Tracing the Traces: Remembering 1992 as a Memory Trace – Smithi Mohan


A digital archive can retain and reinforce ‘memories of social collapses’ because of its ability to act as ‘memory ensembles’ demanding undivided attention. In this context, an analysis of the digital archive  (Remembering 1992, Mumbai Riots: A Web Archive), a scholarly intervention by the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai,, I would like to argue that this comprehensive online visual archive which traces the history of the 1992 Mumbai riots leaves ‘traces’ as attempts are made to deliberately compress and suppress those performances of dissent from national memory. Borrowing Ron Hubbard’s notion of ‘engram as a form of memory trace,’ I also argue that this digital archive is a ‘historical memory engram’ which remains as a latent memory picture, a lasting trace lingering in the interstices of times, histories and memories and reminding of an always already inherent contradiction in the Indian social psyche. In between the top-down memory of forced erasure which percolates from the records of official history, and the neutralised versions of bottom-up memory induced by imagined accounts of the event, this digital archive is a Cheshire Cat. It can be compared to Cheshirization, a type of sound change where a trace remains of a sound that has otherwise disappeared from a word. 

Keywords: Memory, Traces, Digital archive, Engram, Cheshirization. 

As a disciplinary field, ‘memory’ is more a label than content because, in itself, memory does not offer any accurate or additional explanatory power. Memory becomes illuminating as a subject of enquiry only when linked to pertinent questions about the futuristic consciousness of the past. Questions of authenticity, reliability, validity and repeatability are thus inextricably linked to questions of memory. Today, ‘memory’ is in itself a contradictory experience of time as it does not involve the retrieval of some past moment but, instead, assembling a view of that past moment, in and from the present. Central to this is the democratisation of memory, or the creation of ‘history from below’. The idea of a top-down memory as the genuine and faultless record of events is now under the scanner. More and more sectors of society are now in possession of techniques of mediatisation and hence are able to offer them for public consumption without any authorial intervention. Questions and answers regarding the veracity of an event lie somewhere in between this traverse of top-down and bottom-up memories.

The endless litigations and the till date continuing legal battle following the Babri Masjid demolition are excellent examples of how politico-social and judicial discourses make history a quotidian affair. After analysing the litigations and orders made by Sessions Court, Allahabad High Court and The Supreme Court, distinguished Supreme Court judge Justice V R Krishna Iyer commented in anguish: ‘The judiciary will be described as the villain of the piece. It lacked the guts to face the issue.’ (The Times of India, 11 November 1989)  The 1992 Mumbai riots are also regarded as a watershed moment in the identity-driven electoral politics of India as they successfully sowed the seeds of communal polarisation. Thus both official support and judicial apathy were present in all stages, which finally led to the mosque being demolished and the issue being kept alive till now. 

A new memory began to be built around Mumbai riots when as we have travelled a long way to the commemoration of the 25th  year of the demolition of Babri Masjid, the remnant of the mosque becomes a lieux de memoire which symbolises Hindu pride and valour, while the riot victims remains conveniently forgotten. What we see here is, as already pointed out by Shiv Visvanathan, a simultaneous enactment of past, present and future. This has led to a clash of representations, a battle not just for memory but for identity and rights. These readings reveal that epistemic communities- academia, mass media, the legal and adjudicative professions and the policy actors- have diverse epistemic/cognitive choices to make in framing the explanatory narratives. And the choices they thus make are fraught with deep implications for the violated Indian humanity confronted with the tasks of resuming life amidst its debris. Hence the 1992 Mumbai riot narrative cannot be contained or encapsulated in one narrative. It is not a historical event alone; neither can it be restricted to a war between communities or religions in the name of faith or identity. It is also an attempt by politicians to go beyond all these fragments and create a more united future through the mode of selective forgetting. One can notice here the Proustian quality of such narratives where time redefines the nature of a problem. One realises that memory is a strange, protean, alchemical force in India where linearity does not work and the past, present and future struggle to control narratives in India simultaneously. (Visvanathan)  Above all, what is curious is that the victims of the riots which ensued after the demolition of Babri Masjid are less remembered and less acknowledged, with no commemoration or memorial paying homages. At the same time, the construction of the Ram Temple remains an issue of national honour with the potential to topple governments and societal structures.

Babri Masjid testifies how complex the memory of a fragment of the past can become as it combines myth, memory and history. As Ian Hacking has commented how politics in the 20th century is about the control of memory, the Mumbai riots and the further developments have taught us how easily a fragment of the past can rewrite the future of democracy or the dreams of fundamental rights of citizens. It is, therefore, an indication of how a top-down memory oozing out through the official archives fails to provide justice to victims, even if the nation considers them as ‘birds of the same flock’ in such political and social context where the memory of the violence which followed after the demolition of Babri Masjid has been rewritten. All but erased, it is crucial to remember to explore the contours of normalised prejudice and to understand how the survivors have struggled with the denial of justice. It is also necessary to think about how and why the memory of such a watershed event gets erased and who benefits from this erasure. 

