You could call it the calm before the storm. Friday, 12
March 1993, was a typical humid day in Bombay, a day when one would rather sit
in the office than suffer the muggy heat outside. I can still recall how I made
my usual calls by noon to see if anything newsworthy was in store. Having drawn
a blank from all quarters, I heaved a sigh of relief and informed the folks at
the head office in Delhi that nothing was happening in Bombay. Several of my
colleagues from other upcountry papers had also gone through a similar exercise
and declared it a routine day with no big news, which, in a sense, was good
news. After all, the two rounds of rioting post the Babri Masjid demolition had
reduced Bombay into a communal conflict zone of sorts for the last three
months, which had kept journalists working overtime. An easy day was a welcome
Little did any of us know that we had put our feet up a little too early—shortly after 1.30 p.m., just as I was contemplating lunch, the phone rang. It was a stock broker I had made friends with while reporting the Harshad Mehta stock scam. He sounded hysterical: “Ajith bhai, there has been a huge explosion at the exchange. Hundreds have died. There is blood and bodies everywhere.” He quickly added that he had escaped by the skin of his teeth because he had gone to an eatery in the vicinity at a safe-enough distance to catch a bite when he heard the big bang.
I digested what he had to say. Journalists are sceptics by nature, and ever since the riots there had been enough false alarms about attacks on places of worship and wedding receptions for us to question any information coming to us. So I wondered if my friend on Dalal Street was guilty of exaggeration. Had a gas cylinder explosion made him jump to the conclusion that a bomb had gone off? I called up police control but the cop on duty said he was yet to receive any details about the incident at the Bombay Stock Exchange. But he confirmed that something had happened. A journalist colleague and I rushed to Dalal Street.
By the time we reached, the police had already cordoned off the area. One could see blood, shattered glass, dead bodies and dismembered limbs everywhere. It was a gory, blood-curdling sight. Ambulances and fire engines had already reached the spot. It was immediately evident that this was no cylinder burst but a massive explosion. Police constables controlling the crowd confirmed to us the imposing skyscraper that housed the BSE had been bombed and it was possibly a terrorist attack. We were told by witnesses and bystanders that the entire building had been hit (it was later revealed that the impact of the bomb broke glass windows even on the tenth floor). The basement had been severely damaged and that “several hundreds had been killed”, among them some who had come to submit forms for a Gujarat Essar issue. The actual death toll on Dalal Street was 85 dead and 217 injured, but the visuals we saw immediately after the explosion seemed to suggest the toll was many times higher.
Barely had we come to terms with the sight at BSE than someone said that the High Court, about a kilometre away, had also been targeted. We rushed there to find the Court buildings—considered a masterpiece of Gothic architecture built during the British Raj—completely intact. However, a policeman stationed at the gate said that something had happened at the Air India building at Nariman Point.
But this was only the beginning – between 1.28 p.m. and 3.35 p.m., twelve serial explosions shook Bombay. It was difficult to keep track of what was happening. Every time we called the police from a telephone booth, we were told of yet another blast. It was sheer madness and as a group of journalists criss-crossed the city, we soon realized we couldn’t possibly reach every blast site in the slow-moving traffic and hope to file our story on time. All of us rushed back to Mantralaya, the seat of the state government. At the official press conference, addressed by Chief Minister Sharad Pawar, the death toll in the blasts was put at 100 dead and 257 injured. But that sounded to most of us as an effort to downplay the figures. In my report, I had put the toll quoting an unnamed government spokesperson as 210 dead and 1,000 wounded. The final tally after police investigations was 257 killed and 750 injured. Several unofficial figures had floated around, but the official toll is now widely regarded as accurate.
What made the serial strikes so shocking were their suddenness and the targets chosen by the attackers. These were spread across Bombay and its suburbs, and it seemed as if the entire city was in the crosshairs of the bombers and there was no telling whether more explosions were in store. We had never witnessed anything like this.
At an official briefing, the timings of each explosion were read out in a monotone:
13.28: Bombay Stock Exchange. 85 dead, 217 injured
14.15: Grain market, Masjid Bunder. 5 killed, 16 injured
14.25: Air India building, Nariman Point. 20 dead, 87 injured
14.30: Petrol pump near Shiv Sena headquarters, Dadar. 4 dead 50 injured
14.55: Blast in double-decker bus outside Regional Passport Office, Worli. 113 dead, 227 injured
15.05: Zaveri Bazaar gold market. 17 dead, 57 injured
15.13: Plaza Cinema, Dadar. 10 dead, 37 injured
15.15 (approximate time): Machhimar Colony, Mahim: 3 dead, 6 injured
15.20: Hotel Sea Rock, Bandra. No casualties but damage worth Rs 9 crore
15.25: Hotel Centaur, Juhu. No casualties
15.30: Sahar International Airport. No casualties
15.35: Airport Centaur, Santa Cruz. No casualties*
(* The death toll and number of injured at each blast site was not mentioned at the briefing. It has been added here by the author.)
