The Gandhi Chawl Incident: Meena Menon
This guest post by MEENA MENON is an extract from her recently published book, Riots and after in Mumbai- Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation
It was all in the eyes. Beneath the finely drawn brows, they were haunted and distant. For Naina Bane, the night of 8 January 1993 will remain a night of absolute terror. Her escape was miraculous as was her recovery. It took me several months and wrong leads before I met her finally at a family reunion in the suburbs. Dressed in a long mustard coloured ‘maxi’, her hair was drawn back tightly. I found it hard to recognize the same girl who was almost burnt alive on that fateful night in Gandhi chawl. Now 40, there is a faraway look about her and her eyes widen when I ask to speak to her. She got married in 1996 and lives outside Mumbai. Her 6-year-old son keeps her busy. Her husband worked for a mill which closed down, a typical story in Mumbai. He was a badli (temporary worker) and he lost his job. He now works as a watchman.
Naina’s right hand is still swollen and scarred. The entire right side of her body was burnt, but corrective surgery helped restore it. For two or three months after she came out of the hospital, she could not do any work, and even now it is difficult for her to lift heavy things. Her brothers are jobless and insecure. She tells me to do something for them, for herself, she wants nothing. She pauses frequently and never wants to go back to that area. The fire of that night still haunts her. She still suffers from a lot of mental trauma and the sight of blood unsettles her. There is perplexity in her face and she seems dazed. She keeps repeating that none of them knew why it happened. Her parents, who lived there for a long time, had such good relations with everyone. Even after so many years, Naina starts trembling when she sees an accident or something untoward. She had to leave the flaming room from the roof. She suffered 50 per cent burns and had to fight for her survival. The family had to pay the hospital bills. Naina was the only one staying with her parents; everyone else was with her sister, Sujata Chavan.
In the end, she is bitter about the fact that the family was left to fend for itself. The youngest brother, Mangesh, has a temporary job as a telephone operator. She feels there is no hope now. Sujata had submitted an application for a low-cost house in the government’s Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) in 1995. Her husband, Kamlakar, says she is on the waiting list. He is indignant and says that the family at least deserved a house. He checked with the MHADA in June 2008, and they told him to wait some more. She now feels what the rest of her family feels, to never live in a Muslim locality; there is disgust and discomfort with the idea. The Banes story is the story of many families in Jogeshwari who moved out and never want to live with Muslims ever again. The past relationships have been forgotten. That night the blaze in Gandhi chawl not only wrecked their lives and aspirations, but also created a permanent rift in their minds.
I met Naina and her family after a long search. I asked Ravindra Waikar, the former Shiv Sena chairperson of the standing committee of the BMC (and MLA) who promised to help. I was told to meet his secretary, Bala Nar, for information and whom I called many times. He said he had all the addresses of the ‘Hindu’ victims of Jogeshwari. But every time I called, there was some delay. Either he was travelling or was busy. I did not call Waikar again, but decided to rely on my own sources who finally tracked down the family for me. It was Pitrupaksha Amawasya in 2008 when I met them, the day you remember your ancestors and pray for them. It was a day when the entire Bane family gathered for lunch in the small one-room house of Sudarshan Bane in Gorai, and there was a certain poignancy about the event. When I called Sudarshan the day earlier, he invited me over.
When I asked if I would be interfering in the ceremonies, he said no. He was most cordial in his invitation and asked me to come and meet his family. I was a little apprehensive if it was the right family as I had met many Banes earlier and they all turned out to be the wrong people. Walking into the bye lanes at Gorai, I met a man who turned out to be Sudarshan. It was almost a cinematic encounter. The area is a lower-middle class area with flat-roofed tenements and the day being Sunday, few people were on the road. Sudarshan was the one who spotted me as I was wandering around in the lanes searching for his house. Wearing a faded old shirt and shorts, his hands covered with white plaster of Paris, he was busy making a statue of Goddess Durga in a makeshift plastic tent. He later told me that he had hired a small bungalow plot on which he built a plastic tent, which functions as his workshop. We went to his house where his sister, Sujata, was sitting on the floor along with his wife cutting vegetables and making preparations for lunch. It is a small one-room house with a kitchen. His children run in and out playing around. The first thing he tells me is that it was Gandhi chawl which was burnt and not Radhabai chawl. Radhabai chawl was on the main road and people mistakenly thought that was the scene of the riot. What he is bitter about is that residents of Radhabai chawl got a lot of support and benefits in their name, while they got nothing. When I met him, he was 37. He lives on rent and in his life few things are permanent. He has been through several temporary jobs since the riots. Emotions spill out as he talks about his life after the riots. During the festival season, he makes Ganpati idols and otherwise he gets temporary jobs as a driver. There is a look of dejection about him. The government had promised him and his family so much. He did the rounds with various political leaders including those of Ravindra Waikar, Sunil Dutt, the late MP, and former Maharashtra chief minister, Sudhakar Naik, and once he was even taken to meet the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The Banes are a typical lower-middle class migrant family from the coastal Konkan region. Sudarshan’s father, Rajaram, who lost his life in the riots used to work for Sigma paints. At that time, Sudarshan used to work for a company making tubes for Colgate and when the incident happened he was working on a night shift. Soon, that job was gone and he started driving an autorickshaw. Now, he has to keep moving from house to house as he stays on rent and it is difficult with his two schoolgoing children. Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), a nongovernmental organization (NGO), bought the chawl from the Banes and they were paid Rs 40,000 for the rooms. It was their home, painstakingly built by their parents, who had lived there even before marriage. Sujata was eight-months pregnant with her second child at the time of the riots and Sudarshan had come to stay with her in Charkop, not far from his present house. Her father had died on the spot and she was in a quandary as she could not leave home.
