The Day India Burned
…Thirteen years ago !
December 7th 1992, was a Monday. Started out bright and sunny as all December days do in Bombay. Just the previous evening, our family was at a wedding and we heard some wild story about a temple being knocked down in Ayodhya. Funnily the story was only carried by one cable news channel, the BBC, and hence was taken with a certain amount of skepticism.
December 7th was also the first day of Semester II at the newly opened Rizvi College of Architecture, my alma mater. We were a bunch of 40 students and a couple of professors and of course our Principal Prof. Akhtar Chauhan who gathered that day in college and were getting ready for another action packed semester, all set to conquer the world and produce better architects and hence better architecture..
At around 10 am, a parent called college and said that there was some incident at Turner Road Junction. Seems some guys were stopping traffic and burning cars and buses. As soon as that call ended was another call and then another and then another. All with the same or more terrible stories, at different locations all over Bombay, and around the country. Not having a TV in college, didn’t do us any good. Soon orders came from the management of the college to close the college and send everyone home. By that time, around noon, we knew that the situation outside was bad. Here we were in a sleepy enclave of Bandra….Shirley Rajan village, oblivious to what was happening to the world outside….as it burned !! Literally and figuritively.
Our principal asked us all to make sure we get home safely, and more importantly make sure that each and every girl in our batch was escorted home. In hindsight, it was his years of wisdom, that made him take that decision. So we divided up into groups and made sure that all the girls were taken care of and would be driped off home. A very dear friend Jeena, stayed in Kalina, and I would drop her off on my bike before I headed home in the other direction to Tardeo. As soon as we got to S V Road, we realized that something was seriously and terribly wrong. There was military at Khar Junction and then again at the Western Express Highway where we crossed over to Santacruz W.
Throngs of people were roaming the streets, and were ready to make trouble. The situation was tensed, and one had to be there to understand the reality. Luckily seeing a girl on the bike somehow allowed us safe passage, so also the architectural drafting equipment with us which made it easy to convince people around that we were students.We somehow got to Jeena’s place, and I decided to leave my bike there and take the train home. That in itself proved to be a very difficult task. The train frequency was sporadic and when one finally came, it went only upto Parel, and then stopped because people pelted stones at it. So it was a jump on the tracks and a hike to Bombay Central and home. It was only when I reached home that more news was available, over the TV and radio, and the enormity of the situation dawned.
There are world changing events where each one of us remembers exactly where we were in life at that point. That was the first one for me. People of my generation remember the Ayodhya riots, or the killing of Rajiv Gandhi or other world events like the 9/11 attacks. Older generations would remember the shooting of Indira Gandhi. My parents remember the breaking news of Jawahar Lal Nehru’s death, and I remember my grandfather vividly describing the day Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead.
When Indira Gandhi died, I was too young to comprehend the situation. When Rajiv Gandhi was shot dead, I remember how Bombay went quiet all of a sudden. But this, the riots in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid, was the first event that affected me as an adult. In a way it was a sudden coming of age.
The riots changed the face of India in many ways big and small. Bombay held together during December 6th and the subsequent week, but the carnage that happend a month later on Jan 10, destroyed a part of Bombay, that had been built on generations of trust and faith.
The riots split India communally and the wounds are still raw today. Not since Partition had citizens been involved in such a frenzy. People went berserk and targeted everythign that was connected with the “other” faith. If you were Hindu, everything Muslim was a target that had to be bashed, or burnt. If you were Muslim and a minority in number, every moving Hindu was one more that had to be removed. And of course a lot of people just joined in the melee and made merry with stolen goods from looted shops.
For those few days, India truly burned. That there wasn’t as much a world outcry as one would imagine. These were days before the internet and cable news hit India. Cable news had just started and news channels were few and far in between. The internet did not make its presence in India till about three years later, and blogging was not even on the horizon then.
The happenings of those days scarred the country, in many cases, permanently. Muslims and Hindus who had for generations lived side by side, would never live together. The character of neighborhoods changed forever. People would not trust other people for a long time. And the care-free, “bring on the world” attitude of Bombay was seriously damaged.
For me, it was my first adult experience of a life changing public event.