The details were read out without mentioning that the 13.28 or the 14.30 referred to the timings of the explosions. What was worse was that much of the information shared was in Marathi, leading to some confusion. A young journalist from one of the far-eastern countries vacationing in Bombay was asked by his office to take time out from his holiday and report on the blasts. He had met me at one of the briefings and had asked for my visiting card. He later rang me up from his hotel in Colaba and wondered what casualty figure I was going with. I told him about 200 or thereabouts dead and 1,000 injured. He was astounded because his figures showed 16,174 deaths. I said that was impossible. He immediately caught a cab and rushed to my office. Meanwhile, I cross-checked with friends at PTI, who said I was more or less correct.
Where had the 16,000-plus figure come from? He had mistaken the time of each blast as the casualty figure and come up with a mind-boggling death toll! He thanked me profusely for clearing the confusion which would have put him in an embarrassing spot and said we must meet for a meal. But that did not quite materialize since the serial blasts and its aftermath kept us both on our toes. The entire incident, however, proved one point: those who brief the press, particularly when the foreign media is present, must be precise and explicit, and must communicate in a language everyone can follow or use the services of interpreters.
Earlier in the day, several food hawkers on Dalal Street had told us about how they had seen their friends being blown up. They feared many had died on the spot. In the days to come, stories of those who survived emerged. Some had fallen unconscious and recovered after several days in the intensive care units of hospitals. Among the victims were executives, peons, street vendors, bystanders and film-goers. The bombs had spared nobody and members of all communities were among the list of those dead and injured. Hospitals were full of stories from those who said they heard a bang and felt an earth-shaking thud which just threw them in the air and left them injured with glass shards and pieces of metal lodged in their bodies.
One such survivor was Santlal Maurya, who ran a bhelpuri stall on Dalal Street and is still interviewed whenever the focus comes back to 1993 on the anniversary of that horrendous Friday. A few years ago, he told a TV channel how he still recalls hearing a loud bang and then regaining consciousness at the hospital two days later. Glass shards had entered his head, hands and feet. He would undergo several surgeries in the years to come. There were others too, like Ajmera (another much-interviewed victim) who was outside the BSE when the bomb exploded. His ribs were broken and his right arm and ear damaged. But he survived and then had another lucky escape on 11 July 2006, when bombs went off on seven suburban trains. On that day in 2006, Ajmera was at Khar station and had given the 6.21 p.m. local to Borivali a miss since it was too crowded. Shortly after it cleared the platform, a pressure cooker bomb went off. The seven serial blasts on that day claimed 209 lives and left 718 wounded.
Stories of the 1993 blasts’ survivors have been recorded several times over. So have accounts of those who had narrow escapes. People who left the stock exchange in the nick of time had a story to tell. Others considered themselves lucky since they turned up late at the locations and buildings where the blasts took place. For others like Ajmera who survived, it would become a long ordeal of recuperating from the injuries sustained.
As news of the blasts spread, panic set in. Several offices closed early, some immediately. There were fears that a communal flare-up would follow soon. The common perception was that the explosions that rocked Bombay were in retaliation to the riots in January. The obvious conclusion that many drew was that there would be a Hindu backlash to the “Muslim bombings”. Under the circumstances, Mumbaikars believed that the best thing to do was to rush to the safety of their homes. South Bombay emptied out in no time. The exodus was further hastened by news of a crowd having gathered outside the Sena Bhavan shouting anti-Muslim slogans. Luckily the protesters were peacefully disbursed by the police.
The bombings changed India’s commercial capital forever. The Hindu-Muslim divide became sharper. Members of the minority community were viewed with deep suspicion in the months and years to follow.
In the first few days after the bombings, there was no clear
picture about the identity of the bombers. There were several theories that
came from the police. The report that Sumir Lal and I filed on the day after
the blasts touched upon some of these. That car- and scooter-bombs were used
was evident. So too was the use of RDX, a plastic explosive. The entire attack,
it was presumed, was masterminded and executed by people who knew how to handle
sophisticated and modern explosives. One theory was that it was the handiwork
of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), which may have been hired by
rich local Muslim businessmen to avenge the riots. The Tamil Tigers had been known
to place bombs in vehicles. The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s
spy agency) also figured in the speculation. However, no police official spoke
to us about the role of the underworld—which was rather surprising, since it
was later reported that the Bombay police did get a tip-off that it had
summarily dismissed. S. Hussain Zaidi’s book, Black Friday: The True Story
of the Bombay Bomb Blasts (Penguin India, 2002), also mentions this. Gul
Mohammed Khan aka Gullu was part of the 19-member team that Tiger Memon (one of
the two main accused in the blasts) sent to Pakistan via Dubai to be trained
for executing the bombings. On his return, he discovered that his brothers had
been picked up by the police to find out his whereabouts. Gullu was wanted in
several riot-related cases and when he saw his family being harassed and
subjected to third degree, he decided to surrender on 9 March at the Nirmal
Nagar police station in Bandra East. Gullu thought if he revealed Tiger Memon’s
plan to bomb the city, he would be dealt with leniently. But the police did not
believe him and dismissed his conspiracy theory as a yarn he had spun. Had he
been taken seriously, perhaps the blasts could have been averted.
