The 1993 Mumbai blast accused was a product of the times he was born and brought up in.
Antonio D’Souza High School, which Yakub Memon attended and Burhani College of Arts and Commerce from which he graduated and completed his MCom degree are less than a mile apart. Both lie on one of the many deadly communal fault lines that fracture and scar the city of Mumbai. The road connecting the two passes past the Byculla police station, one of the more notorious police stations indicted by the Srikrishna Commission for being biased against Muslims and even committing “cold-blooded murder” during the 1992-’93 riots.
Bombay of the 1970s
Communal fracturing, however, seemed a distant nightmare during the 1970s and early ’80s when Memon studied there. (One of us authoring this piece [Vernon], too went through the same courses at the same institutions around the same time] The Partition killings – which had not affected Bombay that severely – were things of the past. Even the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 had not managed to affect relations between communities. Secularism seemed to be working.
For the then students of the two institutions – a myriad mix of around fifty percent Muslim, sizeable number of Christians, smaller numbers of Hindus, Parsis and Buddhists and even a Jew or two – communal friction was practically unknown. Across communities, the student body of largely lower middle class and working class upbringing would, while being weighed down by common worries and doubts of an uncertain economic future, seemed nevertheless to feel entitled to a common set of dreams and destinies. Few, if any, feared being discriminated against on grounds of faith. It was the brave new world of post world war cosmopolitan Bombay, where you were inclined to think that opportunity – or the lack of it – was equal and not influenced by religious affiliation.
So when Yakub cleared school with a 70 per cent – pretty high in the days prior to ninety nine percent cut-offs – he could quite easily believe that academic achievement and hard work would be sufficient to raise himself above his father’s status – who housed his large family in a crowded chawl in Muslim dominated Bhendi Bazaar and ran a small workshop at Mustafa Bazaar near Yakub’s school. His later journey through graduation, post graduation and Chartered Accountancy and then on to becoming the affluent ‘Best CA’ of the Memon community has been well-reported.
Fracturing of a city
Bombay was meanwhile changing. A report of the Mumbai based Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights on the 1984 riots in nearby Bhiwandi, Thane and several parts of Mumbai details the programmed build up of anti-Muslim propaganda by Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Hindu Mahasabha and a reviving Shiv Sena leading up to the actual attacks of May 1984. These, the first major Hindu-Muslim conflict in Mumbai after 1937, caused fresh divisions on communal lines.
They were further sharpened during the all-India sustained campaign by the BJP from the second half of the ’80s for the construction of a Ram Mandir at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The post-Babri demolition riots of 1992-93 brought the permanent cleavage that ensured that Bombay would never be the same again. The Srikrishna Commission appointed to inquire into the causes of these riots and their link with March 1993 bomb blasts gave findings that it was the propaganda of the Hindu communal organisations and the “commands” of Bal Thackeray that were responsible for the riots and further,that there was a cause-effect relationship between these riots and the blasts that followed.
Over the last 22 years, none of those who conspired, planned and led the riots were even investigated; no one who participated in the attacks has been punished – three were convicted and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, but immediately got bail during which one expired; and Bal Thackeray, who the Srikrishna Commission identified as the “veteran general” who led the riots, was given a state funeral. On the other hand, in relation to the blasts, hundreds of suspects were investigated, many remained in jail while a fifteen year trial was conducted, a hundred persons were convicted and are serving their sentences and Yakub Memon, who even the prosecution did not claim to be among the chief conspirators, has been executed.
The Yakub we saw in prison
When we, the authors of this piece, met Memon during our stints in the Nagpur Central Prison (Arun, who spent 16 months lodged on the same death row as him, has elsewhere given his impressions of the man), we found it quite impossible to see the person before us in any conscious role in such a major conspiracy as the Bombay blasts. Despite then having been sentenced by the TADA court, with only the Supreme Court appeal to pin his hopes on, he displayed an unbelievably solid faith in the judiciary. His confidence that justice would prevail and he would be saved from the noose was such that he even continued his academic pursuits, picking up two more Master’s degrees in the process. His conviction that he would get justice seemed incredulous to the cynic in us. His belief in the system even extended to his refusal to lend the slightest support to any protest that the likes of us would initiate within the prison. It seemed, to us at least, that it was this tremendous trust in the Indian state apparatus that prompted him to take the step of surrendering to it. One wonders whether and when, if ever, he realised how misplaced that trust had been.
Yakub Memon was thus in a way a product of the times he was born and brought up in – the times of a less communalised, more ecumenical Bombay – which offered better scope for a young Muslim boy to believe. The same can barely be said of today’s Mumbai. The last two decades and more have seen a steady retreat of the secular idea. The governments at both State and Centre are doing all they can to hasten its decline and demise. Hindutva ideology, a fringe phenomenon till the ’70s in Bombay, is now commanding centre stage in Mumbai.
A hero’s funeral and a community feeling of victimhood
It was Yakub’s last journey that most starkly brought forth the future portents. The fears of the state apparatus were palpable in the police diktats to the media channels and the Memon family to prevent people from being even aware of the details of the burial. Nevertheless thousands managed to assemble for one of the largest Mumbai Muslim funerals in recent times. The reluctant hero Yakub was having heroism thrust upon him, some sections even proclaiming him a Shaheed – a title he could hardly have ever wished to lay claim to.
But we would do well to understand that the pronouncement of him as hero or martyr has less to do with some belief in his valour and more to do with a community’s feeling of victimhood. And victimhood is a dangerous thing – as best encapsulated in our prime minister’s famous declaration that actions are bound to have reactions. The ruling class apprehensions in this regard have been mostopenly articulated in BJP appointed Tripura governer Tathaghat Roy’s tweet, are potential terrorists”. While many may have condemned it as behaviour ill-behooving a governor, the unease the tweet epitomises is understandable. Its only foolhardiness lies in its belief that Intelligence or security agencies can hold down the hurt of millions.