Silent partitions

Print edition : August 11, 2006

The divisions caused by decades of communal strife are partly responsible for the terror in Mumbai.


HATE lives next door in Mumbai, silent and unobtrusive. We now know the names and faces of the men who the Mumbai Police say were responsible for the July 11 murderous serial bombings - but not one had an obvious reason to hate Mumbai, India, or life itself.

Faisal Sheikh, who handled funds and communications for the Rahil Sheikh-led Lashkar-e-Taiba module which executed the bombings, was a businessman; his brother and co-accused Muzammil Sheikh, a computer engineer working for a major concern in Bangalore. Other members of the cell, too, had jobs and degrees. Tanvir Ansari worked as a practitioner of alternative medicine, while Zameer Sheikh had graduated in Commerce.

As investigations into the serial bombings have unfolded, it has become imperative to turn away from the terror itself and examine the larger malaise of which it was a part: the deep wounds inflicted by decades of communal violence on Mumbai's cultural fabric. Much of the reportage of the city's responses to the serial bombings noted its resilience and optimism. Yet, there is another narrative in Mumbai, shrouded in silence and shame: the story of a city suffused in hate.

Almost all of the serial bombing suspects came from Mumbai's new ghettos - neighbourhoods born of the religious and cultural partitions that took place after the riots of 1992-93, and again accelerated after the 2002 communal pogrom in Gujarat.

Seventy-five-year-old Razia Ansari has barely stepped out of her home in the last five years. Even she, though, knows just what a `combing operation' is: that midnight knock which signals that the Mumbai Police has arrived to execute another round of arrests. The police claim they are looking for people who might be linked to the serial bombings, but there is little doubt they are fishing with a big net: those detained included almost anyone with a criminal record - and even the completely innocent.

Salim Qureshi was among the dozens of Naupada residents living along the railway lines near Bandra station who rushed to help the victims of the explosions minutes after the serial bombings. "We didn't stop to think whether the victims were Hindu or Muslim," he recalls, "we just wanted to save whoever was still alive and then recovered as many bodies as we could. The police were unwilling to lift the torn heads and limbs that were strewn all around. We did it."

"Just the next day," Qureshi says, "the police arrested two boys who helped transport the injured to local hospitals. How do you think they now feel? If this is how they treat us, then you cannot blame young people here for being attracted to anti-social activities." Seventy men from Naupada were detained for questioning, along with 100 others from nearby Behrampada. Not one was found to have any role in the bombings. "These boys have nothing going for them," Qureshi adds, "and this just adds to their frustrations."

MUSLIM WOMEN ATTENDING English language classes at Naupada.-VIVEK BENDRE

It is a sentiment that 22-year-old Abdul Khan shares. Khan finished his degree a year ago and has been engaged in an unsuccessful search for a job ever since. All he has found is part-time work as a waiter. "Because of the recent incidents," he says, "I think people have become uncomfortable about hiring Muslims - all the more so because now they say that the new terrorist is well-educated, a post-graduate or a professional." People like Khan, who have acquired the keys to a future, find themselves denied entry at the gates.

Not too long ago, both Hindus and Muslims shared Naupada's hardships. Until the murderous riots of 1992-93, recalls social worker Khatoon Sheikh, "Naupada had a fair mix of people from different communities - Gujaratis, Marwaris, Maharashtrians as well as migrants from Uttar Pradesh." After the riots, though, most Hindu families moved out - mirroring a Muslim exodus from slums where they were in a minority. "There were seven Hindu homes on my street," she recalls, "but today there is none."

Segregation of culture and opportunity has driven a closing of the mind. "Naupada was never very conservative," says Sheikh, "but people have become more strict. Some young boys refuse to wear Western-style trousers. Others insist on growing long beards and wearing a religious skull-cap all the time." "Sometimes," she says wryly, "the boys come and insist we wear a burkha. I tell them that I don't have Rs.200 to buy food; if they want me to spend Rs.300 on a burkha, they should earn the money and give it to me."

On Naupada's main street, boards planted every few hundred metres announced the existence of dozens of social organisations, offering services ranging from English-language problems, marital counselling and legal assistance. Others work to keep the area clean. Dozens of religious organisations provide schooling to children of the poor. All of these demonstrate Naupada's will to survive - but also illustrates, in stark relief, the failure of the state to build a city in which all its communities participate collectively.

"I know this boy who was 12 years old when he saw his parents being hacked to death in the 1993 riots," says Aziz Makki, a businessman from Nagpada. "He begged the mob to stop," Makki continues, "but they didn't. He says he knows who killed his parents, and that he will kill them if he could. He's already involved in some anti-social activities, and I wouldn't be surprised if he is one day recruited by a terrorist group. His anger will push him there."

Makki's stark story might seem too filmic to be true - but in Nagpada, the incredible violence of its narrative seems curiously normal. Although the Mumbai neighbourhood always had a distinct Muslim character, it was also the site of vibrant interactions between the community and the city's Hindus and even Jews.

