Behrampada & Its Neighbours: Harish Bhanot
Duration: 00:21:45; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 31.283; Saturation: 0.133; Lightness: 0.237; Volume: 0.161; Cuts per Minute: 0.092; Words per Minute: 159.066
Summary: This is one interview from the rushes of the ‘I live in Behrampada’, a documentary on a Mulim ghetto in the context of the Bombay riots, an aftermath of the Babari Masjid demolition. I was 8 years old during the Bombay ’92-93 riots. My only memory of the time was an unscheduled two-month holiday from school, though the adult talk about stray dead bodies and destruction remains stored in some corner. Later various other incidents of violent identity politics and representations of the Bombay riots in films etc. made a constant a reference point. Going through the rushes after 15 years has also been a process of coming to terms with my own city and its black holes. The riots of ’92-93 divided the famed cosmopolitan city of Bombay on communal lines and the neighbourhood of Behrampada bore the brunt of this division. The film explored social biases, which under emergency can create mayhem. In this search, the film interviewed people from different classes and religions – namely, Hindu building residences, and Muslim slum dwellers; authorized buildings and unauthorized or under-dispute settlements. What is apparent in the interviews is the different perspectives on each event, accusation of the ‘other’ community and the feeling of being wronged and rejected. However, reading/seeing the whole rushes makes it clear that it was a manifestation of old politics of majoritarianism. It is recommended to visit the other interviews under the same category in this site in order to understand the whole picture.
Harish Bhanot, who was senior editor at Hindustan Times, attempts to provide an objective view of the happenings, yet some inevitable class and community biases seep in. The rhetoric of "My neighbours of Behrampada" cannot seal off all holes.
Interviewee: Harish Bhanot (HB) Interviewer: Madhusree Dutta (M)
Shot by: Moloy Roy
Harish Bhanot, the chairman and resident of a building (homes of the middle class) adjoining the infamous neighbourhood of Behrampada (slum for the poor) recalls what happened in his neighbourhood, on the day of 7th Dec, 1992, the day the riots began in Mumbai. He narrates one of many stories of police firings and missing bodies and political opportunists of that time. Banot feels the middle class building resident suffer the brunt of it as their glass panes are broken. Well, a glass pane definitely costs more than the thatched roof of the shanties in Behrampada!
(M): I studied in Delhi.
(HB): In? Delhi ok. I have never been in Delhi. I was in Chandigarh. I am a Punjabi otherwise.
(HB): I feel that bandra east has got a bad name because it has been heavily politicized. On 7th of Dec the muslim population of Behrampada did want to express themselves against what happened in Ayodhya. They wanted to come on the road, the police didn't want it because the other side was a sena strong road, they didn't want the two to come face to face and clash. So police stood in between, fired in the air, but the people from Behrampada who were deeply agitated, they were keen to come out. At that time…
(M): Can you mention the spot?
(HB): Spot is…a police picket is being built, it was from behind that where they were trying to come. And then at that time a police officer appeared on the scene, he warned them to go back, they did not, he first fired in the air and then fired straight at the crowd as a result of which one woman was killed. The woman's body was taken away by the police for post mortem. What happened to it? The local residents won't know…But the moment this happened, political parties descended like kites coming down upon a dead animal. Everybody coming and sympathizing and arranging relief, for what, no body knows. Congress was trying to retain the wart, Janta dal leaders appeared here and they said oh the Muslims are in deep distress, but nobody ever bothered to know what was our lot. Particularly these three buildings, which are a buffer between the two, we get stones from both the sides. And my glass panes are broken but I never took any part, I am prepared to bet my life for somebody to come and tell that even a pebble was ever thrown from this building. I have locked, As chairman of the building, I have locked the terrace and I never allowed people to go up. Except and authorized clerk who went once, with my permission.
December 7, 1992
The journalist with secular upbringing felt obliged to put in a good word for the poor Muslim neighbours. Still he believes every resident of the slum should be held responsible for any criminal in the locality. One wonders whether he knows the credential of every resident in his apartment building and whether he is ready to accept responsibility for any misdeed on their parts. This illogic is the beginning of the expectation that every Muslim must prove their patriotism to India, whereas the rest are natural Indians. It is interesting that the apartment in the building was an office accommodation for Mr. Bhanot and he left the area within a year of this interview after retiring from his job.
