25 years on, children of the Bombay Riots have forgiven the culprits – but they haven’t forgotten

Jyoti Punwani

Twenty five years ago, Dilip Waghchore and his family fled their home in Mumbai’s Tulsiwadi slum as a wall of flame approached it. For three days in January 1993, the teenager had watched residents of the buildings behind the settlement hurling burning balls of rag at the huts of Muslims opposite his home. But the flames eventually endangered all houses in the lane – including those occupied by Hindus such as the Waghchores.

The violence that scorched the Waghchores and their neighbours was just one episode in the intense riots that consumed India’s commercial capital after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in faraway Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. The destruction of the shrine sparked riots across India, but the violence was most intense in Mumbai – which was still known as Bombay at the time. Approximately 900 Mumbai residents were left dead in two bursts of rioting in December 1992 and January 1993. Of this number, 575 were Muslim, 275 were Hindus and 50 from other faiths. Looking back, it would seem reasonable to assume that children who had experienced the violence firsthand would have been left with bitter memories and life-long emotional scars.

How could they forget what they had seen? Did they understand why homes in their neighbourhood had been burnt, why people were suddenly killed? Did the explanations of their elders mould their thinking forever? Did the riots give birth to a generation of Hindus and Muslims in Mumbai who look on each other with suspicion?

Twenty five years on, conversations with about 20 children of the Mumbai riots revealed a more positive picture. Far from mistrust, the predominant feeling was one of good neighbourliness, especially in localities that are home to both Hindus and Muslims.

Closing divisions in Tulsiwadi

In Dilip Waghchore’s Tulsiwadi neighbourhood in central Mumbai, for instance, there is little evidence of the post-Ayodhya violence. Thanks to the rehabilitation efforts of a host of Gandhian organisations and some Muslim organisations, the hutments have been replaced by homes made of brick and concrete. The religious chasms seem to have closed too. During the annual Ganesh festival in Tulsiwadi, for example, the Ganpati statue is installed on the same empty patch where the annual Muharram tazia rests.

Now, every Ramzan, Waghchore and his Hindu friends pool in money to host an annual iftaar party for their Muslim neighbours as they break their Ramzan fast. Why? “Just,” shrugged the 41-year-old.

Down the road, 32-year-old housewife Nargis Mansur recalled her experience of fleeing Tulsiwadi as a child to the safety of her grandmother’s village in Uttar Pradesh. Her family returned to find their home in ruins. But today, just like they did before the riots, the Mansurs make a donation for the neighbourhood Ganpati celebration. Asked if that childhood experience had left her angry with Hindus, Nargis replied with a laugh: “My best friend is Archana. She lives down the lane.”

Traumatic memories

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However, it isn’t as if the traumatic memories have vanished. Chitra Shinde, for instance, is a Shiv Sena up-shakha pramukh in the western neighbourhood of Jogeshwari – a deputy head of the local unit of the party whose chief, Bal Thackeray’s role in fomenting the violence was extensively documented in the report of the BN Srikrishna judicial inquiry commission constituted by the Maharashtra government. Shinde was 17 when the riots broke out, and she still remembers the feeling of dread that gripped her when the Muslim man who owned the ice factory in Jogeshwari where she worked suddenly downed the shutters. “Then he turned round and told us: ‘I’m not going to let anything happen to you. You stay here till the violence is over.’’’

That night, Shinde’s brother’s Muslim friends came from her Hindu-dominated locality to take her home. After all, only they could venture into the Muslim-dominated area where her workplace was located. After the riots, Shinde went back to work in the same factory.

Not everyone had such reassuring experiences. Zakir Shaikh was 14, and remembers being stranded in his school in Dharavi in eastern Mumbai with two girls when violence broke out. A teacher promised to drop the three children home, but then vanished. Shaikh remembers every detail of their journey home and the destruction he and his two classmates saw at every turn. Though nothing untoward happened to his immediate family, Shaikh’s uncle was burnt alive in Bandra East minutes after he had left their home.

Shaikh admits that he was angry with Hindus for a long time after the riots. “But then I grew up,” said the property dealer. “I realised my neighbours were Hindus too, and they continued to live peacefully with us.’’ Today, Shaikh enjoys the stories his children recount of tiffin boxes shared with their Hindu schoolmates.

Ties that bind

Two factors have played a role in bridging the divide for the post-riots generation in Mumbai slums that saw the worst violence. The first is the universal desire to send children to English-medium schools. In these schools, both Hindu and Muslim children study together, unlike in the previous generation, when children from slums generally studied either in Urdu or Marathi schools, depending on their religion.

The second is the marked desire among the city’s slum-dwelling youth to establish and participate in social-work groups. Though these organisations are mostly community-based, they often have joint programmes with groups from other communities.

Also playing a major role in healing the wounds has been the Mohalla Committee movement started by prominent Mumbai residents after the riots in an attempt to heal the rifts in some of the worst-affected areas. A mohalla committee typically consists of respected local residents of all communities who are not members of any political party. The members liaise with the police in times of tension to ensure that matters don’t come to a boil.

