Revisiting media coverage of the 1992-93 Mumbai riots


The 1992-93 Mumbai riots were the worst ever communal riots that the city saw after Independence, both in their scale and spread. They lasted a week in December 1992 and about 10 days in January 1993; officially 900 persons died, hundreds went missing and large-scale displacement was caused. The Justice B N Srikrishna Commission investigated the riots and its report remains the most widely-debated Commission report.

How did reporters cover the riots? Could they get all sides of the story? Was the coverage by the English press qualitatively different from that of the Marathi and Urdu press? Why? How long did the riots and their after-effects remain a story worth telling? How much attention did/do the media pay – after the violence abated – to its fallout on girls and women (in terms of shelter, livelihood and other aspects of life)? How can the gender lens be used to tell important stories about the riots 20 years later? Looking back, would the press do things differently? The NWMI meeting brought together reporters who covered the riots and their aftermath, and editors who decided how to present the reports, to answer these questions. What we wanted to know was: Is there something we can learn/unlearn for the future as we continue to cover other communal conflicts?

Writer and journalist Naresh Fernandes, who moderated the session titled ‘Revisiting media coverage of the 1992-93 Mumbai riots’, gave a brief overview of the coverage of the 1992-93 riots and the challenges it presented journalists at the time. “The devastation of the riots forced Mumbai to take a hard look at itself…and a great deal has changed since then in the city,” he said.

From left: Meena Menon, Darryl D’monte, Zeeshan Shaikh, Jyoti Punwani, Naresh Fernandes, Pratap Asbe, Shahid Latif.
Journalists under curfew

Shahid Latif, who has been editor of the Urdu newspaper Inquilab since 2004, said that at the time of the riots Inquilab’s offices were located at Tardeo, which was one of the worst-affected areas during the riots. In the second phase of the riots, they were hurriedly shifted to the seventh floor of a nearby building in Tardeo where their English-language sister publication, Mid-Day, had its administrative offices. “Everywhere we could see the thod-phod (destruction). We felt we too would be attacked,” said Latif. While there were no direct threats to the staff, Latif said there were several rumours in those days that the newspaper was threatened.

For five days – from January 8, 1993 – Inquilab could not be published because its all-Muslim staff could not move out of the office. Curfew was clamped in most of the areas around, there was only one desk telephone and the staff members who were at home could not come to the office. Everything had to be noted over the telephone and there was no way of either verifying or developing a report. Latif said his newspaper did not face direct pressure from any side to report or not to report, but they could not report or bring out the newspaper because of the riot conditions. “If all movement in the city is stopped, journalists cannot report, check the authenticity of an event, take reports from the police, or go to the spot where something has been set on fire. We can’t work on a story in such a situation,” he said.

Unhelpful police

Meena Menon, currently Deputy Editor of The Hindu (Mumbai Bureau) and author of Riots & After in Mumbai, was at the time of the riots working as a reporter with The Times of India. “There was not much TV then, no mobile phones,” she said explaining the challenges of covering the event in the absence of technology we now take for granted. Since The Times of India provided its staff with company vehicles and curfew passes (unlike the Indian Express and this came out in the question-answer session later on), this made it easier for its staff to access the city, she said. However, the streets and trains were deserted, the silence was deafening and everywhere there was the smell of burning. “The smell stayed with me for a long time,” said Menon.

The police were unhelpful, refusing to verify or deny reports of deaths, survivors and refugee camps. “How could we corroborate the deaths? We witnessed firings, went to refugee camps and hospital morgues. There were scenes of carnage and devastation.” When Menon and others were tipped off about people being burnt near a mosque, the police told them there were 30 deaths. They were horrified to find nearly 500 rotting bodies, which had been subjected to barbaric violence. “Those images will stay with us forever,” Menon said.

