`Do not be hit by a soda water bottle again!’



I may or may not agree with the Allahabad High Court’s verdict on Ayodhya but one thing I am very thankful for: the will power of governments both at the Centre and in the States this time round who made it clear that the verdict must be accepted with grace and that no violence or triumphalism by any side will be tolerated even for a minute.

So a tense nation, on the edge for days before the judgment, could relax, even though they all stayed off the roads after lunch hour on Thursday and ventured outdoors only cautiously on Friday.

I recall the day of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, December 6, 1992. It was Sunday and I was on duty at the wire service where I worked at the time. Amid reports trickling in that it was Shiv Sainiks who had brought down the mosque, I called Bal Thackeray at his home for a reaction.

As I have mentioned elsewhere before, Thackeray was flummoxed. As far as he knew, Sena leaders were not present in Ayodhya on the day of the demolition – they had fought with BJP leaders over the basic accommodation provided to them (in tents) and had left Ayodhya in a huff the previous day. But the agencies were indeed reporting that Shiv Sainiks had brought down the mosque (as it turned out it was BJP leaders, afraid to acknowledge their role in the demolition, who had passed the buck on to Thackeray). So Thackeray pout out a typically chest-thumping but still cautious statement: ‘`If my sainiks have demolished the mosque, I can only be proud of them.’’

That statement was retracted two years later as he began to get into trouble with the Lieberhan Commission but Maharashtra was out on a limb that night. Thackeray was full of his typical bravado, issuing instructions from the safety of his home, Matoshree, to teach `Muslims’ a lesson (as though the demolition was not enough of a truama!). And the state was a headless chicken: the winter session of the State Assembly was underway in Nagpur and Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Sudhakarrao Naik just would not return.

When he finally did, neither the Commissioner of Police nor the Chief Secretary could get a word with him. From accounts we pieced together after his personal staff dropped broad hints to the media, we gathered he was punch drunk after some revelry one evening even as Bombay burned fiercely and gallons of black coffee were pumped into him all night to get him fit and started the next morning.

Almost a similar story repeated during the second phase of riots in January 1993, which were even more virulent than the ones in the immediate aftermath of the demolition – a fact noted by the Srikrishna Commission which probed the riots. In fact, Justice Srikrishna even went as far as to indict Naik as a feeble character who, like Nero, fiddled (my information is he smoked his pipe: in ample display at his later media conferences, too) throughout the time that Rome (in this case Bombay) burnt.

It came closer home, as I was hit by a flying soda water bottle when I ventured out to report from the burning areas. Fortunately, the injury was minor (though I still have a scar). Overnight, neighbours of my aunt (who I was living with at the time) attached a collapsible gate to the entrance of their building and I recall my bitter fights with them for a key to the gate so that I could let myself in after my last report was filed: they just couldn’t understand why someone would want to be part of all that fighting on the streets.

My aunt had two bedrooms, one of which faced the sleazier side of town where the riots were taking place (we had to keep the windows closed against the smoke from the fire bombs) and another looked upon the better part of town – so I was caught on the edges of both. I remember leaving a window open as I went to bed only to be woken up by a soldier shouting (the army had at last been callad out), “Oye, khidki bundh karo, oye!’’ As I woke and poked my head out of the window I was startled to be staring straight at the barrel of his gun (that window abutted the bridge that connected the riot-torn area to the rest of town) but then he lowered his gun and said more politely, “Please keep your windows shut at all times, Madam!’’

That window also allowed me a first-hand look into a pitched battle between a woman corporator leading a mob and the police – I saw her being shot by the cops and just couldn’t get over that for days.

My mother remembered all of that this week and ordered me to stay home on judgment day even as I protested I couldn’t. “Then call me every hour and also when you leave home for work and vice versa. Both times let me know when you are safely indoors. I do not want you hit by a soda water bottle again.’’

But, as I was similarly cautioned by my sister again this morning (the day after judgment), I was happy to tell her the nation had really moved on and that I did not think there would be any riotous situation over the verdict.

“So what do you think will happen now?’’ she asked.

“Well, both sides have said they will go to the Supreme Court in appeal.’’

“And then?’’ she asked.

I could only quote Mahatma Gandhi. “Whatever the Supreme Court decides, I think that both sides will realise that the land will prove an albatross round their necks.’’

For, while I do not know the context, this is one of Gandhiji’s quotes that has stuck in my mind from my teenage days: what is obtained by love is permanent; what is obtained through coercion or hatred ever becomes a burden!

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