Remembering December 6, 1992

Twenty-one years ago this day– December 6, 1992– is etched in my memory with an acid pen. My heart sank as I saw flashes of the demolition of the Babri Masjid– I was on Sunday duty at the wire service where I worked at the time and I was on the phone within seconds to Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.

The reports coming from Ayodhya claimed that Shiv Sainiks had demolished the mosque but when I called Thackeray he seemed to know nothing of the kind.

He asked me to call him back in 20 minutes while he called his editor at the Saamna, the Sena mouthpiece for confirmation.

When I called him back, he was still uncertain.

But Thackeray, being who he was, had no qualms in laying claim to the demolition when he knew very well his men could not have been involved in that particular destruction.

In his loaded reaction he said, “If my Shiv Sainiks have demolished the mosque, I can only be proud of them.”

That reaction was across the world in eight seconds flat on the wire service – what neither I nor anyone else noticed was the qualified `if’ of his Sainiks’ alleged involvement.

What had actually happened was this: Shiv Sena leaders had reached Ayodhya late a day before and finding all the accommodation in hotels and guest houses taken, were asked by the BJP to camp out in tents.

They did not like that at all and called Thackeray to complain. Thackeray took umbrage at the insult to him and his party and ordered all the Sena leaders and the men accompanying them out of Ayodhya pronto and on to the first available train back to Bombay as fast as possible.

So when the mosque was actually brought down by Bajrang Dalis the next day, Shiv Sainiks were actually in Calcutta en route to Bombay and Thackeray knew that very well But in the days before the arrival of mobile phones, he could not establish contact with them and needed to consult his confidantes about what he knew was certainly not true.

So he qualified his reaction with the `if’ Muslim groups in the city did not read the nuance correctly either – within hours of the claim making the headlines the next day, Bombay was on fire and the worst possible riots since Independence had broken out (Gujarat took another decade to break break Bombay’s record).

But soon the Allahabad High Court had constituted a bench to hear the demolition case and Thackeray got the fright of his life when he received a summons to appear before them in person. The Sena tiger had been arrested only once before, in 1969, and that had been a salutary experience, he did not want to have to go to jail ever again.

But since he had first spoken to me,  I used that reaction of his in other stories with abandon – until one day he summoned me to Matoshree to give me a dressing o down for repeating that ad nausea and getting him into more trouble than he already was in.

When I challenged him to the truth, he admitted that he knew very well his Shiv Sainiks could not have brought down the mosque. “But the BJP were cowards who got frightened when they saw the government was determined to punish their leaders.  Me, I am afraid of nothing, so I said I was proud of my Shiv Sainiks if they had indeed demolished the mosque.”

It was a clever retraction that satisfied the courts, particularly since Bajrang Dal leaders in Bombay were so mad at Thackeray for claiming false credit for what they thought was an achievement that should be rightfully theirs that they went tom-tomming Thackeray’s tendency to lie about such accomplishments.

But the Sena tiger’s admission of guilt in lying and innocence in not being involved in the demolition came rather too late for a city that burned for days and changed its character in many ways forever.

To this day, I cringe at my lack of experience that failed me so miserably that bleak Sunday night – if I could have spotted the false bravado for what it was, I wonder if things could have been contained – but perhaps Thackeray would have unleashed the conflagration anyway as was obvious from the report of the Srikrishna Commission which probed the riots.

The second spell in Januay 1992 was deliberately inspired by Thackeray who personally directed Shiv Sainiks on the mulitple landlines in his room on where to riot and how to escape.

Thackeray always claimed he regretted nothing but now I wonder if it is the cres of those innocents which are coming back to bite the Sena in its gut today – the party is virtually over.

A year after Bal Thackeray’s passing all that the Sena is left with is two buildings (Matoshee ad Sena Bhavan) and a few photographs of the ageing tiger. Not even a memorial to their late leader, no body, not even the Sena leaders care about Bal Thackeray anymore.

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