Vigilante squads were everywhere, fuelled by rumours that the Muslims were going to attack. However, the Muslims were the victims of horrific violence and in no shape to attack anyone, she said, adding that journalists were constantly thinking/devising means of moving around the city and reporting on what they saw. “How did we represent this situation? How do you cover such a big city every day? We did the best we could. Now we have the fundamentals of reporting in such a situation in place, we know what to look for. That comes from experience. The initial sense of bewilderment is gone,” she concluded.

Editorial decisions

Darryl D’Monte, former Resident Editor, The Times of India (TOI), Mumbai, said that he took it as a compliment that under his watch the TOI was being called the Times of Pakistan during the riots. “Not before that and not since then has the TOI taken a stand on anything,” he added. Even then, on one of the days of rioting “when Mumbai was burning”, the Delhi edition of the TOI covered an international film festival that was on in the capital, he said. D’Monte spoke of the many desperate calls he would get from Muslims in the city asking him to please ask the police to take action. It was then that he felt most helpless.

D’Monte talked of how Rajdeep Sardesai, then a TOI reporter, got the Shiv Sena to admit on record that it played a part in the riots and that it was “retaliating”. D’Monte was also questioned by “higher ups” about breaking the norm and naming the communities in the riots which he felt was needed then in order to convey the magnitude of the violence He recalled how journalist Teesta Setalvad had then managed to catch the communally inflammatory remarks the police were making on the police wireless, a story that was later picked up by the New York Times.

The practice of displacing hatred and blaming an amorphous “other” was seen widely during this time with Muslims in general and (non-existent) “Bangladeshis” in particular being blamed for the violence, added D’Monte. “How had our cosmopolitan city descended to this level?” D’Monte wondered and also referred to the old adage that in such situations, “journalism is the first draft of history.”

Communalisation of the media

Pratap Asbe, former Political Editor of the Maharashtra Times, pointed out that the countdown to the 1992-93 riots had begun much earlier, with the riot of 1984 and with the Ram Janambhoomi andolan, the process gathered momentum. Sikh “terrorism” was crushed after the 1984 riots. Hindus were affected not only by these events but also by what was seen as Rajiv Gandhi’s appeasement of the Muslims with his government’s stand in the Shah Bano case. The credibility of the democratic and secular forces was being systematically destroyed and polarisation and fundamentalism deepened. This affected all parts of society—common citizens, the government, the administration, the police and even the media. The Babri masjid was demolished “as if it were a live person is being beaten and beaten and felled—with that kind of force,” Asbe said.

Asbe spoke at length about the Behrampada colony in Bandra east and how vicious rumours of how Hindus could not come back alive after going to this predominantly Muslim colony were allowed to spread; even the media projected these rumours. The propaganda was of a high magnitude. Terms like ‘Chhota Pakistan’ and ‘Bangladesh’ to describe Muslim-dominated localities in the city were also common. “Baseless rumours also got a lot of publicity, and people started believing in them.” However, when Abse visited Behrampada and reported that 30% of the population was Hindu, and there were temples, a church, and Marathi-speaking people in the colony, he was deluged with abuse and hate calls. He described how the underworld tried to project Behrampada Muslims as killers in order to clear the slums off the prime land. He actually heard policemen using abusive terms over the wireless against the minority community while travelling in a minister’s car. Maharashtra Times’ circulation came down because of its non-communal reporting and there was tremendous pressure even from the compositors and the circulation department of the newspaper to change the stance of the reporting.

The media must stay with the story

Independent journalist Jyoti Punwani said that she reported the aftermath of the riots, especially the Srikrishna Commission hearings, working as a freelancer. This gave her greater freedom to hang on to the story instead of being hustled into covering something else after a few days. She said the media blundered in not covering the Srikrishna hearings continuously and turning its attention solely to the bomb blast case a few months later on the grounds that readers would not be interested in the coverage of two legal cases at the same time.