(HB): So, my neighbours in Behrampada have been my neighbours right from the beginning and they are a very decent lot, let me say, I know it will offend some Hindus but I don't bothered about it. They are very decent people, their children wish you, they are very sweet people. Even if they quarrel among themselves, it is their job.
(M): there is a myth, which had come in a lot of newspapers that it is a den of criminals.
(HB): Look, I am not bothered about the criminals but I know 2-3 incidents which do scare me even. There was an old man who was a social worker at a peace conference, that man made a speech and he blamed people inside and named one of the criminals, known criminals, who had been creating trouble. That old man, that social worker was shot dead by that very criminal two days later. And that criminal was later on killed by the police.
(M): This lot was from Behrampada?
(HB): They both were from Behrampada and Navpada, I treat this as one complex. That is why I always say that it is a population of a lakh of people which is infact an act of gross foolishness on part of the authorities. No community should be allowed to live like this in such a large number.
Harish Banot defends his entire neighbourhood against the "communal" stamp that they are infamous for. Bhanot here states that the locals of Behrampada were able to deal with the fire without the help of a fire brigade, however, the residents of Behrampada have another story to tell.
Mr. Bhanot takes extreme pain in clearing the image of the gentry. As is the rule of law the gentry in this area too is from the majority community. The insistence on the round about way of proving that the slum is responsible for every disaster, including destruction of their own huts, often borders towards ridiculous.
(HB): Our grievance, The grievance of people here is that Behrampada is not a Hindu- Muslim, don't divide it like this. My own building has 5 muslim families, no one has even suffered a scratch. And when they left the building, because we were the buffer, six Hindu families also left. Why did they leave if it were communal alone? Now what I'm going to say is that before February 1, that is only 6 days back, Behrampada one of the huts was burnt at night, but they were able to deal with the fire, the local people. Without the aid of a fire brigade within minutes of it. And one of the days when the police was going around and there was commotion in the area they found they were fired upon from one corner of Behrampada, close to our buildings. Now this place later on, police found it couldn't handle it so security forces were called in.
(M): Sir, Could you please repeat? They were fired at by?
(HB): I'm telling you. From a structure build on the common lavatories of Behrampada and the repetition of the fire gave the impression to the police that it was an AK-47. Now security forces came and dismantled that shooting range which anybody can see even today. I felt slightly bad, my neighbours never told me that in the corner this is what had been built. Otherwise I have nothing against my neighbours as I tell you. They possibly were so afraid of things, they couldn't tell me. Now this shooting range was built by whom, inside the Behrampada, could the outsiders go and do it? Why did they build it?
(M): Is this on 1st of Feb night?
(HB): No this is before that. Till that period barring a hut having been partly burnt and this dismantling of this structure which was a shooting range, I say with lot of emphasis that Behrampada had not suffered a scratch.
The benevolent patriarch tries to amend peace by reprimanding 'both sides'. There is an unwritten assumption that 'both' are equal in facility, power, number and intolerance. Though his concerns for the widows and children of the riot victims has a broad liberal base.
(HB): There has been tension and tensions are such that the Hindu women living there, they were advised not to put bindi because they knew the seniors there or senior people there knew that they run into risks if they do it. This is the lot there. And in my area people shaved off their beards, most shameful both the things but this is what has been happening and political leaders, they will all come and go to Behrampada. Sunil Dutt today finds it a very difficult problem to come to this area because he has not been visiting it. We also need sympathy, people like us particularly. I couldn't go out for five days. Now we had always been told, on Monday last we had offered in fact that we are prepared to escort those children. They are my children, they are not muslim children or…Look, one thing must be realized by all of us, when we kill a man we don't punish him, he dies, he goes away, we kill that woman, young woman who is made a widow, and no widow has a religion, a widow is a widow poor thing, the child is an orphan. I don't want to create orphans and widows in this area.
Strange ways of identity politics. Some are afraid of life, right to livelihood and domicile and yet others are worried sick about their reputation.
