Mumbai: It was a rather cool evening in the second week of December 1992 when I was permitted to leave early – to rush from south Mumbai’s Nariman Point to the northwest suburb of Borivli, at the other end of the city.
At 7 p.m., as I warily entered the Churchgate station, I stopped in my tracks: it was eerily empty! On normal weekdays, every inch was occupied with commuters in the day, especially the morning-evening peak hours.
That night I travelled virtually alone in the train, barring the motorman and guard, and maybe a suspicious commuter getting in briefly at one of the 20 railway stations en route.
That was what Mumbai had degenerated into after the Dec. 6, 1992, razing of the Babri mosque, in faraway Ayodhya. It was among certain cities in the country which bore the brunt in the aftermath of the demolition.
It had erupted into a frenzy of riots, senseless killings, mobs brazenly moving around armed with sticks, rods, swords, chains, bottles, bulbs and tubelights to maim or kill. The riots continued thus in two phases Dec 7-27, 1992, followed by a brief lull, and then again Jan 7-25, 1993 – making them the worst sectarian riots in the post-Independence era.
Such was the fear even among mediapersons, who worked late hours, that many offices temporarily changed the timings for their staff members, especially those in the sensitive category, and even organised overnight boarding-lodging in local hotels.
At times, mediapersons grouped together for a particular train – and discovered that only 10-12 people occupied an entire suburban local into which 5,000 commuters were normally packed!
Surprisingly, during the day – barring some pockets – Mumbai remained calm and peaceful, with people going about their normal routine. Like the proverbial vampires, the killer beasts started lurking around the city’s streets and alleys after dark.
Besides the direct victims, also hit was Mumbai’s legendary, rocking nightlife, its erstwhile dance bars which have featured in practically all the top international media, the non-stop night-long parties, lavish weddings, movies and theatres, shopping or simply night outs at the beaches, gardens and other public places.
Even the popular all-night joints like Bade Miyan in Colaba and Haji Ali Juice Centre where you could be chewing into a ‘Baida-Roti’ or an exotic milkshake with stars like Saif Ali Khan, Amrita Singh, Jackie Shroff, ministers, policemen and other top officials, leading businesspersons and others jostling for elbow space at the open counters, were deserted.
Though some of these have revived with extra precautions, there is always a warning for the youngsters: “Take care, come home early,” – unheard of prior to the riots.
According to official estimates, the two-phased riots claimed nearly 900 lives, including policemen. Many hundreds are reported missing and presumed dead for years. Public and private properties worth billions of rupees was destroyed and the spirit of Mumbai was shaken to its roots.
This writer and many others travelled in armed police vehicles – some luckier ones in army vehicles – which fanned out to control the rioters who seemed to appear from nowhere, create mayhem and disappear.
Finally, the army found a way to control the riots – without firing a single bullet or even raising a baton in warning. It deployed two of its ferocious dogs, each the size of a pony, before huge crowds of 3,000-5,000. The trained dogs were simply let loose on the mobs, which practically turned invisible in seconds!
Finding that the barking dogs were more effective than the biting variety without a single casualty, they were regularly deployed in various sensitive areas. After the riots, the two dogs were accorded due recognition – a front page lead photograph in a prominent city daily!
With revenge taken by both sides, the two-phased mass riots finally ended – though some small pockets continued to brun for a few more weeks.
Mumbaikars heaved a sigh of relief – but not for long as March 12, 1993 witnessed what was India’s first retaliatory serial bomb explosions hitting Mumbai from the southern parts right into the suburbs at quick intervals. It was also the country’s first home-bred, non-terror attack, perpetrated by the underground and with a precision that remained unmatched for years afterwards.
After making all the right noises, the politicians at the centre and the state got down to brasstacks – politicking – with sackings, replacements or removals of officials and politicians, change of governments, et al.
One of the most hailed inquiry reports, of the Justice B. N. Srikrishna Commission which probed the riots and the bomb blasts also came out later, but most recommendations remained unimplemented.
A little-known 40-year-old lawyer from Jalgaon, Ujjwal Nikam, was appointed to lead the blasts trial which he achieved with flying colours and attained international celebrity status.
After handling some of the most high-profile cases in the country, Nikam crowned it with the with the 26/11 Mumbai attacks case in which Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Amir Kasab was hanged Nov 21, 2012.
But, 20 years later, the original soul of Bombay is missing somewhere.
By: Quaid Najmi