Dharavi example

Not every riot-affected area has been lucky enough to have a mohalla committee of the type started by Bhau Korde and Waqar Khan in Dharavi soon after the riots. Proof of its success presented itself to Korde just before the Ganpati festival this year (Khan died in 2009). A young man came seeking help to organise a saarvajanik Ganpati – a community Ganesh celebration – in his area. The only problem was his name: Hyder Shaikh.

“I told him to get the necessary permissions and call me only if he ran into problems,’’ said Korde.

He received two calls from Shaikh. The first was made from the police station; the second from the office of the electricity company. Officials at each state-run institution could not understand why someone named Hyder Shaikh wanted to instal a public Ganpati.

“This boy is just 21,’’ said Korde. “The third generation is getting influenced by our continuous work.’’

Despite these optimistic signs, Korde is worried that his team will lose ground to the relentless propaganda emanating from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh if they don’t keep working at the grassroots. ​Not far away from him, Mohammed Jaffar Khan, president of Dharavi’s Madina Masjid, echoed Korde’s fears. “Our youngsters are continuously watching inflammatory anti-Muslim videos on WhatsApp,” he observed. “Some of them don’t want to listen to our advice: ignore these, be patient.’’

Electoral compulsions

At the same time, electoral compulsions have also tempered the edge of Hindutva parties, especially in municipal wards with significant populations of Muslims. The Shiv Sena and even the Bharatiya Janata Partyhave been forced to reach out to Muslims. When Scroll.in met leaders of these parties for this article, they made sure that Muslim members of their organisations were also present. Dharavi BJP president Mani Balan was 16 when he saw two of his friends killed. He also faced a riot case but said that he “disappeared’’ for two years till “things got resolved’’.

Balan contended that the experience of the intense violence of ’92-’93 has protected Mumbai against rioting over the past 25 years. “Those who lived through those days will never allow them to be repeated,’’ Balan asserted, as his Muslim party members from the area nodded in agreement.

But this picture would be incomplete without the stories of people for whom the riots marked a turning point. Tabussum Shaikh was eight when her only 21-year-old brother was killed. It was January 11, 1993, the height of the riots. Shaikh had been sent to buy milk. When she returned empty-handed, her brother Javed ventured out to see if he could find any. His family never saw him again.

Shaikh’s widowed mother Tasleem Bano struggled to bring up her four daughters. She died this year. “Had my brother been there, he would have taken care of all of us, including my mother,’’ said Shaikh, who runs the small kirana shop her mother owned. “As it turned out, till the very end, she had to look after us,’’ Shaikh said.

Four Shiv Sainiks were eventually acquitted of the charge of having killed and burnt Javed Shaikh in the Sewri Christian Cemetery in eastern Mumbai, but Tabassum Shaikh does not remember her mother blaming Hindus for it. “Hindus turned up for her funeral,’’ she said. One of her sisters was able to study in an English school thanks to the generosity of their Gujarati Hindu neighbours. “She was always playing in their house, so they decided to send her to the same school as their daughter,’’ said Shaikh.

Her attitude stands in contrast to that of Vikhroli’s Abdul Wahid Shaikh, who sees Hindus essentially as aggressors, and the police as the enemy. He was 14 when he saw the police rampage across his Muslim-dominated area of Parksite in eastern Mumbai in December ’92. “We were on guard for rioters; instead, the police came and fired without provocation,’’ recalled Shaikh. “I automatically equated them with rioters.’’ His negative impression only got strengthened when he was framed for the 2006 train blasts, when seven blasts on the city’s suburban trains in an 11-minute span left 209 persons dead. Shaikh was acquitted in 2015. His nine years in jail without bail proved to him that not just the police, but even jail officials treat Muslims with hatred and contempt, he said.

The only one of the 13 train blasts accused to have been acquitted,Shaikh said he has no faith in the judiciary because he is convinced that his co-accused are also innocent. Having travelled across the country to promote his book, Begunah Qaidi, which describes his experience of being wrongly imprisoned, Shaikh has concluded that Mumbai is the most communal city in India. It has temples and saffron flags flying everywhere, Hindu deities on display in police stations and Hindu festivals being celebrated in official premises. All this conveys to Shaikh a single message: non-Hindus must submit to Hindu culture.

But not everyone scarred by the riots is as bitter. Syed Firdaus Ashraf was 21 when he fled his middle class Hindu-dominated Malad neighbourhood, never to return to it. “I view life as pre- and post-’93,’’ said the journalist. More than a decade later, he thought he would make another attempt to live in a Hindu area, and went house-hunting with his wife, only to find that Muslims were not welcome. Yet, his experiences have not left him pessimistic. “You can’t live life in victim mode,” explained Ashraf. “Keeping secularism alive in this Hindu country is an everyday challenge. You have to be up to it.’’

This is the first in a two-part series on the aftermath of the Bombay riots. The second part can be read here.