(HB): That is why I have been so strict with my people that please keep the place locked. They broke the gate, I wasn't here.
(M): Other side?
(HB): our side, 15th of January, the day the Prime Minister was here. I infact was came to know of this trouble at the Raj Bhavan. Whosoever does it, I think he is commiting a great sin, so, now I had said, Behrampada had not suffered a scratch and all the time it was being booked here, Behrampada being attacked, Behrampada being attacked and we made this a notorious place as if we were all goondas living here.
Three, whether or not the police recovered arms, ammunitions, chemicals, bombs, choppers from this area or not is not my concern. One can go and check up with the police what they recovered. But I have seen the police taking away bagfuls from here.
Bhanot talks about an incident of 15th January 1993, when Muslim namaazis, coming from Friday afternoon Namaz were fired upon by the Police. Mr. Bhanot volunteers to save the police from the stigma and justifies the firing. His class hatred for an unruly and overpopulated slum, lack of access to the minority settlement and affinity towards the dominant political and social trend, come out like a stream of consciousness testimony. What prompts him to be so precise and conclusive with numbers, dates, order of events – specially during the time of such upheaval. Was he fully aware of the agendas he was pushing? Or is it that he was just following a dominant social trend of the time? Or was it an assumption of moral authority of a senior journalist?
(HB): Three, on 15th the army was called in at that end, where I have not been there for two months now and the major who was the column commander, he made a statement which was carried by newspapers on the 20th of January because he made this on the 19th. Possibly a team of journalists had come to see the medical facilities being provided by them. He said that we were called there at 1:45, a mob of 2-3000 people, they were attacking the police force there. We put a barricade of handcarts there but that didn't help us. The commander said that this crowd, this mob had come out of a mosque. I am only quoting it, this is not my personal knowledge. This was the Army officer who has been quoted and no one has tried to deny it, it appeared on the 20th. They say we fired 11 rounds then because the mob was advancing and later helped the police to recover arms, which included country made rifles, pistols, bombs, bomb making materials, choppers and all such things…so, though I have not a word against Behrampada but I do agree that things have come form there and not today, I have been writing from a long time that there are many areas in this which are not very healthy. Behrampada people have not harmed me, except breaking a few glass panes of mine and I hope we will continue to be very good neighbors but as long as this is politicized and these political leaders are allowed to come in, every time they come, there is riot on the following day, I do not want this!
The air of intolerance and violence finally reduces to competition over facilities.
The suffering of the residents, who lose ten minutes of their time as they cannot use the station road, seems to be much worse than those children who have lost an entire year of their school.
(HB): Now what happens is, the general complaint is that Behrampada children are not able to go to school which is in Khedwadi, I sympathize and I feel rather bad that they are not able to go. I used to cross them while going to office everyday and I would wish most of them, but I have to ask another question. Why is it that lakhs of people living in Bandra East cannot use the station road? The only access to Bandra East station. I cant! I can't come back in the evening. Because on that stretch of road there are five or six small, very narrow alleys coming out on the road which is about15-20 feet only (must have meant meters) and they come into the road and when it is dark how can I be sure that there is nobody there to stab me. Though I strongly believe and during the day I have been going on this road which is otherwise considered a privet road on the stand that if my last moment has come, nobody can give me another second. And if it hasn't come I can walk through fire and I will survive. But there is no use trying to be foolhardy about things when you know death is right before you, a mad dog is coming. It is this situation. The best way to solve the problem today is the residents here should take it upon themselves to lead these children to their schools and see that they are back home and I should have some protection that I can use that road night and day. When I come I have to take a bus, I to go the highway, then I take a longed tour to be home. Whereas I used to take less than seven minutes in the past. I take fifteen minutes.
(M): You go to West side and take a bus?
(HB): No, I, no! Bus, I take from the station when I come back at night. And this tension we have built.
The boys from the Hindu side apparently only have stones, while the boys from the Muslim side have all sorts of ammunitions like choppers, and fire-bombs. If that is so, then why are Bhanot's glass panes breaking and Behrampada's huts burning? And why all the people died are from Behrampada?
