16 September 1999
The Times of India
Kala Bachcha as a Weather Vane
By SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN
KANPUR: Its not often that a journalist sets out in search of a dead man in order to discern how people are going to vote.
When I first encountered Kala Bachcha on the pages of Theft of an Idol, a book about collective violence by the American political scientist, Paul Brass, he had already been dead five years. Kala Bachcha -- literally `black child' -- was the nom de guerre of Munna Sonkar, a small-time slumlord and politician from Babupurwa, south Kanpur. Hero to his scheduled caste community of Khatiks and villain for others, Kala Bachcha was allegedly involved in the anti-Muslim riots which convulsed this dying industrial city after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
In the marketplace of combustible rumours that all cities become during and after riots, Kala Bachcha was variously said to have killed Muslims and moved from mohalla to mohalla protecting Hindus but also to have saved his Muslim tenants. Though nothing was finally proved the myth of Kala Bachcha being a `protector of Hindus' was an attractive one for those who claimed the main victims of the violence had been Hindus, not Muslims. The BJP decided to make a leader out of him. Amidst much fanfare, he was nominated for a reserved seat in the November 1993 assembly elections.
Even though Kanpur is a BJP fortress Kala Bachcha lost by a few hundred votes. Three months later, some bombs were hurled at him by `unknown assailants', killing him instantly. The BJP tried to use his funeral to whip up support but the city administration, then in the hands of the Samajwadi Party, denied them this opportunity. It was said that `Muslims' had killed Kala Bachcha so two Muslims were murdered in revenge. However, riots did not break out, mainly because the normally calamitous cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation ended there.
Since then, much has changed in Kanpur. Popular disenchantment with the Kalyan Singh government and the sitting BJP MP is running extraordinarily high; civic services are nonexistent, roads are a nightmare to negotiate. As commonplace concerns come to the fore, communal tension has receded. And with that, the myth of Kala Bachcha has undergone a curious transformation. Today, in Babupurwa and other areas where Khatiks live, the man who in life was a BJP hero has re-emerged, in death, as an anti-BJP icon.
What kind of person was he, I asked a family in the Khatkiyana of Babupurwa. ``He was a gem (heera)'' a man answered. ``That is why the BJP killed him off''. But why would the BJP kill one of its own? ``He was not one of them'', a woman said animatedly. ``They used him. During the riots, he didn't lift even his finger against anyone. He saved so many Muslims''. ``And what has BJP done for us anyway? Our men have no jobs. And look at the state of the roads'', said another woman. One man said Kala Bachcha was such a great figure that a 'vilayati babu' (an Englishman) had written a whole book about him.
In the Muslim mohallas nearby, I asked people what they thought of Kala Bachcha. People were circumspect. "He had earned a name for himself'', said one man at a tea stall, who identified himself as Ilyas. But one can earn a name through good deeds as well as bad, I said. Everyone laughed. "You have answered your own question'', Ilyas said smilingly.
In Colonelganj, where Dalits live side-by-side with Muslims, a Khatik said that local RSS activists had blamed the Muslims for the murder in order to start a riot. "But Kala Bachcha saved Muslims so we know they would never kill him''. The myth of Kala Bachcha, it seems, has come full circle. From a man whose 'anti-Muslim' credentials had led the BJP to co-opt him, he has become a 'pro-Muslim' leader that the BJP deliberately decided to abandon.
Rumours and Myths
Mr S K Mehra, an acerbic 88-year-old former journalist, chronicler of the city and collaborator of Paul Brass, dismissed the allegation of BJP involvement in Kala Bachcha's murder. So did the CPM activists I spoke to. It seems a member of the Kanpur underworld whose sister had apparently been raped by Kala Bachcha had done the killing.
And yet, as with so many other rumours and myths, it is not the question of their veracity that is interesting but the reasons for their circulation. Perhaps the charge of BJP complicity in the murder of a revered figure from the community is the Khatik's way of squaring his decision to turn against the BJP in this election with the fact that Kala Bachcha had been a BJP leader. Or perhaps not.
Either way, it is probably time the vilayati babu returned to Kanpur to write another book.