“Do not harass my Shiv Sainiks who were the ones to save Mumbai during the 1992-93 riots,”
It’s been 30 years now since the Mumbai riots of December 1992-January 1993 took place, but the claim that the Shiv Sena saved Mumbai’s Hindus during the riots is still being made.
In 1997, when the riots were still fresh in memory, Bal Thackeray had said: “If we had not been around in 1992-1993, Hindus would have all been massacred.” Ironically, even as the Sena chief was making this boast to the city’s fat cats at the Indian Merchants Chamber, it was being disproved just a short distance away. In the Bombay High Court, sitting judge B N Srikrishna, head of the one-man commission for inquiry into the riots, was nearing the end of his investigation.
By then, it was obvious to those attending the hearings that the Shiv Sena had played a major role in the riots, but that role was not the defence of Hindus.
What the Srikrishna Commission Report Revealed
Within a year, the Srikrishna Commission’s report was out, with its sensational finding that Bal Thackeray had organised the relentless violence against Muslims that marked the second phase of the riots, ie, post-7 January 1993. It was sensational because when the judge submitted his report, the Sena supremo was in power as the self-styled remote control of the then-Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra.
Naturally, the state government rejected the report’s findings. That, however, didn’t invalidate them, since the Commission had substantiated every finding, drawing upon the five years spent studying documents submitted by the police and the government and cross-examining 502 witnesses.
The report quoted a placard displayed at a Sena march, held just before the second phase of the riots, as being illustrative of the Sena’s role: “Shiv Sena’s terror is the true guarantee of the citizens’ safety”.
But was this terror unleashed against Muslims who were attacking Hindus? On the contrary, areas that recorded the most riot offences by Shiv Sainiks were their own Hindu-dominated strongholds, in which hardly any incidents of violence by Muslims took place.
Additionally, in both phases of the riots, the Commission found that the violence was started by Hindus. Indeed, the very first violent incident of the riots took place on 6 December 1992, when a stone was thrown at a mosque from a victory rally taken out by the Sena to celebrate the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The very first killing took place that night, and the victim was a Muslim.
So, where and when in the 1992-1993 riots did the Sena save Hindus? It couldn’t save the Hindus who were stabbed while crossing the bylanes of the old Muslim quarters of Mumbai, nor could it rescue the Hindus burnt alive in a chawl in the suburb of Jogeshwari.
What the Sena did do though, was – to quote the Commission Report – “arouse communal passions of Hindus to fever pitch by inciting writings … particularly in Saamna (the Sena mouthpiece), which gave exaggerated accounts” (of these incidents), and, “after January 8, 1993, [take] the lead in organising attacks on Muslims under the guidance of leaders from the level of shakha pramukh [branch chief] to Shiv Sena Pramukh Bal Thackeray, who, like a veteran general, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate…”
'Natural and Justified' Retaliation: Former MLA
Deposing before the Commission, then-Sena MLA Madhukar Sarpotdar spelt out this theory of retaliation, saying that it was “natural and justified” to attack innocent people of one community for the violence committed by their community members far away. Then-Sena Chief Minister, Manohar Joshi, described this as “constructive retaliation”. As many as 279 Muslims were killed by mobs in January 1993 as part of this “natural and justified retaliation”. None of them had anything to do with the killings of Hindus that had taken place earlier.
Did these killings indirectly save Hindus by acting as a deterrent to further attacks on them? That would imply that the police were no match for the marauding Muslims, hence the need for the Sena to step in. But official statistics of deaths in police firing reveal that the police had the Muslims where they wanted them – in both phases of the riots, more Muslims were killed and injured by police firings than Hindus. Indeed, January 1993 was marked by three major incidents of what the Commission described as “unprovoked” police firing on Muslims.
Finally, the Sena could do nothing to prevent the retaliation against Hindus, which came barely two months after the riots. On 12 March 1993, as many as 257 innocent Hindus died in the bomb blasts organised by Dawood Ibrahim to avenge the targeting of Muslims during the riots.
Yet, “the Sena saved Hindus” claim continues to prevail as one of the many myths of the 1992-1993 riots. That it does so despite having been proven false by a widely-publicised judicial commission report is testimony to the power of propaganda that suits the majority community’s view.
Sena leaders, therefore, use it whenever it suits them. After the Sena lost seats in non-Marathi-speaking wards in Mumbai’s 2017 municipal elections, Uddhav Thackeray even wondered whether he would direct his Sainiks to save the lives of these [ungrateful] non-Marathi Hindus if the need arose again.
Why Maharashtra Muslims Support Thackeray
When the Chief Minister of a state boasts that his party members saved one community from another, what would the latter feel about their status in that state? This question would have been irrelevant before 2019. Then, the Shiv Sena was ruling Maharashtra as a junior partner of its oldest ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and both are bound by the ideology of Hindutva. Such statements would have been expected from Sena leaders.
Today, the Sena has not just broken its alliance with the BJP, but it has also kept the latter out of power in Maharashtra for more than two years despite the BJP employing its considerable clout against it. The Sena now is among the BJP’s fiercest opponents and most bitter rivals. Just for this, Maharashtra’s Muslims would have supported Uddhav Thackeray. His alliance with the NCP and the Congress is an additional reason for their support.
In fact, a section of Muslims now supports Bal Thackeray’s son even more than they support his “secular” partners, not only because of the way the latter shortchanged them in their 15-year reign in Maharashtra, but also because they see in him a Sena chief very different from his father, who founded the party.
But Do They Really Have a Choice?
Will this latest statement by him change their perception? Not substantially. Even as Chief Minister, Thackeray has not hesitated to express his support for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, even making a trip there after the Supreme Court judgment. His frequent assertion that the Sena is the original Hindutva party has been ascribed partly to Thackeray’s compulsion to retain his original base. However, each time, he has made it a point to differentiate his Hindutva from the BJP’s, which, he says, uses religion to divide people and grab power.
But isn’t Thackeray, too, dividing people by boasting that his party saved Hindus against Muslims? Interestingly, he made this claim not in any riot-related discussion, but while pleading to the BJP not to target his party men, implying that because they saved Hindus, they should not be harassed. That’s not something that can be explained away. Yet, the harsh reality is that all those who want to keep the BJP out of Maharashtra have no choice but to continue supporting Uddhav Thackeray.
(Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)