I was on Sunday duty on December 6, 1992, along with a lone subeditor and a couple of operators, none of who had expected the day to end in deathly silence in the newsroom. Our television screen had flashed images of the Babri Masjid being demolished in Ayodhya but before we had switched it on, one of the operators had rushed in with a ticker tape with just three words, “BabrI Masjid demolished.” Even as we were digesting the import of that flash, came another, “Shiv Sainiks demolished Babri Masjid, says Sunder Singh Bhandari.” (Bhandari was a prominent BJP leader at the time.) I knew I had to get on the phone to Bal Thackeray.
But when he came on the line, he seemed all at sea. I knew it was a bit early for his beer hour so I wondered at his disorientation. He asked me to call him back in 20 minutes. I learnt later that he had needed to call Saamna, his newspaper, to ascertain that I was not pulling a fast one on him. Now Thackeray was never beyond taking undue credit for things he may not have done (or even denying something he had done) if it suited and enhanced (or, in the latter case, damaged) his politics. So he got back on the phone to me, “If my Shiv Sainiks have demolished the mosque, then I am very proud of them!” In the excitement of the moment and with my relative inexperience at the time, I failed to spot the conditionality of his response - “if”, he had said.
Thackeray knew very well Shiv Sainiks hadn’t destroyed the mosque because they hadn’t even been present in Ayodhya on the day — senior leaders like Manohar Joshi and Pramod Navalkar had had a clash of egos with BJP leaders the day before over inferior accommodation to them (they had been asked to camp out in tents) and Thackeray had ordered them back to Bombay, furious at the insult. They were on a train back home on the day, a fact confirmed to me by then Bajrang Dal Mumbai president Shankar Gaikar, who was furious that all the credit for the demolition of the mosque and the riots that followed were being given to Thackeray. “I was on the dome that day and I know not a single Shiv Sainik was there,” he told me the day the Srikrishna Commission findings were placed before the Maharashtra assembly in August 1998.
By then Thackeray too had retracted out of fear that he would be summoned by the courts. “The BJP did not have the guts to accept its complicity. But I am afraid of no one. So, I accepted the blame,” he later said publicly. But the blame was entirely his for escalating the consequences of that demolition. For two days, the reaction was only in the nature of protests - young Muslim boys descended onto the streets, albeit with swords and acid bombs, but they remained confined to their ghettos. But soon Thackeray was inciting Shiv Sainiks to retaliate against the stray incidents. The fact that Thackeray was indeed inciting the riots was documented by Justice Srikrishna in his report through the testimony of a journalist who had then visited Matoshree (Thackeray’s residence) along with the Mayor but Thackeray had failed to recognise him as a reporter.
This journalist had to go underground before his testimony to the commission wherein he avowed that Thackeray was sitting before three telephones in his de that were incessantly ringing - every time a phone rang, Thackeray picked it up to bark instructions to one of his followers about where to attack and how to attack. Meanwhile, bodies were piling up at the JJ Hospital morgue, rumours were making the rounds that Muslim milkmen had poisoned supplies to Hindu homes and people were being pulled out of buses and taxis to be hacked to death or burnt to cinders. An eerie silence descended over the whole of Mumbai and within days its economy came to a grinding halt as all the skilled workers employed in various industries, like diamond cutting and garment factories, returned en masse to their villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But all that the Shiv Sena and BJP could think of was to hold Friday maha-aartis, a concept never known to Hindus, to counter the namaaz at the mosques. Soon even the namaazis disappeared from the street, shops began to down their shutters before sunset, people vanished off the once busy streets before dark - streets that used to hum with activity through the night and day. Although Mumbai came back to life gradually, there was a qualitative change in its ethos after the two sets of riots in December 1992 and January 1993. Then the serial blasts of March 1993 happened in retaliation.
Lives changed forever, not the least that it frightened Thackeray no end as one of the targetted places was Shiv Sena Bhavan which they failed to damage. The city was never the same again. Mumbai did get back on its feet but, 25 years later, the memories are still fresh in the minds of those who lived the horror. The tiger is dead, the Shiv Sena is a shell of its former self but the pain of the victims, both Hindus and Muslims, lingers on.