The question of memory on which we visualise our future reconstructions is critical in understanding those images of the past which we call upon in our decision-making process. It can complicate our negotiations between memory and his-tory, and in corollary, between nature and culture, nations and nationalisms, traditionalism and futurism, technology and sustainability, planning and reception, foundations and interstices. The fleeting “mental  images” of what has passed in/as history is inseparable from the  “image-objects”  associated with the history of those times as constructed in architecture,  film,  photography,  art or media.  

Recollecting the past necessitates the mutuality of mental images and their associated technics of construction and dissemination in the form of image-objects. This mutuality of image-objects and mental images is necessary to prevent the collapse of memories due to the saturation of pictures during catastrophes. The imaginary of catastrophic collapses and associated reconstructions are governed by images, narratives and myths conditioned by media and constructed by historiography.  The monstrosity of a catastrophe highlights the necessity of a tertiary machinery of externalisation on perception, which can govern our apprehensions and influence the ways of nationalistic reimagining. 

Herein is the importance of an image-object Remembering 1992, which reminds the need for a constitutionally grounded approach to Indian nationalist imaginings. Remembering 1992 is a digital archive – a social memory engram working on the storage retrieval principle- that seeks to revisit and remember the violence that the city of Bombay/Mumbai experienced in December 1992 and January 1993. This digital archive includes six documentary films, video interviews and transcripts, news clippings, reports and other resources. The project started with the films that were made by students (Class of 2013) and faculty and used as a part of the campaign Bombay ki Kahani Mumbai ki Zubaani, held between December 2012 and January 2013. The construction of this digital archive,  (Remembering 1992, Mumbai Riots: A Web Archive), a scholarly intervention by the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, was monitored and duly guided by Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar, Professors at the School of Media and Cultural Studies. The initiative has been part of the ‘Divercity’ programme, which attempts to create a visual archive of events and communities in the city.

Remembering 1992:  a Memory Ensemble

Remembering 1992, in memory of the struggle for survival of the Mumbai riot victims, becomes significant in the context of socio-political and historical attempts of forced amnesia. It is a deliberate attempt to create a memory ensemble, to collect and preserve traces of an event doomed to be forgotten. To borrow from Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, this digital archive is a ‘historical memory engram’, a cellular level recording, a definite and permanent trace left by a stimulus on India- the imagined community. “There is so little awareness about what happened during those days. 

Many people still believe that the riots were retaliation to the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. This website was an attempt on our part to make people understand what transpired in those days,” TISS Prof Anjali Monteiro, who was instrumental along with Dr K P Jayasankar in launching the project, said. They believe that violence lives on through the erasure of memory and the denial of justice; to remember is to resist the terrifying amnesia gripping us. They have summed up their attempt in these words, “an exploration of different kinds of memory of the Mumbai ethnic violence of 1992-93, that seeks to counter the present erasures. We believe that through these narratives, their telling and re-telling, archiving and dissemination offer opportunities, however limited, of redemption for the victims of the violence. Their real potential lies in the way they open up spaces for the emergence of novel alliance and politics between marginalised groups.”

 “The idea behind the initiative was to ensure that people do not forget the traumatic events in this city. Remembering is also part of shaping the city the way you would want it to be. Remembering those events is questioning and challenging the politics of hate that has become prevalent nationally and internationally,” Monteiro said. (The Indian Express, Dec 29 2014)

The initial interface of the website catalogues every event that transpired in the city between December 6 1992, and February 7 1993, leading to the death of over 900 Mumbaikars. Every event of the 1992-93 riots, documented in the Justice Srikrishna Commission report, has been catalogued and mapped on this site. A person can select a date from the timeline to see where events took place on that day.  But what makes the website,, different from other similarly formulated digital archives is that more than a mere catalogue of the 92-93 Mumbai riots, this goes beyond the event by providing substantial material on what transpired before and after the incident.  It comprises not just the timeline of the incidents that occurred in Mumbai after the razing of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, but has very skilfully produced documentaries around the incident and an insightful analysis of how the turbulent period affected Mumbai’s psyche. 

This website explores different kinds of memory organised around themes. For some, it is the memory of hate and distress, while for some, it is the memory of attempts at redemption and reconciliation.  This online narrative explores in detail five different themes under five heads– dislocation, hardening divides, struggle for justice, peace initiatives and media representation- for ease of understanding. The plethora of articles, reports pertaining to the riots and newspaper archives available in ‘Essays’ and ‘Resources’ are valuable documentary evidence which spatialises and temporalises the event. The physical violence on the embodied identities, dislocation of people from their homes, increased ghettoisation, the growing chasm between communities and the struggle of individuals to seek justice are the recurring leitmotifs which form the core of the discussion in this online narrative.  The interview transcripts of the witnesses of the riots, of the seekers of justice for the riot victims, of different academicians and of the top officials in the bureaucracy at the time of riots are available on the website to help the users develop a multidimensional approach to understand the event from different perspectives. The highlight of the initiative is an interview with Justice B N Srikrishna, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, appointed by the government to head the Commission set up under the Commissions of Enquiry Act to investigate the facts and circumstances which led to the riots, an instance which proves how memory lies in the interstices of archiving and counter archiving.  

