The Bharatiya Janata Party Destroyed The Idea of Bombay in 1992, And All I Could Do Was Watch
I was a college student in December 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demolished. My life until that point had been a fairly sheltered one, growing up as I had through the 70s and 80s, untouched by the malice of militant political parties like the Shiv Sena that had, by then, already begun the slow process of destroying a once beautiful city.
When the Masjid fell, it took with it an innocence that had long clung to Bombay; at least it seemed that way to a 16-year-old. A number of things changed dramatically that month, in the aftermath of that edifice falling on national television. For one, almost overnight, one’s surname and religion suddenly seemed to matter more than anything else. It was as if my friends and neighbours were compelled to reassert their identity, and question their beliefs, in ways that are now worryingly part of our daily existence. What was once a private activity, the decision to worship a God or Goddess in a sanctuary away from prying eyes, was violently yanked into the open.
The school I went to, a public institution in the then TV soap actor-free suburb of Malad, enabled me to grow up with people of all faiths. The friends I made — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and possibly the only Parsi in that suburb at the time — continue to be close despite the decades that now lie between us. I was forced to confront their identities, along with my own, for the first time that December.
Another thing that acquired an inordinate amount of importance was a piece of skin tissue that had never meant anything to me until then.
I was circumcised in the late 70s, apparently. I don’t remember the act, luckily, but knew it had something to do with an over-zealous doctor who insisted it was for the best. I have no opinion on whether it has been good for me or not. It certainly made an impact in the boys’ toilets where, as 5 or 6-year-olds, we would gladly display our genitalia to classmates and engage in exciting games involving who could pee the furthest. It wasn’t entirely our fault; all we had by way of entertainment was Doordarshan after 6.30 pm.
In 1992, decades after I had considered circumcision with anything other than mild curiosity, I was told to stay away from some parts of Malad after dusk to avoid being attacked. Circumcised men were terrorists, apparently. There were rumours of boys and men being accosted by groups of people and forced to pull down their trousers. Those who were circumcised were, allegedly, stabbed. In that pre-Internet and smartphone era, there was no way of figuring out the truth and disseminating it via WhatsApp.
What I do know is that Malvani, a locality that lies off Marve Road, was one of the worst affected. For a teenager, the idea of murder was obviously hard to come to terms with. I saw bodies with some regularity during those bloody weeks, covered in white linen, lying unattended while buses taking me to the nearest railway station moved unhurriedly past. I should not have been witness to victims of those crimes — for crimes they undoubtedly were — but was, because a political party had chosen to tear a country apart in its bid to capture an election.
Another thing that shook me was the need for night-long vigils across my neighbourhood, by well-meaning neighbours intent on protecting residents of minority communities. I spent hours on the terrace of one such building, home to one of my closest friends. I remember those nervous walks, lit only by the moon, as residents kept an eye out for any hint of a mob coming down the street. We should have been in college, not thrust into the roles of vigilantes trying to prevent acts of murder. Those vigils have stayed with me, and come to mind often these days when I see crowded of unarmed men and women trying to protest peacefully while under attack from a police force drunk with power.
I put aside all thoughts of the Masjid and its aftermath with the arrival of 1994. Millions of Bombayites did, because living in the past is a luxury no Indian city can afford. So, like the rest, I tucked away those fears and anxieties, hiding them away in a corner of my mind while I got on with the business of living.
They surfaced when the BJP came to power in 2014. Suddenly, social media platforms began to take on sinister hues with the birth of terms like ‘libtard,’ ‘sickular’ and ‘presstitute.’ The more popular platforms had existed for a while, but were suddenly awash in an enormous amount of vitriol that tied in with the Narendra Modi campaign. It was history we were condemned to repeat, because we had conveniently chosen to forget.
It is naive to assume that other political parties have never used the religious card to polarise voters, of course. It is also naive to assume that, without genuine electoral reform, the notion of nurturing a vote bank by using any means necessary will ever go away.
Today’s Bombay, like the rest of India, is a suspicious place. Divisions, like rot, run deep. It is a once charming city that has become a place of anger rather than understanding. A city where your surname now matters more than ever before, and where the religion you practice defines where you can and cannot own a home. We no longer have localities with character. All we have are townships and ghettos. It reminds me of a rather pertinent question once posed by the journalist Aroon Tikekar. “How,” he asked, “have we gone from a city where Mohammad Rafi sang songs in praise of Hindu Gods to a place where Muslims are denied houses?”
The political party that currently rules at the Centre has answers to that powerful question. Bombay may forgive them all at some point, but some of us will never forget.