‘I write this piece,’ says Javed Iqbal, ‘not just to come to terms with my childhood, but to speak about those who were once Shiv Sena [ Images ] loyalists, whose dreams did not die with the passing away of Bal Thackeray [ Images ], but were dead long before he was gone.’
It was the first memory in my life that showed me what human suffering looked like. Growing up, you can have your first kiss, your first fight, your first job, you lose your virginity, the first time you get drunk, but we never wonder when was the first time we were taught empathy.
Today, I am a journalist. I document human rights abuses in central India [ Images ] committed by the State and the Maoists, and when I am back home in Mumbai [ Images ], I document the demolition of slums, the demolition of the homes of those people who I was once taught to fear.
Most of the people who I work with, with whom I have developed the strongest relationships across class, religion and gender, were once Shiv Sena loyalists who, over time, I realise were the most misrepresented people in the city.
Today, I write this piece, not just to come to terms with my childhood, but to speak about their present predicament, their dreams that did not die with the passing away of Bal Thackeray, but were dead long before he was gone.
A long time ago, it took an eight-year-old child with innocence situated at a time in history when this country was losing again what it meant to be a community: The hundred rumours of police firings, burnings, stabbings, and smoke spread across the sky, Hindu neighbours who shaved their beards, Muslim neighbours who left home to live with us, ‘Don’t tell your name to any stranger’; I sat watching anxiety get cut with a knife in my living room as every story of a stabbing filtered across the lanes.
I was an introverted child, confused, and I still remember March 12, 1993, when we were sent home early from school because of the bomb blasts.
Saleem, a man from Bharatnagar in Bandra East, whose slum lost 11 people on December 7, 1992, when the police chased them back into their homes and fired at them, was the first to tell me that there were blasts across the city.
I still remember him walking up to me that day and telling me what had happened, yet I never asked him about what happened in Bharatnagar.
‘How was it that day?’ I had asked him when I was much older.
‘What time is it?’ He asked me.
‘It’s three in the afternoon.’
‘Well,’ he said nonchalantly, ‘If you were shot at three in the afternoon now, you’d only get admitted in a hospital at three in the afternoon tomorrow. That’s how big the lines were.’
After the blasts of ’93, I was looking at the photos of body parts in the newspaper. Mangled. Burnt. Dismembered. These were once human beings. I was glad nothing was censored. And today a verse written over 500 years ago by Kabir is a much closer description of what I felt when I saw it all.
‘It’s a heavy confusion.
Veda, Quran, holiness, hell, woman, man,
A clay pot shot with air and sperm….
When the pot falls apart, what do you call it?
…Numskull! You’ve missed the point.
It’s all one skin and bone, one piss and shit,
one blood, one meat.
From one drop, a universe.’
And the pots kept falling. Over the years, this city has seen enough anxiety with every unattended package left in the corner of a busy street.
And the pots kept falling. One group of fanatics wished to teach another group of fanatics a lesson. Bomb blasts in Malegaon, Hyderabad, Mumbai again and again, Delhi [ Images ], and the rampages of Gujarat, 2002. Yet are the victims fanatics?
The police firing at Vikhroli’s Ramabai Nagar on July 11, 1997, the killing of 11 Dalits, and how was it told to us in school when they asked us to go home early? ‘Some Dalits went on a rampage after they found slippers on a statue of Ambedkar.’ Rampage. The word massacre was not used when the police had gone into the slum and fired and killed innocent people. When a young boy’s head was blown apart by a .303.
1992 was just the blade that cut through that pot of my skull: My memory. And as I grew older, it all started pouring in: In 1984 the Sikh massacres, the Nellie massacre in Assam, the mass killing fields of Dalits who fought for their rights in Bihar, the Kilvenmani massacre in Tamil Nadu when 42 were burnt alive, and yes, Kashmir [ Images ] through the decades, to today, where my own work took me from village after village, massacre after massacre in Dantewada, committed by our own security forces and the Maoists as well.
I had to imagine India, this subcontinent, to look at her, to love her through the looking glass of atrocities and massacres. Indian democracy is hot metal searing through the burning flesh of resistance. Indian democracy is machine-gunned silence.
Civilisation is repression. Civilisation is a boot crushing dissent, a status quo on the neck of a hungry man who asked why.
Indian democracy is the extra-judicial killing of the man in the forest, murdered with the last thoughts of being the loneliest man in the country. Nobody knows you shall die in the forest, nobody knows what you said.
Indian democracy becomes a long hard impossible journey towards human justice, any kind of it. To love within the history of these borders, it becomes, an unconditional love.
And yet the right-wing tendencies of the middle class grew with liberalisation. There always had to be the ‘other’, an enemy to fear, to destroy, to completely annihilate, while completely forgetting everything across the horizon.
The power of the majority would further be bequeathed on men of strength who only knew the politics of violence and hatred, who used the repression of the population, to commit crimes, to steal the heroes and symbols of the oppressed, to believe in pride, the greatest killer of all communities.
