Memoirs of a forlorn December
Demolition of Babri Masjid has scarred the generation growing up in the UP in 1992.
"Gira di, dhaa di, bhaago, jaldi tayyari karo...." (They demolished it, let us be prepared to run from here...). My panting father 47, directed us—my mother, 40, my elder sister in her mid-20s myself, in my post-teens, and my younger brother, in his adolescence. My father was watching heated debates on television, deliberating upon whether the Babri Masjid would be demolished or not, whether it should be demolished or not, accompanied by our neighbours, men aged between 20 and 35, all bachelors from Kerala, mostly converted Christians.
"I knew it, I knew it," he murmured and helped us wrap our belongings to move to a safer place. It was post-noon, around 3 pm perhaps. We were all glued to the television, praying constantly for some miracle to prevent the demolition, for we all knew that it would be followed by mass riots in our sensitive city, Aligarh. A city home to the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University and divided distinctly into Hindu and Muslim quarters, the city and the civil lines, respectively.
We lived in the Civil Lines, over Abad Market, a hustling small marketplace nestled close to the safe University campus and Dodpur Police Station. Ours was, therefore, supposedly a decent locality with nearly no incidents of communal riots in the recent past, secure compared to the city areas – a ghetto, and a hub for inciting and activating riots, on events, even as innocuous as Indo-Pak Cricket matches! Nonetheless, we always felt tremors of riots whenever they occurred anywhere in UP – Saharanpur, Meerut, Bulandshahar, Kanpur, Lucknow, and so on.
As we panicked and started filling our few valuables and clothes, food in available bags, our neighbours, brothers Anil John and Sunil John came and said, "Don't worry. You don't need to go anywhere. We are 18 men here. We will take care of you. " Their words soothed us like a balm upon a fresh wound. For my mother, who hailed from Kolkata, where riots were nearly forgotten, it was a scary atmosphere, more so, with two young daughters under her wing. In anticipation, father rushed to the market to buy the necessary supplies—he knew the imposition of a curfew would be the immediate outcome. And so it was. Within a few minutes, the curfew was imposed. We could hear the slogans of Jai Shri Ram-Naraaye Takbeer Allah ho Akbar coming from some distance, sending shivers down our spine.
As evening arrived, the electricity was cut. We were told, it was to restrict television viewing, to prevent us from witnessing the karsevaks celebrating the demolition and shouting slogans of Jai Shri Ram. I still wonder why then the live telecast of demolition, clearly showing the bit-by-bit annihilation of the mosque, was telecast nationally. It clearly helped incite fury and mob lynching that followed the demolition in the entire country—from both the sides!
By 7-7:30, the slogans of "Maro Maro" (Kill them) started reaching our ears. Our building housed some 30 shops and showrooms which were shut; close to us was an empty government guest house, a closed school and just one house, downstairs, of Qureshi Sahab – a happy family of four children. As the night dawned, we heard a few steps going downstairs. It was of the 18 young men stealthily running away to a safer place. I screamed, "But uncle, you told us, you will be here to protect us, without you we would be all alone here," my voice choked and tears dropped, even the stray dogs we used to feed daily, were nowhere to be seen that night. My favourite, Uncle Anil, looked back at me, said nothing, and his eyes spoke, "I can't care less," and he ran downstairs. I rushed to the common balcony of the floor urging him to stop. But my words fell on deaf ears. They lacked the courage to look up at us. "You cheaters", I shouted, "I will never speak to you," was my teenage reaction to our supposed saviours.
Meanwhile, my father came back with whatever he could manage to buy. He was as shocked to see our neighbours deserting us. Instead of consoling us, he rationally asserted, "Listen, I don't know whether today we will live or not, but we will fight to save our dignity. We will not let anyone touch us (now I know, he meant this more for us – two daughters and his wife, in undertones). I will save you as long as I can, but I am alone you see? I won't be able to combat them all," his big eyes welled with tears. In my entire life, I had never seen my strong father, a wrestler by passion during his prime, so nervous and jittery. We turned mute. Today as I write, with a crystal clear memory of the day, my head turns blank and my eyes drown in the same painful tears.
