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Easy target

Print edition : Oct 06, 2006 T+T-

Despite its history of communal tension, Malegaon has remained calm in the wake of the blasts.

ANUPAMA KATAKAM in Malegaon

"WHAT kind of person will kill innocent people? What do these people want? We have already suffered enough, " says Shakeela Shah, wife of Najeer Shah, who was severely injured in the bomb explosion near the kabrastan in Malegaon. Shah is waiting for a second surgery to remove the splinters of the bomb, which are embedded in his face and chest. The couple have two children. Shah works as a daily wage labourer in the powerloom industry and is the only member of the family who earns a salary. The doctors are uncertain when he will be able to work again.

Every now and then violence flares up in Malegaon and innocent people are killed or injured. Shah is among the 297 people who were wounded in four explosions that rocked the town on September 8. This is the first time there has been a bomb blast in the town, though communal riots are not uncommon.

If the main motive was to cause communal trouble, this was probably the best place to start. Malegaon is an easy target. It takes very little to create tension. The blasts, which occurred in the heart of the old Muslim quarter, claimed 38 lives. Since then the city has been tense. When an unattended box resembling an explosive device was found recently, shutters came down, people were out on the streets and there was palpable anxiety all around. Was it part of a series of bombs? Could be another attack? No one knew. The box turned out to be a fake bomb.

Located about 300 kilometres from Mumbai, Malegaon was once known for its flourishing powerloom industry. The town is so communally fragile that the Maharashtra government has declared it (along with Bhiwandi - another powerloom hub) an ultra-sensitive zone.

Incidents of communal violence have occurred regularly since the 1960s. The first riot took place in 1963 when a clash broke out during festival processions led by the two communities. In 1992, the town saw large-scale violence after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The worst communal clash was in October 2001. Rioting broke out after the police attacked some young people distributing fliers calling for a boycott of American goods in the wake of the United States invasion of Taliban-governed Afghanistan. Thirteen people were killed and hundreds injured. The violence spread to neighbouring villages as rumours began circulating of Hindu women being raped. Several hundreds of Muslim families in Nashik and Dhule districts fell victim to mobs.

"If Malegaon had reacted to the bomb blasts it would have had a spiralling effect," said Haroon B.A., a local journalist. "Anger against the blasts would have made Muslims clash with the police and the Hindu population over here. The majority Hindu population in the country would have reacted to this. For the sake of our brothers in other parts of India, we have to remain calm," he said.

But what ensured that the town remained calm? The police and the residents believe that concerted efforts by religious leaders to keep peace was one of the reasons. Soon after the blasts, the imams gave a call for azaan, or prayers. Perhaps they thought it would be safer to get people off the streets so that no rumour-mongering would begin, said P.K Jain, Inspector-General of Police (Nashik range). Furthermore, following the 2001 clash, mohalla committees have been active in keeping communal peace.

In 2001, there were a series of incidents, which two fact-finding committees say planted the seeds for the riots: a Muslim teenager allegedly assaulted a Hindu girl, the Shiv Sena roughed up a Muslim boy for posting a news-clipping on Osama bin Laden, and local Janata Dal (Secular) leader Nihal Ahmed held an anti-U.S. rally, which was attended by 15,000 people. The atmosphere was charged. This time, people were less restive. "But that doesn't mean trouble would not erupt if provoked," Haroon said.

A look at local politics, demographics and the town's history gives some insight into how the town began to earn a reputation for communalism. Malegaon was not represented by any mainstream political party until the last Assembly elections. For two decades (1977-1999) Nihal Ahmed controlled the town's politics. He lost the last two elections to his archrival, Shaikh Rashid Shaikh Shafi of the Congress.

The enmity between the two is said to be behind several clashes. Both politicians are known for exploiting communal tensions for political gain.

It is now well documented that Ahmed uses Islamic causes to woo voters. Whether the issue is singing Vande Mataram in the municipal council or the burning of the Koran in Delhi by Bajrang Dal activists, Ahmed will use it. In 2001, the municipal elections were approaching and Ahmed was trying to establish his position.

The saffron party's presence is minimal in Malegaon. However, in the late 1990s an organisation called the Jaanta Raja emerged and is growing in popularity. Set up by Dada Bhuse, a friend of the late Shiv Sena leader Anand Dighe, the organisation does social work in the villages and in the Hindu area of Malegaon. Jaanta Raja members were involved in the 2001 riots and many Hindus believe that it was only because of their intervention that they were not "finished".

On the rise is the Tableeq Jamaat, an organisation whose credo is the need to practise Islam in its purest form. This means not participating in other religions' festivals, wearing a certain type of attire, and men growing a beard. Organisations such as this provide an anchor for frustrated youth.

Malegaon became a predominately Muslim town after thousands of Muslims fled British aggression in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh following the 1857 rising. Later, during Partition, the town became a safe haven for Muslims. It has a population of eight lakhs. Of this 75 per cent is Muslim. The most prominent Muslim sect is Sunni, followed by Hanfi (Deobandi), Al-he-Hadees, Memon, Bohri and Shia. In recent times Malegaon has seen a rise in extremist beliefs, according to one religious leader. For instance, earlier women did not wear the burka, but some groups now insist on it.

Malegaon used to be a major powerloom hub employing close to three lakh people. Recession has hit the industry hard and only 50 per cent of the looms operate today. Until 2001, economic interests bound the two communities. Hindus are the suppliers of raw material and traders of the fabric. Muslims work the looms. Now, this has also caused resentment - Muslims believe they are not paid adequately and are made to work and live in unhealthy conditions, while Hindu businessmen live in big houses and flaunt their prosperity.

Malegaon's developmental infrastructure is poor. The roads are pot-holed. There are regular and lengthy power cuts, and water is scarce. Most buildings look run-down and residential areas seem only slightly better than slums. One government hospital exists with basic facilities. There are about 35 Urdu medium schools and five English schools. Most people believe it is neglected because it is a "Muslim town". "The lack of recreational and other such outlets drive youth towards anti-social activities," said Haroon.