The terror of those days still haunts her. The two boys, Sudarshan and Mangesh, stayed with her at that time because they could not go back to the house. Years later she cannot understand why that horrific incident took place. They were among the few Maharashtrians there surrounded by Muslims, but they never had any problems in those days. The two communities always protected each other. There was no reason to be attacked in this heinous fashion. She is silent as she tries to recall the events of that night. Suddenly she comes up with an answer: “It was all to do with that Babri Masjid demolition.” She also remembers that the accused in the Gandhi chawl case, acquitted by the Supreme Court, were released later. And no one appealed against their release. I asked her if the family ever considered taking up the case and got a violent reaction: “Why should we appeal. Who has the time to go court and waste time and money? We don’t want to take revenge; their karma karta will take care of it.”
Sujata concentrates on cutting the huge mound of vegetables. Her thin face reflects her helplessness. At that time too, they were alone, despite much political support on the surface. The whole family kept saying how the big leaders promised them so many things, but nothing happened. Not even a simple job was given to Sudarshan, something he is very upset about. The place where they all live now is a Hindu locality. Everyone is Maharashtrian. They do not want to live anywhere else.
The old Gandhi chawl area is now completely a Muslim area. None of them venture back there. Sudarshan says they (the Muslims) used to threaten the Maharashtrians and many sold their houses and left. There was an atmosphere of fear and terror. However, even now Sudarshan and Sujata feel the two communities can live together. People in their locality were good. The riots occurred because someone instigated the attack. The words come out slowly now. They never thought of their Muslim neighbours as aliens. Sudarshan often played cricket together with the other boys in the slum. But both Sujata and Sudarshan are tired of the long wait for justice or social support. They have given up all hope now. Once Ravindra Waikar had come and with a great sense of urgency had taken Sudarshan to meet Vajpayee. There was a momentary surge of hope and he thought something would happen. His face breaks into a sad grin. He ended up wasting two days running around and lost his two-day earnings as a rickshaw driver. Again more hope and promises. They had become a showpiece for the party and the face of the riots. They were paraded everywhere as the victims of a heinous crime, but their shattered lives were only theirs to deal with.
Sudarshan’s children study in the sixth and seventh standards. His elder son is ticked off for putting a plastic helmet on a bronze-coloured bust of Shivaji Maharaj, which occupies pride of place in the small room. Sudarshan has been making Ganpati and Durga idols since the age of seven. Now, he often takes a loan for the capital. It is hardly a profit-making venture and he thinks of giving it up sometimes. Now it is the customers who insist that he makes the idols.
I spoke to Sudarshan in April 2010 to check if all was well. He works as a driver for a doctor now and has extended his rent lease by one more year in Gorai. Vinod Ghosalkar, the Shiv Sena MLA called him once and gave him an assurance that he would get a house. “Once again I got an assurance,” he remarked. The Banes story is no different from the other riot victims. They were victims of a heinous crime and they received no support from the government. The 11 accused of the crime were given life sentence by the designated Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) court, but later acquitted in 1998 by the Supreme Court which questioned the evidence in the case. This too was a highly publicized trial and the acquittal was criticized by the Right wing. However, that is a separate case of victimization, according to many activists. The political parties, who got so much mileage from the Banes’ tragedy, have probably forgotten them altogether. Their story was used extensively to whip so much anti-Muslim hatred.
The Srikrishna Commission Report (1998: 85, Volume II) has this to say on the Gandhi Chawl incident: On 8th January, 1993, at about 00.30 hours a house in a chawl popularly known as Radhabai Chawl (though its actual name is Gandhi chawl) was attacked by miscreants who locked the door of a Hindu house from outside and set it on fire. Although nine persons from the Hindu family of Bane had been confined inside the room, some of them managed to escape. Six of the family succumbed to burn injuries including a handicapped girl. One male and five female members of a Hindu family (Bane) and their neighbours were charred to death and three other Hindus sustained serious burn injuries.
(Meena Menon works with The Hindu as deputy editor and deputy bureau chief, Mumbai.)
- Meena Menon: Hate speech the Congress forgot about