The steep price Mumbai paid in 1993

On December 6, 1992, a large crowd of Hindu activists demolished the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The sounds of that demolition reverberated across India. Science through Newton’s law posits that every action has an opposite and equal reaction. Religion, too, propagates the same be it Judgment Day or the Law of Karma. Religious tenets such as these caution humanity that thoughts, speech and actions initiate inevitable consequences. There is no escaping it because it is the law of life. Sure enough, the forces of karma triggered by the Babri Masjid demolition demanded a price. And, the city, which paid that steep price to the maximum was Mumbai in 1993.

Memories of the Mumbai riots in 1993 are haunting and being brought to the surface again these days with every reporting of a communal hatred triggered mob lynching. Over the last couple of days, I’ve been wondering if there is something to be gained by the recounting of those memories. Would it help douse the flames being fanned by extremists? Could peace and communal harmony be achieved by demonstrating the consequences of hate speech and actions?

I don’t know. But one has to try. With that thought in mind, I am sharing here my personal, nightmarish memories of the steep price Mumbai paid in 1993.

In January 1993, I was part of a Lintas (now Mullen Lowe) team attending a Bayer Annual Sales conference in Kathmandu.  On the eve of our departure back to Mumbai (then known as Bombay), we heard the news that riots had broken out in the city.

The impact of any event is made more remote by distance. We had no idea that the riots being reported were a far cry from the ones we had experienced in the past. Unperturbed, my colleagues and I took the flight to return home. It was only when we exited the airport that we got the first hint of the gravity of the situation. This was conveyed by the sight of my mother and brother-in-law waiting anxiously for me at the airport arrivals entrance. The city’s transport and indeed, life systems had virtually come to a standstill. But my mother had bravely driven to the airport to bring me back home. Not just that. Concerned over my colleague, she offered to ferry him home as well.

I will never forget the sight that greeted me when we drove out from the airport onto the Andheri-Kurla road. On both sides of the road, a line of army personnel stood with guns pointing. Till that date, I had only seen images of the devastation wrought by war and violence in movies. I was now experiencing it. It was strange because India wasn’t at war but Mumbai seemed to be in the midst of one.

We drove through that unnerving sight but made it home, only to be marooned for the next 8-10 days. The colony I stayed in had barricaded itself into as much of a fortress as it could. Name plates had been removed from all building lobbies and flats to avoid religious identification of residents. Groups of residents were taking it in turns to make nightly rounds of the colony to prevent miscreants from climbing the boundary walls and entering the premises. In spite of all these measures, a Muslim family living next door were so frightened that my mother invited them to stay with us for the duration. They accepted, sleeping on the floor of our living room for several nights.

I remember going up to my building terrace one day to get some fresh air. It was an action I regretted because I saw smoke from fires spiraling upwards here and there. My city, my Mumbai was on fire.

I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that Mumbai had been turned into a war zone, torn apart by religious hatred and strife. When the city finally limped back to normalcy, I ran into the Bayer Managing Director who had been in Kathmandu with us. When I asked him how he had managed to get home, he said, “My dear, I have never seen anything like it since World War II.”

[Tweet “My dear, I have never seen anything like it since World War II.”

I had only images from films to compare. But here was an elderly German who had lived through that terrible World War expressing the same comparison.

What I have offered up here are vignettes from my memories of that terrible time. Like me, I am sure every Mumbaikar has a personal narrative to offer. I invite them to participate in this recounting and share their memories in the comment section.

Who knows but maybe those collective memories will help in bringing some sanity back and calm the air of intolerance currently casting a cloud over India.

Here too, it seems I am not alone in thinking that memories of trouble caused by religious divide need airing once again. For, just this morning, I read an article by Aruna Roy titled Memories Buried Deep have come back to haunt me.

Well, memories of the steep price Mumbai paid in 1993 are haunting me these days for the same reasons articulated by Aruna Roy. Part of those memories belong to the 1995 devastatingly real (to Mumbai people) film on the Bombay riots by Mani Ratnam. In particular, I am haunted by the heartrending scene where one of the child protagonists asks the transgender woman who rescues him from the rioters:

“Why are Hindus and Muslims fighting each other?”

In response, the transgender woman says, “I don’t know. For years, they lived like brothers. Today, they have grown apart.”

The child asks, ” Whose fault is it?”

“It’s no one’s fault. These powerful people set the fire and fan the flames. Ordinary people like us get burned and die in that fire,” the kindhearted woman tells him.

Accepting a morsel of roti, the child persists in his questions, “What does being a Hindu mean? What does being a Muslim mean?”

Totally taken aback, the transgender woman says, “You have raised a big question. And you are asking someone who has no identity whatsoever.”

The child tells her, “I don’t know if I am a Hindu or Muslim.”

Urging him to eat, the kind soul who has sheltered him assures him, “Religion is a path to God. That path taken by Hindus and Muslims is different. But both roads lead to God.”

“Then, why do they fight.”

If you are interested in seeing the scene from the film Bombay, it is available here (2.05.19 – 2.06.46).



Author’s Note: This post is about the 1993 Bombay riots that took place in January of that year. The city attained normalcy after being rendered asunder by 8-10 days of terrible rioting. The peace was, however, short-lived because those riots led to more consequences in the never-ending chain of karma. On March 12, 1993, the city was devastated by a series of bomb blasts, scarring the city. Sadly, it was only the first of many wounds inflicted on the city’s soul.

From 1993 onwards, the city of Mumbai has shied away from communal tensions. But, that peace has been hard-won after paying a steep price. It must also be said it was, as always, the poorer sections who mostly paid that price. And, it is they who must now stand up to divisive voices and say, #NotInMyName.










5 thoughts on “The steep price Mumbai paid in 1993

  1. I wonder too. Why don’t we ever learn? Why do we have to hate? Why do we allow people with a hidden agenda like the politicians to turn us into monsters? When will enough be enough?

    1. Sunita, it is heartening to read your comment and learn that there are people out there who are also concerned. I worry that the current divisiveness bodes ill for India’s progress. I also worry that the constant media coverage is tarnishing India’s image beyond call. Is there a problem? Yes, there seems to be. Does the constant coverage help? I wonder often if it isn’t, in fact, further helping the goals of the extremists. The narrative needs to be more nuanced and balanced. Life on the streets of India still feels normal. It needs to stay that way by reassuring coverage and not one where fear is being instilled.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *