Twenty-four years after Mumbai was shattered first by riots and then the bomb blasts, there seems to be no closure for the survivors of either
At an anti-terror court in Mumbai set up un der the Terrorists and Disruptive Activi ties (Prevention) Act, the counsel for the prosecution has been arguing this past week for the maximum punishment for six people convicted by the court in the 1993 Mumbai blasts, which includes gang sters Abu Salem and Mustafa Dossa. Spe cial CBI counsel Deepak Salvi has said the death sentence should be awarded to five of the accused, arguing that the court needs to keep in mind that 257 people lost their lives and 713 were injured in the co ordinated bomb blasts that tore what was then Bombay apart on March 12, 1993. The blasts were unlike any terror attack the country had seen till then and wreaked large-scale damage on India’s financial nerve centre and its people’s psyche. Ac cording to investigators, it had been car ried out at the orders of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim and his henchmen, and was held to be retaliation for the commu nal riots sparked by the Babri Masjid dem olition, in which over 900 people, largely Muslims, had died.Tushaar Priti Deshmukh couldn’t agree more with Salvi. It has been 24 years now, but that has not blurred the edges of the Dadar resident’s memories of that day. He was 13 then and on his way back home from school when he and his friends saw the aftermath of the bomb blasts at Plaza Talkies and Shiv Sena Bhawan, two of the targets. By 4 pm, the family and his neigh bours in the chawl they were staying, de cided to step out to look for Tushaar’s mother, Priti, who had not yet returned from her job at Jindal Canteen at Mahalak shmi. At KEM Hospital, where the injured had been taken, Tushaar’s uncle was di rected to the mortuary after he had been unable to locate her among the wounded.

“But there was no body, only parts. It was brought home the next day but I wasn’t allowed to see her or do any of the last rites,“ says Deshmukh. His mother had taken the No. 85 bus from Mahalakshmi to Dadar after her work, as was her routine. At around 3 pm when the bus was at Century Bazaar in Worli, an explosive planted on the road blasted it to pieces, killing the passengers, including Priti.In one afternoon, D e s h mu k h’s l i f e changed forever.

With a traumatised father who soon turned to alcohol, the responsibility of running the household fell on the 13-yearold’s shoulders. When his father remarried, Deshmukh says the situation was such that he had to leave home as soon as he could, which was after he had finished the board exams. A friend’s family took him in, and he is currently helping them run their real estate agency in Dadar. In 2015, when civil society was debating the death sentence to blasts accused Yakub Memon and petitions were being drafted to waive it, Deshmukh says he collected 2,200 signatures in a single hour at Shivaji Park in support of Memon’s hanging. “The guilty should be punished, and that includes Dawood (Ibrahim) and `Tiger’ Memon. I had given a petition to the governor earlier, saying Sanjay Dutt should also be hanged,“ says Deshmukh at his two-room office, near which a few saffron flags of the Shiv Sena hang limply in the monsoon rain and posters of its late founder Bal Thackeray adorn walls, indicative of the location in Sena heartland. “If they are guilty and there is evidence, why not hang them? That would be a deterrent.“ Though it has taken 24 years for the wheels of justice to come close to some kind of verdict, he believes the system has not fully let down the blast victims.

Lone Battle

If a narrow lane near Shafi Masjid off Dockyard station, where Farooq Mapkar waits, feels like a world away, so has his experience been, at the hands of the very same “system“. Mumbai’s legendary resilience and tenacity find a form in the weathered face and frame of Mapkar, who has been fighting for justice in the 1992-93 riots that preceded the blasts, for over two decades. “It is good that the blast victims have got some kind of justice but what about us? Not a single one of us has got justice,“ says the 50-year-old.It is just one of Mapkar’s many questions to which there are no satisfactory answers.