(HB): Now, I come to on 1st of February. I landed home two minutes to eleven. Eleven O'clock is the curfew time at that time. I came and my wife was at the gate, my son was with me who had come from Delhi and she said "Oh good, Thank God, you have come. There was a blast only a little while ago. Ten minutes back." I said "Doesn't matter" and as I was saying this, there was another (blast) in the same corner, which is the chronic trouble point for us whether it is being done by the building thirty or, that is not my concern, because I can't see this.
(M): But that particular spot is where?
(HB): that very corner, that is behind the Police post which is in construction. It has been constructed, they have to provide electricity and water there. That is why it is not being put to use. The earlier they do it the better it is. But somehow I don't know why it is being not done. So, there was another blast and that was the moment when some boys came out from the surrounding buildings. From my window I could see, they didn't have anything, they were fighting with stones. Three policemen and they, policemen were blowing whistles and by and by this crowd swelled to about four-five hundred.
(M): which side?
(HB): This side. Hindu side. Four-five hundred and from the other side, those fire-bombs and bottles were coming. They were also…they were coming from that side. In the meantime, some boys came…
Bhanot clears it out by saying that two boys from the Hindu side came with lighted things that lit the Behrampada huts on fire. However, he didn't fail to mention an important fact, that the boys, even though Hindus, were from chawls, lower in class than the building residents.
(M): Fire-bombs were coming from which side?
(HB): From Behrampada corner, that was the time, when some boys came from this Hindu side, the chawls. They had lighted things with them and two of them, I am told, they walked in and they threw something and after that there was fire in the hut which was possibly next to the stable. Fire brigade came and number of engines came but I wonder why did they come from this side. They could come right on the highway and then enter because this was one building where there wasn't much and there was four of them standing here. One was in my own building, in my own compound, one of them. We never obstructed, if the police was obstructing I can't help it, but I didn't see the police or anybody obstructing.
(M): So he was coming from the road in front of your house and none of the residents stopped?
(HB): no we were inside. Nobody was allowed to be outside. In fact one of the persons came from up and he said, asked the watchman "Close the door". I opened my door and I said "Who authorized you to tell him?" Nobody, I don't think everybody can be allowed to give instructions. Watchman has instructions of what he has to do. Till that time, police had adviced us that we should keep this open, if the police has to go in. But, next day I did talk to them and we came to this decision that we should lock it when there is trouble. But till then it was that you should keep it open.
By now Bhanot displays best of his ability in 'investigating journalism'. He believes there was fire because he had seen it, he believes the huts were burnt as he witnessed burnt huts but he is 'not concerned' whether anybody is harmed in the fire as he could not see anybody. Behrampada is answerable for everything that happened, in Bhanot's language, on the other side. But he is not responsible for what happened, in his own admission, from 'this' side – as the miscreants may not have been from his next door. This logic resembles the national sentiment that every Muslim must prove their patriotism in order to deserve Indian citizenship, but all Hindus are natural citizens.
(HB): That time I found in the meantime I saw the boys running towards the provident fund Commissioner's direction. And after sometime there was lot of noise in the back that there is fire. Who was responsible for setting those huts on fire? Whether those huts were inhabited at that moment or not is not my concern because I couldn't see it. But I do know that the fire brigades then went onto that place and in the morning I did see that that had been reduced to ashes. But, on this side barring that corner where the hut was burnt, nothing else had happened. But, in the meantime, three boys came into the building and they went back after throwing I don't know what, but it didn't cause anything and they couldn't cross the wall, this wall. But after that there was a barrage from that side and one of the, in fact the lighted bombs did hit one of the car tires. If it had just been three inches aside we would have had it that day.
(M): which was shot from Behrampada?
(HB): Naturally, it had to come from there. But my own thing is that it is not done by the residents here.
Mr. Bhanot, is ready to be Mr. Sunil Dutt's personal bodyguard! Sunil Dutt, the legendary film star, veteran politician, elected member of parliament to be protected by the person you see on the screen this very moment! Only because Sunil Dutt was targeted by the right wing Hindu outfit, Shivsena, for his commitment to secularism.
