Thackeray:  How a journalist’s accidental sting nailed the most feared man of his times in Mumbai

A biopic on Bal Thackeray, expected to be a whitewashed account of his life, releases in theatres today. This extract from Sujata Anandan’s acclaimed book, ‘Samrat’ recalls the sting that nailed him

Sujata Anandan

In the days before the advent of technology and television channels in the country, it was among the most original of stings ever mounted on any politician – and with deadly effect.

Had it not been for Yuvraj Mohite, then a young reporter with ‘Mahanagar’, a Marathi evening newspaper which had taken on Bal Thackeray in no uncertain terms, the truth about Thackeray’s involvement and complicity in the riots might never have come to light.

Mohite had wandered into the office of the then mayor of Bombay, Chandrakant Handore, after working hours on the evening of 8 January 1993 when sporadic incidents of violence were already being reported from some parts of the metropolis.

The first spell of riots in December 1992 had been bad enough and Handore was worried about the situation getting out of hand. He was a member of the Republican Party of India, which had been an ally of the Congress at the corporation elections and so was not bound by the usual chain of command in the ruling party.

Handore’s staff had left for the day, so he was very glad to see Mohite. He needed help to draft an appeal – to be signed by leaders from both the Hindu and Muslim communities – asking people to maintain peace and harmony and avoid getting into conflicts with each other. He asked Mohite to write out the appeal. Mohite sat down to do just that, in his own handwriting.

Once done, both set off for the homes of these leaders. It is a sad commentary on the state of the Muslim community in those days that they had no leader. So Handore could find none better than Haji Mastan to sign the appeal. Mastan was a notorious smuggler of his times who had once tried to enter Bollywood and later, influenced by Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan, had set up his own political party – the Dalit-Muslim Suraksha Sangh – with little success in either venture.

He signed the appeal readily enough and Handore now moved towards the home of the leader who would have been able to stop the riots from happening by just lifting a telephone but who, on the contrary, was using three instruments to do just the opposite.

What awaited Handore and Mohite at Matoshree was very different from what they had hoped for, and it shocked them to the core. It was also the story of the century as far as a journalist was concerned and Mohite soon realized he might be sitting on a time bomb as Handore’s conversation with Thackeray got under way.

The most mystifying thing about the events that followed was the fact that Thackeray did not recognise Mohite as a reporter even when he began to take notes. According to Mohite, Thackeray and his son did object to his writing, but they probably believed he was Handore’s aide trying to minute the meeting. And Thackeray might have been so sure about escaping the consequences of what he was doing that Mohite’s presence did not inhibit him.

In the days before mobile technology, Thackeray was speaking on several telephones almost at the same time. The phones would not stop ringing and every time one rang, he would pick up the receiver and direct various Shiv Sena shakha pramukhs on how to mobilise their forces in various parts of the city to mount attacks on the Muslim community.

‘We must teach these landyas (his derogatory word for minorities) a lesson. They are getting too arrogant by far! They must not be allowed to get away.’

When Thackeray could finally take a breath, he asked Handore what business he had at Matoshree. Handore extended the appeal to Thackeray.

The Sena leader was outraged that the mayor should have gone to Haji Mastan before coming to him and refused to sign the statement, point-blank. A chastised and numbed Handore silently exited Matoshree an hour later with Mohite at his heels.

As he dropped the reporter off at his office in Mahim, he told Mohite: ‘You have heard nothing and seen nothing. You will not write about what has just happened.’

Mohite, however, did write out his story and waited for his editor’s approval. But, with the wisdom of his years and greater experience, his editor thought the report would be too explosive to publish the next day as it might well set the entire city on fire and lead to an immeasurable tragedy.

Instead, he decided to call the chief minister and warn him about what Thackeray was planning for Bombay. Reporters of the time will testify that Naik was never to be found after a certain hour when he was busier with more leisurely pursuits, so the duo contacted the then home minister Babanrao Pachpute and asked him to take preventive action against Thackeray.

Pachpute probably had no authority to do so. Nothing was done. By 11 January, Bombay was well and truly on fire. One of the worst riots of independent India had broken out and among those who died were a large number of Muslims.

Mohite’s inside story of the events leading up to the riots was eventually published by ‘Mahanagar’ in April 1993, three months after the event, when both embers and tempers had died down. From then on, he was a marked man.

‘I was almost the last person to depose before the Commission. Justice Srikrishna kept it so to make it as easy for me as possible because I was receiving threats throughout the life of the Commission. I did not even know if I would be able to depose after my affidavit had been submitted.’

Without Mohite’s testimony before the Commission, it might all have gone down to just the words of a few victims against those of the local Shiv Sainiks, and both Thackeray and the Sena leaders knew that well.

The Shiv Sena by then had already got to Handore, who had ceased to be the mayor. He denied that he had ever gone to Thackeray’s residence on the night of 8 January 1993 with an appeal to the Sena chief asking for peace.

But Justice Srikrishna was a determined man. He had been entrusted with the task of doing justice to the victims of the riots and he decided to get to the bottom of the issue. The police were asked for records of VVIP movements on that day and it was established that Handore’s official car had indeed docked in at Matoshree a few minutes after nine that evening. When Handore admitted under oath that he had called on Thackeray, he threw another spanner in the work of the Commission: Mohite had not been taken by him to Matoshree, he said, and so could not have been privy to the meeting.

‘But Thackeray forgot that he was under a tight security cover and no one is either let in or out of his house without a meticulous noting of the name and identity of the visitor,’ says Mohite. Justice Srikrishna called for the records again and when Mohite’s name too was found entered alongside Handore’s as among the visitors at Matoshree at the same time that evening, the cat was finally out of the bag.

Thackeray’s lawyers also cast aspersions on Justice Srikrishna, stating that he had failed to have Mohite’s evidence corroborated by others present at Matoshree during the course of that evening. Moreover, they alleged, he had not even questioned the minister Thackeray was said to have called, even though that testimony could have bolstered the case against Thackeray. The Sena tiger should now be given the benefit of doubt, they argued.

But Justice Srikrishna left no one in doubt about who he thought had engineered the riot and who had reaped the harvest. In one of the most memorable statements of any Commission in India, Justice Srikrishna gave a chilling account of how BJP leader L.K. Advani had set off on a rath-yatra from Somnath in Gujarat en route to Ayodhya as part of the temple movement, causing passions to be inflamed all along his route, which had included Maharashtra and its capital. The atmosphere was already tense and as the events leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid unfolded, Bombay was like a tinder box waiting for one spark that would set it aflame.

‘And into this boiling cauldron, like a veteran general leading his troops, rode in Bal Thackeray…’

Even today saffron forces accuse Justice Srikrishna of basing that premise on Mohite’s testimony alone and it is true that without the courage of the journalist, Thackeray may never have been indicted.

(Reprinted with permission from the author. Copyright: Sujata Anandan & Harper Collins India)

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