in there with the photographer from another newspaper. Soon the Police Commissioner arrived with a platoon, fired in the air and rescued those trapped. All this while I was shooting from the top of a building. The police shot in my direction too but I lived to tell the tale.

Curfew, military police

Back at work there was another call: 400 huts were set on fire near the Kanteerava Studio. Soon the newspaper was getting calls from everywhere and I was dropping with exhaustion. We got calls from other newspapers too, whose staff were not as lucky as I was. They were chased and had to seek refuge in police stations. At night all of us were told to take curfew passes and we went home in groups. Military police were summoned and took positions.

The following day, all trains to Tamil Nadu were packed. Hundreds travelled seated atop the coaches. The violence continued for another two days. Miscreants attacked homes, schools, shops and so on. In one heartrending instance, they destroyed the 6x6 ft hovel of a blind woman who supported herself rolling agarbathis.

It was only after five long days, when I finally had the time to speak to my parents, did I notice that my mother had hurt herself. She had heard a mob attack someone in front of our house. Thinking I was the target, she had rushed out and fallen, breaking her hand.

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