National Interest: Because we forget

On one issue there is no doubt: the firearms given to Sanjay Dutt in the middle of January 1993 were indeed for self-defence. So what is anybody complaining about? Self-defence is as good a defence morally as in a court of law.

The problem, as usual, lies in the detail. Which must be stated once again now because we live in times of such attention deficit disorder. Also, when the presumption seems to be that there was no history before Google. Or when you merely speed-read history through Hindi cinema as, in this case, in Black Friday, the stark Anurag Kashyap-directed film based on the serial bombings of March 1993. What's important is to understand what happened before and after. Only then can you get a fuller picture of what India, and not merely Bombay, had been confronted with in those bloody months. And I speak here partly with the benefit of hindsight, but mostly as somebody who covered the aftermath of the blasts for India Today, in the company of some of the finest reporters in the magazine's bureau then, its Bombay bureau chief Maseeh Rahman, and Rahul Pathak, who subsequently had a stint with us here, heading our Express News Service.

The most important fact is that while the serial bombing seemed like a flawless operation, it was a disaster strategically. Because the objective of its planners was not merely to kill a few hundred people. It was to orchestrate communal riots of an unthinkable intensity nobody would be able to control. It was the first ISI operation of this scale anywhere in India. In fact, it was then the first significant ISI foray outside of Punjab and Kashmir. And remember, this is when militancy in Punjab was being rapidly crushed by K.P.S. Gill's police, and the Kashmiri insurgency was still in its early days.

The key to understanding that plot lies in separating, analysing and sequencing three different sets of events. The first riots broke out on December 6, just as Babri fell. Angry Muslims hit the streets first, and then they faced the full fury of the Shiv Sainiks and the rest, and an openly partisan Bombay police. These riots settled by the third week of December. The second round began in the first week of January. But a few significant things had happened in the interim.

First, a large consignment of arms, ammunition and RDX landed at a place called Dighi on the Konkan coast in the first week of January. Second, and most significant to me, coming from Delhi to investigate the story and thereby having been saved the horrors of the riots, was the fact that, in the run-up to the second round of riots, the police had discovered an intriguing pattern. Several key officers I met then told me that bodies of poor Hindu mathadi (head-load) workers from the Maharashtra hinterland were being found early mornings on streets where they often slept, slit at the throat with a small knife as if in some ritualistic style. That was, however, an analytical afterthought as the investigators pieced the story together. These bodies were mostly found around Dongri, a communally sensitive area. The conjecture was that someone was trying to provoke a second round of riots. That there was a plan to this.

The armaments were being landed at the same time and were to be distributed, again, in "sensitive" areas. Sanjay got his consignment, for example, on January 16, when the second round of riots was ebbing. So the lots of weapons distributed around this time were for "self-defence", but not for self-defence during those riots. The riots had, by now, ended. The second consignment landed at Shekhadi in the first week of February. There were no riots then. In fact, there was total, if uneasy, peace in Bombay until the bombings on March 12, five weeks later.

Focus on these dates and events and the picture becomes clearer. The mathadis, who are a large, poor but well-knit population, were killed ritually in sensitive areas to provoke fresh riots. Since the Sainiks were now well organised and helped along by a partisan police, this created greater justification for bombings in retaliation and also inspired, for the masterminds, what the Supreme Court just described as the foot-soldiers within the furious and insecure local Muslim population. The second round of riots was much more one-sided (against the Muslims) than the first. It is after this that the weapons were pre-stocked in sensitive localities and the bombings were planned. The plot was simple: the bombings will again unleash angry Hindu hordes, escorted by a partisan police. And they will be greeted by AKs and grenades, leading to mayhem of the kind never imagined. And then the fires will spread all over India.

All memories are selective, and sometimes convenient, particularly as they go back two full decades, exactly to date. And we reporters are no exception. So, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court order last week, I not only read up our April 1993 stories in India Today's archives, but also spoke again to some of the key figures in that giant investigation. Some shall still remain anonymous, particularly those continuing in service, or concerned about underworld reprisals. But M.N. Singh, who led the investigation as joint commissioner (crime) then, and whom you often see now as a sensible TV talking head, recalls what a horror Bombay had saved itself from simply by not coming up to the masterminds' expectations of how the city was to respond, reviving the cycle of reprisals. I do remember meeting him in his police housing cooperative apartment on Worli Sea Face, and first hearing the story of the mathadis with throats slit. One of my key colleagues was sceptical of this and so I checked again with Singh's then boss and Maharashtra DGP S. Ramamurthy, whom I had known as an IB veteran. He was more familiar with the methods of organisations like the ISI and vouched for the story his officers were putting together.

And how did his police crack the case within two days? Alongside the blasts, one band of gangsters had been driving to the BMC headquarters at Victoria Terminus in a car loaded with AKs and grenades. It just so happened that the Century Bazar bomb, the biggest of all, went off while they were thereabouts, still crossing Worli. They fled in panic, abandoning the car. This car was found, along with 7 AK rifles and grenades, and was registered in the name of the Memon (Tiger and Yakub) family and the case was cracked. And why was the car headed for the BMC headquarters? M.N. Singh tells me now the gangsters were headed there to break in and fire indiscriminately to kill as many corporators (many of them from the Sena) as possible (this, 15 years before 26/11). The blasts, the massacre of corporators, and then the largescale killings of Hindu reprisal-seekers and policemen with AKs and grenades already positioned. You get the picture? M.N. Singh has one regret even today. "Arms were delivered to Sanjay Dutt on January 16. Instead of concealing them, if he had only told his father, who in turn would have surely informed the police, we would have been able to prevent the bombings and save so many lives."

