On Twitter on Dec. 6, some folks were trying hard to make the tag #ShauryaDiwas trend. “Day of Valor” is what that means in Hindi, and it is a reference to Dec. 6, 1992, when a vast crowd tore down a mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya. I have no doubt that the tag did trend, because there are a whole lot of Indians who actually feel it was an act of bravery. They are proud that it happened. Proud at their redeemed “self-respect.” Proud of the destruction. Proud of that crowd.
Example: the late Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray told the press at the time, “If my [party activists] had brought down the mosque, then I could only be proud of them.” Example: various leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had led the political movement around the mosque, were in Ayodhya that day, watching its destruction. Several, including a future chief minister of the state of Rajasthan, Vijayaraje Scindia, “were laughing in great delight.”
Such are the folks who think of this day as one of valor and pride.
Like with a lot of things, though, there are plenty of Indians who feel no pride at all about Dec. 6. Apart from the emptiness of the suggestion that Indian self-esteem is to be found on the rubble of a mosque, that one crazed act brought weeks and months of killing across the country. About 1,000 died in Mumbai, and tens of thousands more fled the city. Arguably, the destruction of the mosque set ghastly wheels turning that eventually brought on our heads the massacres in Gujarat in 2002, deadly bomb attacks in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, and elsewhere over the last decade and more, and the horror of the November 2008 attacks.
A roll call of thousands of ordinary Indians—my fellow ordinary Indians—slaughtered is not quite what I want, or expect, from a day of Indian valor.
In the weeks after Dec. 6, 1992, I wandered the streets, taking notes on a city gone mad. I still have those notes and revisit them from time to time for a reminder of a time of fear and horror. Some excerpts, to offer a flavor of the effect of a day of valor:
- The woman in a slum pocket who showed us bullet marks inside her hut. Then I lined up the bullet holes in her pots on the wall, sighting along the line they made. The bullet had come, unmistakably, from a window of a fourth floor apartment of a nearby green building.
- The building we visited from where someone had thrown bombs and stones onto a communal toilet in the slum below, destroying its roof. To this day I cannot begin to understand a person who would drop bombs on the heads of people taking a crap.
- The man in a hospital who said that some men ran up as he was walking on a bridge. Pointing to his beard, paying no attention to his shouts that he was Hindu, they threw him onto the railway tracks below. He survived.
- The young journalist I know who called in tears one morning. She had woken to find a prominent "X" painted outside her family's front door. They later emigrated to Canada.
- The scrawny young man who advanced threateningly on us when we were speaking to someone about the destruction of his small tea shop. I will always regret not standing up to that young man instead of walking away. What can I say? We felt the terror too.
- The man who was buying cigarettes from a roadside vendor one morning. Forty or 50 men surrounded him suddenly and attacked him with knives. A friend rescued him.
Starting in mid-1993, a Bombay High Court judge, Justice B.N. Srikrishna, conducted an official inquiry into the weeks of killing in Mumbai. As always with such inquiries, he faced all manner of evasion, obfuscation, and lies, apart from deliberate delays. And in any case, inquiry commissions like this one are not courts; they have no legal or punitive powers, and their findings and recommendations are not binding on the government. (Which is why governments are so swift in ordering inquiries.)
In 1996 the then–Shiv Sena–BJP coalition government in Maharashtra (the state of which Mumbai is the capital) actually shut down Justice Srikrishna’s inquiry. The then–chief minister, Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena, claimed that it had already taken too long, that “calm” had returned to the city, and that in any event it would be unwise to reopen “old wounds” all over again.
He didn't mention what was obvious if you attended any of the sessions of Srikrishna inquiry, as many of us did, or indeed if you had simply lived through those weeks in this city: his party bore much of the blame for the violence. No doubt that’s why the eagerness to shut down the inquiry and “move on.”
In this corner, the Indians to whom the destruction and killing means, simply, shame. In that corner, the Indians whose chests swell with pride and want that expressed via a hashtag.
Luckily his best efforts went nowhere. At the request of the then–prime minister, A.B. Vajpayee, the inquiry was reinstated. Justice Srikrishna submitted his report a couple of years later. There was much in it for this city to think over.
There was this in particular: “Like a veteran general,” wrote Justice Srikrishna, Bal Thackeray egged his party workers on to mayhem across Mumbai.
The Bal Thackeray, of course, who got a state funeral when he died Nov. 17.
But of course, when Indians like me write like this, when we wonder how you can link pride to slaughter, when we jog our memories of those weeks, when we speak of Justice Srikrishna's findings, the proud ones angrily dismiss us (their anger itself a commentary). You're not really Indian, they say. You're pseudo-secular, they say. You're anti-Hindu, they say. (It's what Joshi said about Justice Srikrishna.) They must, because there is little else they can say: reason, I believe, deserted them a long time ago.
And so we remain firmly where we've been, observing every Dec. 6 for 20 years now. In this corner, the Indians to whom the destruction and killing means, simply, shame. In that corner, the Indians whose chests swell with pride and want that expressed via a hashtag.
In the middle, a chasm so wide that I have no idea, 20 years later, how we will ever bridge it.