(HB): There is a small alley which is about three- four feet wide. Every time there is something, I do find there is some commotion in that lane and once I found one of the residents, an old man with a grey beard asking them please go. They were possibly outsiders, they come and hurl those things on us. Otherwise these people know. In fact the next day I was telling this lady opposite me in the Behrampada, as I said bete khuda se dua karo, tum bhi pitti ho, hum bhi pit rahe hain. Dono ka isme interest nahi hain. (Daughter, pray to God, you are being beaten up and so are we. And neither of us have any interest in it.) We are…and I can assert I am prepared to bet my life on this if anybody can prove me wrong that not a pebble has ever been thrown from this building and no Muslim has ever been threatened.
(M): Can you vouch for this Parag and…
(HB): Look I will talk about only where I have personal knowledge but if these politicians stop coming here, I infact suggested to Mr. Sunil Dutt when I rang him up a fortnight ago. He is a friend of mine! I said why don't you come over? He said he would come after two days, he didn't. I talked to him day before, two days ago again, at night because somebody else wanted him to talk to me. And I told Sunil, Sunil said he doesn't want to come here because there is a reaction against him. I told him "Sunil, abhi meri haddi mein kaafi zor hai, tum ao, tumhe koi rokega to mein dekhoonga."(Sunil, my bones still have a lot of strength, you come. If any body tries to stop you, I am here!)
He, in a way, agrees that the community divide is also a class issue- between the lower class Hindu boys and the Muslim slum boys. But in his self glorification he believes that the higher class position of his and his neighbours could resolve the tension.
(M): Since how long are you here Sir?
(HB): I have been here in Bombay since '74, '74 March I came and '78 June I shifted to this house.
(M): In your experience this has happened earlier also?
(HB): Yes, when we came here there used to be a running battle between Behrampada and those chawls. Boys from both sides, they would come with swords and choppers and what not. And it used to happen and police used to intervene, but for the last four-five years, this had not been there. And I always thought that we were possibly the sovereign influence because we didn't allow them to come to grips, come to face each other.
(M): You mean these buildings?
(HB): These buildings, ofcourse! And I am ofcourse for that there should be no problems on these areas.
Mr. Bhanot feels that attempts should be made from both "sides" to diffuse the situation and he offers certain solutions.
(M): How do you plan to ??
(HB): I personally, some people have come to me and I have told them that the first thing is to diffuse the situation. Give me that road so that I am assured that no Muslims needs to harm me. At night I should be able to walk across as I used to. And their children should go to school and we need not go in for eve-teasing all the time. If a young woman goes in a burqa I don't think we should think that this is a bad woman going. And then three-four people from Behrampada, some people from this place, we take each other's telephone numbers, whenever there is commotion in our areas we ring them up. Suppose I want to, suppose there is a funeral, I should be able to tell them that please see that nothing wrong goes. We have to create that type of a rapport and to me I am sorry, I wont say that they don't have bad elements, they have enough of them. I read reports written by very seasoned journalists saying that a man in Beh said "why don't you attack that building?"Some other, some building… This type of attempt must stop on either side and we must diffuse the situation fast and whatever is to happen, we have the building, high rise building, have a grouse against this place.
Mr. Bhanot has a sensible suggestion in that it should be left up to the next generation, "by which time we will disappear". True to his foresight, Mr. Bhanot passed away on 1st January 2008 and now, 15 years later Behrampada still stands erect, though a part of it had been given into the development requirements of this city. Busy in its tryst with global market the city has put the identity politics in back burner. However its hunger for real estate and violence around it continues to escalate. So maybe, it is only a matter of time, when the prime land of Behrampada would resurrect into political significance.
(HB):Those who say, some property dealers, and some builders, they want to get this place vacated. Who doesn't know that this belongs to the government or the railways. How can private builders get it. Why do you bring them in? Because it is a handy thing you try to explain. No! This is all a political thing. Three parties involved in it. They are having a tug of war and we are, we and the poor people in Behrampada and we people, who are peace-loving people, we are the sufferers. Let us do something, we peace loving people of this region and the people in Behrampada, they should come together and try to understand, we have lived together here for 15 years, we can live another 15-20 years, by which time we will disappear and let the new generation decide what they have to do. So, this is what I feel about the whole thing. I won't apportion blame, this is not the time to apportion blame, who did it and when he did it.