Remembering 1992 has also provided links to over five documentary films exploring the events of the 1992-93 riots and their physical, social and segregational effect. Some of the films include Framing ’92, which explores how the riots have been and continue to be represented – in the realms of art and photojournalism, and Aman ki Khoj, which explores the efforts of activists in mobilising people in Dharavi and starting a dialogue between them have been screened brilliantly. The film tries to understand and document the work of the Mohalla committees- organisations that were formed in the slums to foster communal harmony and integration after the riots. Women have played a vital role in the mohalla committee by organising all-women iftaar parties, an issue highlighted by the film. The film Aakhri Panah documents the spread of ghettos in Mumbra – a predominantly Muslim colony that started flourishing after the Bhiwandi riots in 1984. Since 1992, people, mostly Muslims who were displaced in the riots, started migrating to Mumbra as they felt highly vulnerable in the city. This film is thus an exquisite analysis of the reasons for widespread ghettoisation in Mumbai, which is one of the commonly considered reasons as well as effects of communal riots. Another film – Farooq versus the State, deals with the controversial case of Farooq Mhapkar, one of the key persons who was wrongly accused in the Hari Masjid case, one of the most serious episodes of the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar, who filmed this documentary, said, “We decided to take up the Hari Masjid firing, focusing on Farooq Mhapkar’s story as his struggle has in many ways become iconic and is something that needs to reach a wider public.”(  

     Without having recourse to the law, victims of the 1992-93 violence had limited options to represent themselves. Numerous people, in the interviews these people conducted, spoke of physical abuse at the hands of police, inability to file complaints and perversion of justice in the courts of law. In a time of such crises, Agamben points out, only certain voices are heard, and the rest are ignored. Even independent and quasi-judicial commissions of inquiry instituted by the state itself, like the Srikrishna Commission, were ironically discredited, and their findings and recommendations largely disregarded. While such reports may appear to the state as nothing more than compendia of narratives without any political or legal import, we believe that narratives are both important and powerful. Narrative, in a state of exception, is the only mode of representation available to an individual or group reduced to bare life. In the absence of legal remedy, all the victims of such violence invariably become narrators of their sufferings. Some tell their stories to lawyers, some to sympathetic journalists, and the rest to whoever has time and interest to lend them an ear, like Farooq Mapkar, an indefatigable campaigner for justice.  A digital archive like Remembering 1992, it is believed, through the narratives, their telling and re-telling, archiving and dissemination offer opportunities, however, limited, of redemption for the victims of the violence; their real potential lies in the way they open up spaces for the emergence of novel alliance and politics between marginalised groups. Thus they blur the boundaries between archivists and cultural producers, thereby existing at the interstices of histories and memories. It was mostly the common folk who gathered and classified the archival ‘documents.’  Due to deliberate attempts to exclude such stories from official discourses, ‘these alternative archives often focus on other available forms of historical reminiscences.  

The fleeting nature of electronic and digital media is also one of the key reasons why cultural theorists have doubted their use value as sites of memory. But still, internet communication, in particular, the provision of hybridity between oral and textual communication, reveals that this medium might, in fact, store, however briefly, otherwise evanescent memories. As memory is externalised, this act of remembrance is always situated and, therefore, spatially bounded. There is an architecture of historical memory that produces an already-there of the past that is not lived but imposed, thus rendering problematic historical accounts of civic values and democratic processes that allude to fundamental truths. This condition also challenges the status of personal testimony, witnessing and autobiography in epistemology and the politics of knowledge (Code 2006, p.172).

But still, Remembering 1992 remains a trace, a trace which traces the events of the 1992-93 Mumbai riots. By making use of archival memory, this digital archive becomes an ‘arched archive’ (arch (adj) takes the meaning clever, knowing and mischievous). It is in this context that I suggest the use of the term ‘Cheshirization’ in linguistics here to compare this digital archive to the process of Cheshirization, a type of sound change where a trace remains of a sound that has otherwise disappeared from a word. In Lewis Carroll’s nineteenth-century fantasy tale Alice in Wonderland, Alice meets a strange creature named on her travels through Wonderland called the Cheshire Cat. Initially menacing, the Cat is described as having “very long claws and a great many teeth”, and therefore Alice feels she has to treat it with respect. The authority of the Cat is reinforced by its location above Alice’s head; looking down, it appears either suspended in the air or the boughs of an overhanging tree, and its air of blatant arrogance is communicated through its enormous grin. As the central authority on the spatial layout of Wonderland and the whereabouts and nature of its inhabitants, the Cat informs Alice that “[i]n that direction lives a Hatter: and in that direction lives a March Hare: they’re both mad”. The Cat itself is more difficult to locate since it keeps appearing and disappearing from view – sometimes suddenly, sometimes slowly, “beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained sometime after it had gone”. The fact that the grin remains after the rest of the Cat has disappeared suggests an authoritative presence even in absence which Alice finds quite discomforting and alienating: “Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin […], but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!” 


Dr Smithi Mohan J S is an Assistant Professor of English at Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral dissertation was on archives of communal violence. She is interested in the myriad dimensions of cultural studies. 


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