This deep-rooted suspicion perhaps explains why Muslims still find it difficult to rent or buy apartments of their choice in a city which prides itself as being cosmopolitan.
Much more than the death toll and the ₹27 crore loss due to
damage to property, the bombings changed India’s commercial capital forever.
The already existent Hindu-Muslim divide became sharper. Members of the
minority community were viewed with deep suspicion in the months and years to
follow. The average citizen became hyper security-conscious and saw bombs
everywhere. A crack police team called the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) was
quickly put together. The newly formed outfit as well as the police had to
attend to several calls across the city, many of which turned out to be false
alarms. One afternoon, reporters from a news agency sipping beer at a Colaba
bar and discussing possible theories about who was behind the bombings found
themselves surrounded by gun-toting policemen. The “alert” bar manager had
apparently reported the presence of suspicious men discussing bombs!
Journalists who had been critical of the Sena when it launched its pogrom against Muslims in January faced many barbs from their own colleagues about how they had got the script wrong. The minority community, they were told, deserved no sympathy. The blasts were proof about its basic anti-national character. This warped perception of seeing people belonging to a religion as harbouring terrorists and plotting against the country enjoyed wide support even among the educated upper middle class. Of course, many subsequently revised their view of Muslims but there are many others who still haven’t.
This deep-rooted suspicion perhaps explains why Muslims still find it difficult to rent or buy apartments of their choice in a city which prides itself as being cosmopolitan. A few years ago it shocked many that Bollywood actors—Emran Hashmi, Saif Ali Khan and Shabana Azmi—could not buy a place in the city because they were Muslims. In the 20 October 2013 issue of The Hindu, Arefa Tehsin, author and wildlife enthusiast, described the trauma she had to go through while house-hunting for a cousin, a Jet Airways pilot, recently transferred to the big city. Flat owners and housing society after housing society refused to let out an apartment because of the community he belonged to. After her experience, Arefa—coming from a secular family in Udaipur, which has Kayasth Hindus, Shia and Sunni Muslims, Punjabis, Marwaris, Baniyas and Bohras in its fold—wrote that it was unfortunate that the bias against Muslims exists in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai.
The other fallout of the blasts was in the underworld. After investigations into the case revealed the role of Dawood Ibrahim’s D Company, the public perception of the mafia went through a sea change. The bhais were no longer “good, influential” people to know or hero-worship. The dons and their underlings were seen as villains who needed to be kept at a distance. After the blasts, the D Company split down the middle with Chota Rajan, till then Dawood’s deputy, parting ways with him. While there were several reasons attributed to the break-up, it was widely believed that Dawood’s alleged hand in the revenge bombings was the main reason. Rajan was soon popularly identified as a Hindu don while the D Company got the label of being anti-national and pro-Muslim.
A day after the blasts, Bombay was supposedly back to
normal. As reporters we were asked to file stories about the resilience of the
citizens of Maximum City and how they had sent out a message to the killers
that they would not be cowed down by terror. We dutifully did that, although
this surmise was quite untrue. Many of us wondered whether it was courage on
display or the sheer compulsion to earn a living? The city does not take kindly
to shirkers and when it became clear that there was no communal backlash,
office-goers returned to work. Vendors too were back on the streets and life was seemingly normal. But there was the growing feeling that terror had come to stay in the city. Subsequent attacks, including 26/11, proved that it indeed had.
What about those who had masterminded the bombings, planted the explosives, or landed the RDX? On 21 March 2013, the Supreme Court gave its final verdict in the case. Yakub Memon, Tiger Memon’s brother, was awarded the death penalty, while 33 others were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment “for their whole life”. Actor Sanjay Dutt was given five years for possession of illegal weapons. Since he had already served 18 months, he was sent to prison for another 42 months. But in real terms, this could not be called the final closure of the case. The two prime accused—Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim—are still absconding and are believed to be in Pakistan.
(Excerpted with permission from Off The Record by Ajith Pillai (Hachette India, 300 pages, Rs.395).