The Beginning of the End of Secular India?


When Advani’s Rath Yatra reached Bombay, he held public meetings alongside Bal Thackeray vitiating the atmosphere. The Shiv Sena tried its best to capitalise on the communal polarisation by targeting Muslims through its mouthpiece Saamna and the speeches of its leaders. According to several studies published after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Thackeray’s party was, perhaps, more interested in keeping the anti-Muslim sentiment at its zenith for the longest possible period than in the construction of the Ram temple. Though the Sena put up billboards in different parts of the city to push for the construction of a Ram temple, the party’s focus was clearly more on polarising the society in Maharashtra than bringing down the mosque at Ayodhya. It began by instigating localised riots targeting Muslims in different parts of the city, forcing the many Muslim shopkeepers to leave their land.

On 5 December 1992, a day before the Babri Masjid was torn down by Hindu militants, an editorial in Saamna minced no words in attacking Muslims: “ Even after giving Muslims their half of the nation… they are still acting with audacity… How much are we to indulge Muslims?” It went on to say that there was no chance for a favourable decision from Supreme Court in the Babri Masjid case. To get around that, it appealed to the Hindus to “raise the entire organised power of the nation behind Ram Janmabhoomi movement”.

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Shiv Sena intensified its campaign against the Muslims in and around Maximum City. In another article published in Saamna soon after the demolition, the Shiv Sena falsely claimed that “temples in different part of Mumbai have become arsenals. The Muslim slums in Mumbai and Maharashtra, which have come up as mini-Pakistans, are wailing for Babri Masjid, blocking roads and attacking Hindu temples”. “Why should we tolerate this?” the writer asked and went on to denounce Muslims as people who “have no religion, God or nation and no culture either”.

So, clearly, the Shiv Sena’s intent was to cash in on the mood generated by the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign to create the conditions for the anti-Muslim massacre that followed soon after, and through that, to make a killing in the forthcoming Assembly election. The incendiary rhetoric continued unabated with no effort by the then Congress government in Maharashtra to stop it. Yet, another editorial in Saamna argued that the State “pandered to Muslims and gave second class treatment to Hindus. There was an explosion against this in Ayodhya. The demolition of Babri Masjid is the misfortune of the Congress and the good fortune of the Hindus” (quoted in Frontline, August 18-31, 2001).

After the Babri Masjid was brought down, Muslims in several parts of Bombay came out and expressed their anger. Social activist and writer Asghar Ali Engineer, who studied the causes that led to the riots, blames the police for the “selective use of force”. He says that the police fired indiscriminately in Muslim-inhabited areas such as Govandi, one of the largest slums with a considerable Muslim population. The Congress’ lackadaisical attitude towards the violence emboldened the Shiv Sainiks to kill, burn, maim and loot. Muslims tried to retaliate in the few neighbourhoods where they were in a majority and this was used later to pass off the anti-Muslim massacre as a riot.

For clues on how indoctrination by the Shiv Sena leadership was instrumental in making the cadre commit heinous crimes against Muslims, a good source book is Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta’s celebrated work of nonfiction published in 2004. Mehta quotes many Sena activists who explain how the mobs ruled the streets of Bombay during those dark days of 1992-93. “During the riots, the printing presses were running overtime. They were printing visiting cards, two sets for each person, one with a Muslim name and one with a Hindu name. When you are out in the city, if you got stopped your life depended on whether you answered to Ram or Rahim. Schizophrenia became a survival tactic.”

Those who started the communal campaign in the 1980s in the name of Ram reaped a bumper electoral harvest in the ’90s itself. The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance’s ascent to power ensured that the perpetrators of the carnage that ripped the secular fabric of cosmopolitan Bombay would never be brought to book after the city became Mumbai. The party that undertook the Rath Yatra with which India’s descent to communal fascism began took power at the Centre in 1998. But the scars left by the violence of their pursuit of power still remains on our body politic. And the heart of Bombay, which once stood for a pluralistic, liberal India, was broken never to be healed again. At least, it has not healed so far and that is why Yakub Memon’s hanging became another occasion for those who swear by secularism to draw attention to the rotting wounds that lie beneath the scars.


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