Like Deshmukh, Mapkar too reels off the date, time and other details of the day two decades ago which destroyed life as he knew it. On January 10, 1993, Mapkar had gone to Hari Masjid for the noon prayers after visiting a friend in the vicinity. He had performed his ablutions and stepped in to pray when a team of the city’s police under the supervision of the then inspector Nikhil Kapse entered and allegedly began firing, without any warning. A boy in front of Mapkar was shot in the chest and had just keeled over when another bullet found its target below Mapkar’s left shoulder. All those in the mosque were then corralled into police vans in batches and taken to the police station, outside which a mob of Hindus was waiting, hurling abuses, according to Mapkar. “We were beaten by the police in the station with hockey sticks, lathis and whatever they could lay their hands on. One of us, Ismail, was beaten so badly that he died at the station,“ he recalls. It would be 15 days before the bullet inside him would be removed by a doctor. That was just the tor turous beginning of his ordeal. For the next 16 years, till 2009, he waged a long legal battle to get his name cleared in the charges the po lice had pressed, including that of attempt to murder and rioting. Though he has been “honourably acquitted“, Mapkar continues to fight legally to fix responsibility on the policemen for his predicament, including Kapse. “When the CBI stepped in, we had faith in it, being a Central body. But we were never called to give evidence. Kapse was not arrested even for a day, nor was he removed from his department,“ says Mapkar, who filed another petition in the Bombay High Court last year.Asked whether his family and friends support this never-ending quest for elusive justice, he says they have never tried to stop him. “People ask me what is the point of spending all my time on this case. But six people were killed in front of me. If I stay silent, I can’t claim justice has not been done. And I won’t get justice by sitting at home, I have to come out on the streets and fight for it,“ he says. Recent events in which minorities have been targeted have exacerbated his anguish and strengthened his belief that Muslims do not get justice.

Let Down By All Quarters

Lawyer and activist Shakil Ahmed, who has supported victims of the riots in their attempts for justice, sounds more cynical about the turn of events over the years. The son of a single mother who had dropped out of Class VII because of poverty, Ahmed had been in Sion-Koliwada in 1993 and had lost his home in the riots. “Law is not for revenge but for justice. And justice should be for all,“ says Ahmed, outside the advocates’ chambers at the Thane court where he practises. “There have been a couple of convictions on paper but no real justice,“ he says.The 47-year-old seems equally bitter about the report of the Srikrishna Commission, set up to investigate the riots, and which had not held back in pinning responsibility for the mayhem on the Shiv Sena and its founder, Bal Thackeray. When the Sena came to power in 1996, it did away with the commission but was forced to reconstitute it, though it widened its ambit to include the bomb blasts.

The 800-page report led to hardly any convictions, despite testimonies against the Sainiks and the police. Madhukar Sarpotdar, the lone Shiv Sena leader who was convicted for inciting communal hatred, did not serve even a day in prison and died in 2010. “If nearly 1,000 people have died and no one has been convicted, the judiciary is equally responsible for that failure. Who do we seek justice from?“ asks Ahmed. There is a case in the Supreme Court to convict at least the policemen mentioned in the Srikrishna Commission Report but Ahmed is not very hopeful of the outcome. “When Bal Thackeray, who the commission indicted for his role in the riots, died, he was given a state funeral and his body was draped in the Tricolour. How, then, can minorities even raise their voice?“

Perception & Reality

Though the Srikrishna Commission left no room for doubt about the Sena’s role and that Muslims were targeted in the riots, that is not how everyone perceives it. Manoj Kumar Singh, a commercial manager at a publishing house in Mumbai, says the Shiv Sena under the leadership of “Balasaheb“ was at the forefront to fight against those rioting.“The Hindus also suffered a lot -75% of the victims were Hindus,“ says Singh, who also feels politicians are responsible for fomenting communal violence. “We had friends in Berhampada (badly affected in the riots), who told us about bodies of Hindus, including policemen, thrown in ditches,“ he says.Singh does add that those who are guilty, whether in the riots or the blasts, should be punished. In the elections following the blasts and the riots, the Shiv Sena was voted to power in an alliance with the BJP.

Deshmukh echoes the sentiment and denies that the riots or the blasts may have widened the rift between the majority community and the city’s Muslim minority. “It hasn’t changed my personal relationships. I still go to dargahs to pray. When blasts happen, we know it is Pakistan, not Indian Muslims,“ he says. Even during the riots, which he recalls as a period of sleepless nights spent on guard against rumoured attacks, he believed it was outsiders who carried out the assaults.

Despite his frustrating legal battle, Mapkar says the atmosphere in Mumbai is now relatively better than in other areas in India.“If a person falls on the railway tracks, it is not as if people will check whether he is Hindu or Muslim before rescuing him,“ he says. But he does not intend to give up his lone fight even after repeated disappointments, and that is for a reason. “I know I will not get justice. But I want to keep fighting because I want to tell the system, the world, that we have not got justice even as other victims may have. And that is because we are Muslims.“