You also understand now why M.N. Singh and his many colleagues see the bombings of 1993 as an essentially failed operation. It killed many people, but failed in its strategic objective. Singh tells me in 1993, Bombay Police did not have even one AK rifle, had never seen grenades blow up, and even he did not know something called RDX. In the aftermath, his police recovered 71 AK rifles and 500 grenades, dispersed strategically. We knew what mayhem just 9 AKs caused in 26/11. What would 71 have done in 1993? In addition, there were 3.5 tonnes of RDX and 1,200 detonators. I also called Ramamurthy again, now. He lives in the same modest (for a state police chief) personal apartment in the narrow Sohrab Bharucha Road (off Colaba Causeway) where I had met him in late March, 1993 and he only said: "See, this Bombay Police, good, bad, ugly, whatever you call it, it has cracked every single case of terror attacks so fast. Something works for it."

Not only was it the ISI's first major operation in mainland India, it was also the most audacious to date. Much more ambitious than even 26/11. So ambitious and so audacious, in fact, that they risked their most important asset in India, Dawood Ibrahim, and his underworld army. They would have known that irrespective of how this ended, they would have to evacuate the whole lot, and find them safe harbour in their own country. Now you know why they pamper and protect Dawood and the Memons the way they do. They were key to their most sinister and brutal conspiracy in India to date. Also, they know simply too much. In the many rounds of bombings since then, and even 26/11, you cannot miss the common pattern: multiple bombings or attacks, but hit one key point in South Bombay first, get the government distracted there, and then have trouble radiate outwards. Even in 26/11, a bomb was left in a taxi timed to go off after a while to cause confusion in an entirely different area. What does this tell you, except that instruments and methods may have changed in two decades, but the "masterminds" continue to work on the same formula.

I had had one long, and partly on-record conversation on the phone with Dawood Ibrahim before the blasts, set up through my colleague Sheela Bhatt, who edited the Gujarati edition of India Today and was a veteran on the underworld beat in Bombay. This was in 1992, just after Dr Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, was freeing up the economy and opening up imports, even of gold. I called Dawood (in Dubai) and asked if this had not harmed his smuggling business. He said what we called smuggling in India was a legitimate business activity in Dubai, so he was breaking no law. He also said he welcomed what "Manmohan ji" had done, except that somebody should have done that much earlier. He did not regret losing some business, he said, as "my country benefited from such reform." He was at pains to underline his patriotism. Even in cricket, he said, he always supported and betted on India and was so distraught (he spoke in language more colourful than this, but unpublishable) that India had lost to the West Indies in the World Cup that morning that is why we know that the conversation took place on March 10, 1992, when the West Indies walloped India by five wickets at Wellington.

He said any time I wanted a more proper interview, I only had to let him know. He spoke to Sheela Bhatt again after the bombings (published alongside my story in India Today, April 15, 1993) and said he was being victimised by Bombay Police. He fulminated over how badly Muslims were targeted in the Bombay riots, how their women had been humiliated and children burnt, but denied any role in the serial bombings whatsoever. If the government set up an inquiry consisting of RAW and the CBI in Delhi, but excluding Bombay Police, he would even present himself before it. Of course, no such thing was to happen as his gang's role in the conspiracy became clearer by the day.

I decided now to take him up on his earlier offer of a more "proper" interview, and called him. He said he couldn't promise that "right now". But after some cajoling, he agreed to see me if I came to Dubai, though only if I agreed to keep the meeting off the record unless he agreed to come on record. I did visit Dubai in the first week of April, 1993 and presented myself at his "workplace", the 17-storey Pearl Building housing many airline offices in the buzzing Al Fahidi Street, a kind of subcontinental shopping paradise then.

Dawood and his brother Anees were at their 12th floor office, decorated with gold-inlaid paintings of Ajmer Sharif and Quranic verses. It was just around noon, but I was struck by the fact that the morning's Times of India (Bombay edition) lay on his table the don stayed in touch with the latest! He was in the news then and, of course, all references to him and Dubai in a front-page story had been blackened out by Dubai censors.

Dawood was not willing to give an interview now. Not even to acknowledge that he was in Dubai. "When we do the interview, bhai," he said, "you won't come to Dubai just like this." He would call me back again, he said, and then "my car will go and receive you at the tarmac and bring you to me... you will be my guest... and my people will also take you shopping" etc, etc. But for now, he said, please do not even mention that you met me here, "as it creates problems for my hosts". I persisted, nagged and talked around him as reporters usually do, and all he would concede was that I mention I visited his office, without quoting any conversations.

And then, as I turned around to leave, making no secret of my dismay and even reluctance, he sensed something.

"Ai bhai," he said, as I turned around, hoping somehow that he had changed his mind.

"Dekhna bhai, likhna nahin maine jo kaha (see, brother, do not report what I said)", "dekho na, achcha nahin hoga (see, it won't be nice)".

It felt as if the temperature had suddenly dropped 30 degrees below zero, and yet I was sweating on the forehead. That memory isn't selective, nor is it convenient. And it hasn't faded even a bit after two full decades.

sg@expressindia.com

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