The case of the Hindu family facing violence and death in Radhabai Chawl was highlighted and it is that image that has stayed with people instead of the many Muslim deaths. The English press gave a misleading picture of the riots coinciding with police reports and showing the Muslims as aggressors with arms and the police being demoralised etc. During the Srikrishna Commission all these myths were demolished. The hearings showed that the police were not demoralised when shooting the Muslims, that the Hindu were as much perpetrators as during the Babri masjid demolition.

The Commission showed that the real story of the riots was how the police behaved. The police even actually entered and shot Muslims when they were at home or in mosques. During the Commission’s hearings, the police versions started falling apart. It showed that the Shiv Sena was involved right from December 6. “It was a story worth telling,” Punwani said. “Until now, Radhabai chawl remains the main image of the riots, and not Suleiman Usman bakery. Instead of exposing the real story, the press helped polarise communities as much as politicians did.”

The media did not “stay” with the stories. According to Punwani, “If you stay with the process, you learn a lot as a journalist and it’s a very good story too.” But by doing “revisit” stories at certain anniversaries of the riots, the media was being voyeuristic and not helping the Muslim victims who felt the horror and trauma all over again while recounting the stories for the umpteenth time. Punwani agreed with Asbe that the media did not cover the build up to the riots and the recent Dhule riots showed a re-run of the same thing.

Reporting beyond Mumbai

Zeeshan Shaikh, reporter, Indian Express (Mumbai), who covered the recent Dhule riots pointed out that journalists live very insulated lives and are not acquainted with much of the painful reality around. “What happens beyond Mumbai does not matter,” he said. Even Sheikh was reluctant to go to Dhule because at the time that he was told to go, “only two people had died” as he told his editor. The regional media was highly communal, neglecting to emphasise that all the six deaths were of Muslim youths in police firing. Not a single local reporter had met the victims’ families. A lot of people used mobile phones to capture images of what happened in Dhule. People filmed the police attacking Muslim property and firing above the waist and these were widely circulating on cell phones – yet none of the local reporters had bothered to report on the issue.

Questions from the audience

Fernandes asked the panellists whether reporters could be trained to cover riots. The discussion centred on the need to know the area geographically, meet as many people as possible and more importantly, to talk to the victims and not just the police, and verify as many of the reports or allegations as possible.

Shahid Latif spoke about how it was important to reach out to those who were communally prejudiced but progressive/liberal media reached only the “converted”. Many of the young reporters today are “Google journalists” doing spot reporting without any background reading or knowledge. Television was only interested in sensational visuals and not analysis or background,

The question was asked: Did women have an advantage over men in reporting riots? Asbe and Punwani felt that they had. Since women survivors of riots would not speak frankly to male reporters, certainly women reporters could access those stories better. Asbe said many of the atrocities against women in the ’92-93 riots were not reported, precisely because fewer women journalists were available and could access these sources.

Some of the other questions that came up from the audience were: Should the media be a bridge between polarised groups in the community? What happens after the riots—what kind of information came out/ comes out in the media in the immediate aftermath? If there had been 24/7 news television in 1992-93, would the coverage have been different like in the case of the Gujarat riots?

In response to a question about naming communities, Asbe said it was necessary because not naming could lead to ambiguity. But naming depends, he said, on how it is done. If the media says Mathadi workers were burnt, it is evident they were Hindu. So not naming will not make such a big difference, he said. In response to another question, Asbe said that it was a matter of degree in the Marathi press but the stance was by and large communal. Saamna and Navakaal were aggressive, the liberal newspapers were sober, but both carried the same news—it was only a matter of degree.

Open Magazine journalist Shahina K K then spoke about the ordeal she was being put through by the police for writing about the leader of the People’s Democratic Party (Kerala) and Islamic scholar Abdul Nasar Madani. She recounted the facts of his arrest and the biased investigation into his alleged terrorist activities, on which she reported in detail in Tehelka magazine, where she then worked, how charges have been slapped against her under draconian laws like the ULAPA and how she was required to appear at a police station every fortnight in Karnataka.

Rapporteurs for the session: Sharmila Joshi, Lina Mathias