You can’t be equal with someone who demands superiority.
Once upon a time, a French anarchist had said property is theft, but to our times, identity is murder. Good fences do not make good neighbours when we have nuclear missiles and Molotov cocktails.
In 1992, I was made to believe I was victimised. And I refused to over time. No South Indians were stealing my job, no Communists were ruining business in my city, and no Muslims were trying to put Sharia law in my home.
No Dalits were stealing my seat in college, no woman existed whose sexuality was a threat to me being a man or a lover.
I refused to be a victim, thus I was not searching for an identity. I was not afraid, and my privilege was the capacity to question authority — Everyone’s. From the State, to the school, my own family whose own biases I would begin to question. And it all started when I was beginning to be aware that human suffering is universal, and it started in 1992.
And while the memory of this city changes with the flutter of butterfly wings on a fired bullet, goodbye, Mr Thackeray, your hate taught me how to love. Goodbye, Mr Thackeray, your hate taught me a love that millions of people like you can never rob from me.
The Past from the Present Past
I have been documenting the demolition of homes in Golibar in Santacruz East, especially in a stronghold of the Shiv Sena for decades.
The residents are protesting against a builder who they claim took their consent for the project through fraudulent means. They have been facing demolition drives that have often led to lathi-charges, police cases, and everyone from the State to the courts have almost refused to listen.
Golibar was also a site of violent skirmishes and police violence on December 7, 1992, just a day after the demolition of the Babri Masjid [ Images ]. In a report by the Lokshahi Hakk Sanghatana and the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, there were 12 people stabbed to death, seven who died in police firing, eight shops and garages burned down, while numerous hutments, four vehicles, six handcarts were burnt.
According to its report, The Bombay Riots: The Myths and Realities, ‘At V N Desai Hospital, doctors pointed out a polio patient and epileptic from Nirmal Nagar, Golibar Kabristan, with abdominal bullet wounds. One woman who was brought dead had been shot on the top of her head.’
‘This is where they came from,’ says S, a Muslim resident, ‘to attack those who were going to the mosque.’
‘The very people who you are sitting with today, are the ones who we fought with, in 1992,’ he continued.
‘When did things change?’
‘When all of this started. The irony being it’s these builders who’ve united us.’
On November 24, 2010, the state officials along with the police had come to break down the homes of Allahuddin Abbas and Mohammed Afzal. Almost all of its residents came to their defence.
They didn’t let the police touch a single brick, and didn’t leave their neighbours, who stood before their doors, as the women of the society, almost all Hindus and Christians, screamed at the police and officials from the narrow corridors leading to their homes.
‘I was coming home with my family that day in 1992,’ says Aba Tandel, one of the main organisers of the people’s resistance at Golibar, and an old Shiv Sena loyalist, ‘They were burning a man right outside the railway station. And we quietly walked into the gully and went home.’
Today, the Shiv Sena in Golibar is invisible. They won the local elections when they convinced a local to not run as an Independent as he would cut into its voting base. They would promise to support their movement, and individual members of the party have often slipped information down the ladder that ‘demolitions will take place, be prepared.’ Yet apart from that or an occasional mention in Saamna, there’s nothing.
Yet this city, and especially these people, have seen the power of the Shiv Sena. They have faced over five brutal demolition drives, yet the only people trying to stop the demolition are their neighbours, or supporters from other slums who are fighting the same issue.
There is no Shiv Sena. There is no Marathi pride. There are no mobs. There the only people fighting for justice are themselves.
‘In 1995, Balasaheb had sold us a dream of a house,’ said Dutta Mane, another loyalist, and he on Sunday, the day of Balasaheb’s funeral, hasn’t gone to Shivaji Park, but had gone to do his own work at Nallasopara, a township close to Mumbai.
Dutta Mane had even travelled with me to the site of the blasts on July 13, 2011, and by the end of our work, Dutta was a tired man, and as we were walking away from the site, he looked back at the press vans, the reporters at the barricade, and he asked me about all the homeless that were sleeping on the pavement, just 10 seconds away, on a diagonally connected road: ‘Inka photo kaun le raha hai?’ (Who will take their photo?)
It was ridiculously apt. A man whose home is facing demolition is asking a reporter-friend of his, why the press doesn’t care about the homeless.
In the next morning’s paper, the photograph of a sleeping bloodied body strewn apart by a bomb, reminded me of those sleeping peacefully at Opera House or Zaveri Bazaar at three in the morning.
Dutta was a betrayed man.
With him, I would also travel to Ambujwadi and slums on the dumping grounds of Mumbai, who are a class separate from Golibar, who are the poorest of the poor, where a majority of Muslims live and face repeated demolition drives, and I ask them too: ‘Do any Muslim groups ever come and give you support? Anything like the Raza Academy? Any maulanas? Anyone?’
Their answer is always unanimous: No.
Javed Iqbal is a Mumbai-based journalist.
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