The beautiful port city of Visakhapatnam, in the State of Andhra Pradesh, was known for its cosmopolitan culture. The local inhabitants always welcomed and accepted in influx of people from other states who came and made it their home.
I too was a product of such a migration, when my father moved to Visakhapatnam owing to his employment and my siblings and I were born in the city, which went on to become our home. However, forty years ago on August 28, 1978, we witnessed the disturbance of the peace and tranquility the city. There was a clash between the Navy personnel and the civilian population, something that we had never heard of, in the past. It was my first experience to witness mass rioting and violence. I was just thirteen years old and the incident shook my inner core and kept me disturbed for many days.
There were many stories doing rounds as to the issue that triggered the clashes. The story that we heard was that two Naval sailors who was travelling from the Naval Base to Nausena Baugh, (the accommodation for Navymen), in a city bus. It is said that they were in an inebriated condition and misbehaved with a woman who was co-passenger in the bus. This led to a quarrel between the two navy men and the civilian men who were fellow travelers, who supported the woman, of whom a shipyard employee was the leader. Apparently, the civilian men outnumbered the sailors and the sailors were at the receiving end.
The two men went into Nausena Baugh, garnered support from their friends, waited for the same bus to return. They manhandled the Bus driver, conductor and some of the men who tried to stop them. It was a planned and pre-meditated attack. Further, the men in their frenzy, moved into the local Mahalakshmi theater attacked the staff, injuring some innocent cine-goers and caused damage to the movie projector and screen. This enraged the locals. The mustered ground support and started attacking all navy men and some elements even went to the extent of barging into the Gurudwara which was located in the Shipyard Colony and damaging the premises and also burning the holy Gurugranth sahib. This hurt the sentiments of the Sikhs and the other North Indian friends of the Navy men and then it blew into a full blown conflict of gang fights. They moved into the neighboring Shipyard colony and started beating up the local residents there.
The situation ran out of control and the Naval Police moved into protect their men. They opened fire and it is believed that an innocent by stander named Kalidas who was visiting his relatives in the Shipyard colony got hit by a stray bullet fired by the navy men and was killed.
The clashes intensified. The local miscreants stabbed an innocent sailor Petty Officer by name Bhat, who was riding on his bicycle from the Base during the midnight, quite oblivious of the tension situation, to death. The Navy instructed their men to remain in their accommodations and not to venture out. This was the first step towards pre-empting and further clashes between the two groups. But the passions and anger of the local people was roused and things really started to run out hand. It was evident that some anti-social elements got into the fray too. They used this as an opportunity to create chaos.
A group of men started attacking any house where a defense person lived in the Civilian Area. The Jawahar Nager was one such area, where there were a few Naval officers living with their families. The goons attacked them burnt their scooters. They burnt the doors of some of them while they had already fled. Some even used the opportunity to steal their belongings.
I vividly remember a couple of families could not escape in time and to face the madness and fury of this rioting mob. One Lt. Cdr. Marwah, decided to fight them single handedly. He challenged the rioters with his knife and sticks and fought valiantly warding off attack on his home. Although, they burnt his scooter and some of his belongings, he managed to keep his wife, two grown up daughters and his little son safe, before help arrived.
The mob could not discern between those who were navy men and those who were civilians. They started beating anyone whom they believed were not South Indian. There was clear delay in the response from the local police and civil administration. Some of us who empathized with the Naval personnel were not allowed to step in and help. I was just 13 and could not get to go and support the hapless victims, under strict instructions from my tough Mother!!
The Naval Police flew in on the mob by helicopters. The helicopters were low flying and the mob could see that the men were carrying machine guns. Fearing gunfire the mob dispersed and while they were being dispersed the local police came in and rounded up a few kingpins. No one ever knew who the culprits were and whether they were arrested or brought to book.
In Jawahar Nagar, there lived a young Naval Officer Lt. Krishnan with his wife and their infant baby. Lt. Krishnan was at work and his family was left at home. He could not come over and take his family before the onslaught of mob. They lived next door to the house of my friend Nirmal. Being neighbors, Nirmal and his brother got the lady and the child over their compound wall, into the safety of their home. The mob came, pelted stones on their house, tried to burn the doors, damaged window panes, ransacked their well-kept garden and left. But somehow, they got the wind that Nirmal’s family were protecting them. A group of people came to Nirmal’s home and asked them whether they were protecting the Naval family. Nirmal and his brother put up a brave front and said, ‘NO’. But they would not take their ‘NO’ for an answer.
Nirmal’s father Dr. ND Prasada Rao was a much-respected Physician in the area. He too came out and vouched that they did not protect them. Though they were not convinced, the mob left only due to the respect for their Doctor.
Lt. Krishnan came with Naval protection in the wee hours of the night and took his family to safety within the Naval Base.
I studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya (Central School), where most of the students were wards of Naval Officers and men. Their parents were afraid to send the children to school. The school remained closed for two weeks due to the inclement atmosphere. Although we enjoyed the untimely holidays, we empathized with our friends who lived in fear and anxiety. Slowly the situation eased off and life returned to normalcy, but the episode, the tension that prevailed, the loss of life and injury inflicted on a few innocent people, had left a blot in the history of this peaceful city and an indelible mark in the hearts of many of us, who witnessed this madness.
Fortunately, such skirmishes never occurred again in the forty years that have passed. Visakhapatnam continues its tradition of welcoming all Indians with open arms and today is ranked amongst the fastest growing smart and cosmopolitan city in India.
Postscript & Disclaimer:
The events were based on what was seen by the author and the stories that went around during those times. There is no evidence to prove the reasons, causes and the actual happening. It was just an episode that was witnessed by the author who was a boy of 13 at that time.