After the massive violence of 1992-93, though, the religious minorities in Nagpada left the areas for enclaves elsewhere, and a wave of refugees from Hindu-dominated areas poured in.

A NOTICE LISTING the documents required to claim compensation for blast victims, at a compensation counter in a railway station in Mumbai.-PUNIT PARANJPE /REUTERS

Little hard data exist to show just how much these demographic changes affected Nagpada, but local residents believe their economic life was hit hard. "Nagpada was a much more affluent area before 1992-93," Makki claims, "but people are reluctant to invest in what has become a ghetto - and a ghetto that could come under siege, at that!" Rich businessmen share space with the sub-proletariat. "I don't like my neighbours," says a textile-store owner, "but it is safe."

Just underneath what passes for normal life, then, runs an enormous river of fear. A fresh influx of residents took place after the Gujarat communal pogrom of 2002 fuelled fears that life outside Muslim enclaves was too much of a risk. "Mumbai is peaceful because people do not want to live through riots again," says social worker Sayeed Khan, "but memories of the carnage are still very fresh. Nothing has been done to heal the wounds the riots inflicted on this city."

After the Gujarat violence, some amongst a new generation of young people turned to the near-defunct Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), just as top terrorists like Syed Abdul Karim or Jalees Ansari had done a decade earlier. The violence in Gujarat crystallised the anger against what is perceived as pervasive discrimination against Muslims in education and employment. "Groups such as SIMI or the Tehrikh-e-Ahiya-Ummat or the Dawa Cell find it easy to tap this anger," Khan says, "and some recruits end up going even further."

Paradoxically, the Mumbai Police's combing operations have strengthened the cause of Islamists in Nagpada. "If a poor Muslim boy is picked up by the police," says Makki, "the only way he will be able to get out of jail is by bribing someone. But where can he get the money from? From bhais, from the local mafia. The boy is then bonded to the bhai, and has to pay back his favour. He then gets involved with the mafia, and it is not long before he is sucked into the world of crime - and perhaps even terrorism."

Is there a way out? If Mumbai did not have a riot after the bombings, it was at least in part because of years of community-level work by figures such as former Police Commissioner Julio Ribeiro and social activist Sushobha Barve, who worked in the wake of the 1992-93 bombings to set up elaborate people's networks that have helped ease friction. Mumbai's Mohalla Committee movement and dozens of other community interventions are exceptional amongst riot-hit cities across India.

At the same time, it is hard not to see that Hindus and Muslims in Mumbai are starting to inhabit different worlds - worlds sundered not just by space, but by imagination. A superb study conducted by Mumbai's Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation recently pointed to vast differences of perception between Hindus and Muslims in the city on several issues of significance, ranging from the war in Iraq, the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, and the communal violence in Gujarat.

Where over 48 per cent of Hindu respondents believed that Muslim terrorists had carried out the 2003 serial bombings in Mumbai, for example, just 15 per cent of Muslims shared this perception - in defiance of well-established fact.

While 48.9 per cent of Muslims believed the city police was prejudiced against them, only 23 per cent of Hindus shared this perception - again, in defiance of well-established fact. Giant gaps also existed in positions on key political issues, such as the need for a uniform civil code.

Efforts to bridge these differences through community-level dialogue have made some headway. The Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation itself has conducted useful engagements in Mahim, an area hit hard by the violence of 1992-93. Yet, in the absence of sustained political intervention, it is hard to see community institutions alone rebuilding a shared secular culture in Mumbai. What is certain, though, is that ignoring or trivialising the problem will aggravate the fissures.

Just how fragile the peace in Mumbai can prove is illustrated by the experience of Bhiwandi. Savaged by Shiv Sena-led communal violence in 1984, vigorous community-level interventions helped the town remain peaceful even as Mumbai burned in 1992-93. However, violence has again begun to impact on the town. In April 2002, a Hindu chauvinist who was running a campaign against local butchers was murdered, provoking violence. Small clashes again took place in 2004.

On July 5, just days before the Mumbai serial bombings, four people including two policemen were killed and 33 injured after clashes broke out as a consequence of a dispute over a graveyard. The violence began after the government attempted to build a police station on land claimed by the Waqf Board. Samajwadi Party leader Abu Asim Azmi, a controversial demagogue often charged with inciting hatred, is alleged to have played a major role in bringing about the violence.

Whatever the truth, the violence in Bhiwandi, however small-scale, holds out a stark lesson for Mumbai: peace simply cannot be taken for granted. The weakness of the Shiv Sena, in large part the consequence of the defection of its cadre and its leadership to the Congress in recent years, may not prove either an abiding political condition - or a guarantee that Hindu fundamentalist onslaught might not present itself from a different platform. The peace seen since 1992-93 could yet prove to be built on flawed foundations.

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