The local police station, barely a five-minute walk from our home, was extremely infamous for its PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary) force and their anti-Muslim stance. When finally the riots broke out in Aligarh, following the demolition that December night of 1992, Uttar Pradesh's PAC was later learnt to have played a major role in wiping out clusters of Muslims—a documented fact. By night, the entire area had been barricaded by PAC. My father switched off all the lights in the balcony and inside. We lighted a torch and decided to combat anyone who came our way. We collected old glass bottles, broke them, my brother went to the roof stealthily to gather some bricks and twigs of the neem tree, my mother prepared mirchi paani – a bucket full of red chilli powder mixed in hot water and some newspapers we could light to blaze our rioters.
As the noise came closer, an idea dawned on my father. He asked my mother, a Bengali Muslim from Kolkata, "Let's change our names. Let's keep Hindu names. Henceforth, we will speak in Bengali and say we are Bengalis. Tell me some Hindu Bengali surnames." My mother thought and father soon became Lucky Chatterjee, my mother Meena Chatterjee, my sister became Seema Chatterjee, I became Reena Chatterjee and my brother remained Mantu. We started polishing our adopted language. We wanted to sound like real Bengalis to the approaching rioters and the PAC. For almost five hours, we sat in the dark, ready with our "lethal" arsenal. We heard intermittent noises, shrill male voices from the thana and women wailing.
By the night, my father got increasingly scared and chose to shout out to Qureshi Sahab. Our roofs had a good distance but we could see each other through the courtyard. My father threw a stone at his house and waited for him to come out. Hiding in the thick shade of the neem tree, he whispered, "Can I bring my family to your house? We men will guard the house and women will feel better?" The retort came swiftly, "Arey Liaquat Bhai, ye koi poochne ki baat hai. But you all will have to jump the gate. I have tied it with an iron chain." This was a struggle, especially for my frail mother. Qureshi uncle had placed a stool to help us land safely after jumping, so we all took the plunge – one by one. My mother got bruises from the pointed iron arrow on the gate. But we managed. We hurried because the curfew was imposed and the entire area was very dark, the street lights were put off, to avoid any barging and to kill without anyone noticing!
Famished, we ate whatever we could manage to bring or the little they served. We were certainly not welcome guests at this house which always kept to themselves. But Qureshi Sahab had a licensed gun and tolerated our strange gestures and giggles. We spent our night praying and receiving updates from across the city—riots had broken out and women of Upper Fort were prepared with mirchi paani and the men were equipped with lathis and bricks. For three continuous days, we kept on the exercise of returning to our home in the morning and back to the Qureshi's home by dusk. The fourth day, my sister gave up—she refused to go. My mother sided by her and this fourth day we finally ate proper home cooked food.
Meanwhile, every day after the fourth day of the demolition, the curfew would be relaxed for an hour or two for people to buy their necessities – at heightened rates. During that period, every day my father would return with stories of people being killed on both sides and dumped into wells, public parks, closed streets, gutters, and so on. Living in the fear of the same fate striking us had turned us hollow and empty. We had lost our appetite and a seed of suspicion towards the other community was sown. We had not seen the Partition; but we could certainly feel the magnitude of the divide and rule policy the British had once germinated in India and the political parties of our country have thereafter shamelessly endorsed, till today.
This is how the Babri Masjid Demolition impacted my life. I might not have witnessed the riot happening but it proved to be the scariest incident of my living memory. It informed us about how politics can play dirty games and ruin our personal spaces, leaving a permanent scar in our hearts and mind. Babri remains a "dispute" of the most ignorant kind – whatever will be the Supreme Court's decision, a few days later, it will not make people like me happy. It will never be able to even diminish the scar, the mental trauma we were forced to undergo in our own country. With the current governance of affairs, more Babris are waiting to happen – to scar more hearts and violate more peace of mind.
(The author is a senior journalist. The views expressed are strictly personal.)