Mumbai: A decade after riots

Print edition : July 18, 2003

The 1992-93 Mumbai riots resulted in a spatial transformation of the city along religious lines. Muslims have come to believe it is better to live together and the process of ghettoisation is evident in many parts of the city today. -

The 1993 communal riots of Mumbai, in which over 1,000 people were killed, have had far-reaching effects, including changes in the spatial concentration of the city, the attitude of Muslims towards the government and the political parties, and the way the residents perceive their city.

IN December 1992 - January 1993, Mumbai set a record of sorts for itself in the matter of communal madness. In the riots that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, more than a thousand people were killed. Unlike previous riots, violence was dispersed and it spread to relatively newly urbanised areas. Arson, killings and the destruction of property occurred in distinctively different kinds of areas. Violence affected not only slums but also apartment blocks and chawls. What was common to all the areas was the systematic targeting of Muslims, who comprised 17 per cent of the city's population.

The relief work that followed the riots helped members of the Muslim community resume their everyday lives. However, although successive governments promised to do away with communal forces and civic organisations worked towards communal amity, stray communal incidents still occur in Mumbai. "Mumbai changed after 1993" is a common refrain of long-time residents of the city. A decade later, subtle changes are evident in the spatial concentrations in Mumbai, in the attitude of Muslims towards the government and the political parties, and in the way Mumbaiites perceive their city.

Changes in spatial concentration

There was migration on a noticeable scale by Muslims out of Mumbai during the 1993 riots. According to police accounts, more than two lakh people fled the city. Economic necessity caused a large section of this population to return within the next year. While some people went back to their old occupations, others switched jobs and started working in places where they felt safer. Many of the Muslim families that fled Central Mumbai were of migrant workers who returned to their villages in Uttar Pradesh. After their initial fears subsided, male members of these families returned to Mumbai. They did not think it safe to bring their entire families back. The city came to be divided into two categories - Muslim and non-Muslim.

The riots did not merely create physical boundaries; they also resulted in the conceptualisation of the `other', which in this case was the Muslim population. Migration of Hindus from Muslim-dominated areas did take place, but this was on a small scale when compared with Muslims who moved out of localities where they were in a minority. The consolidation of communities and the number of migrants have not been recorded by any government department. Such an exercise is rendered difficult by the fact that the migration from Muslim minority areas was not a mass movement of people from one locality to another. It occurred over a period of time and is discernible only through a close examination of the city's population distribution.

The impact of this migration is clear in Central Mumbai and Dharavi, which have long formed the empirical basis of popular speculation about the riots. At the time of the riots, many Muslims, who lived in certain pockets in Hindu-majority areas, moved to locales such as Nagpada, Mohammed Ali Road, Bhendi Bazar and Millat Nagar in Central Mumbai and stayed there. Over the years, Central Mumbai has become a Muslim-dominated area. The insecurity and fear among Muslim residents led them to add extra floors to their houses and build workshops on rooftops and in multi-storey buildings. Social worker and lawyer Yasmin Ali Shaikh says: "Slowly changes have followed in Nagpada. The identification of people on the basis of religion set in after the riots. On the face of it Hindus and Muslims continue to live together for the simple reason that, in their everyday business, they are intrinsically linked to each other. However, the feeling of insecurity and bitterness between them is obvious any time tension rises anywhere in India." Before the riots, the adjoining Madanpura locality was dominated by Gujarati Hindus who ran small businesses. Now most of the businesses have been purchased by Muslims, many of whom earned money working in West Asia.

Dharavi, which houses a million people, is called Asia's largest slum. Muslims constitute 40 per cent of Dharavi's population. Located in the industrial belt of Mumbai, Dharavi is a centre of small-scale entrepreneurial activity, particularly garment manufacturing, leather processing, waste disposal, pottery and suitcase manufacturing. Mumbai is plagued by an acute housing shortage, and it is not unusual to find doctors, lawyers, clerks and members of political parties living in this area. In the 1993 riots, Tamils, Dalits and members of the Shiv Sena fought against Muslims in Dharavi.

A Mumbai street during the riots that erupted after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.-

A decade later, a process of ghettoisation is evident in many areas of Dharavi. In one of the lanes off the Dharavi main road, all the houses belong to migrants from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.). In Kamraj Nagar, almost every family is from Tirunelvelli district in Tamil Nadu. Karim Riaz Khan, a resident of Dharavi, says: "We learnt our lessons in 1993. It makes more sense to live together. At least then we know we shall be able to protect ourselves." Khan lives in a predominantly Muslim section, Nawab Nagar, which is an area adjoining the Tamil Hindu-dominated Naya Chawl. The primary access to Nawab Nagar is through Naya Chawl. During the riots, a wall was built at the end of Naya Chawl. It was built in such a way that Nawab Nagar could only be reached through a narrow gap, just enough for a single individual to pass, severely impeding the access of Nawab Nagar residents to their houses. The Tamils of Naya Chawl claimed this had to be done as they had been attacked by the Muslims. The Muslims of Nawab Nagar insisted that the wall be removed as they had to take an alternative longer route to reach their houses. Six months after the riots ended, the Muslims got the civic administration to act on their behalf and the wall was brought down. In the last decade, the majority of the Tamil Hindus moved out of Naya Chawl. Of the 22 houses in Naya Chawl, more than a dozen now house Muslim families.

Another area that has seen its population distribution change is Mumra in the industrial township of Thane. After the riots, a large number of people from the suburban neighbourhoods of Jogeshwari, Govandi and Borivali migrated to Mumra. Now Muslims account for 80 per cent of Mumra's population. Mumra is home to an insecure Muslim population and its residents are often perceived as being aggressive. Fazal Sha'd, a former member of the Bombay Aman Committee, which worked in riot-affected areas in 1993, suggests: "It is the insecurity of Muslims that makes them open to propaganda and fundamentalism. The government has not helped the situation by repeatedly making statements that Mumra is a den of Pakistani intelligence services." Middle-class Muslims, who are employed as petty workers, advocates and teachers, form a sizable population of Mumra and they are dejected by the government's attitude. Many of them moved to Mumra after the riots and had to give up their jobs. They form a minority who understands how the process of ghettoisation and lessening interaction between Hindus and Muslims is causing both communities to become suspicious of each other. Shahid Amin, a resident, says: "Inside Mumra we feel confident. However, when we step outside the elders make it a point to explain to us not to get into an argument anywhere." Sha'd emphasises: "Educated Muslims feel dejected at such trends as they alienate Muslims from the rest of the population. The government has to realise that if they want Mumbai to progress, they need to take the Muslim population with them."

Spatial transformations as in Mumra have several implications. First, they have changed the character of the city. Even before the riots, there were Muslim-dominated and Hindu-dominated pockets in Mumbai. At the time of the riots, the pervasive feeling among Muslims was that they were not safe anywhere in Mumbai. A decade later, towns such as Mumra show that Muslims have increasingly come to believe that it is better to live together. Prior to the riots, this attitude was not as prevalent as it is today. Second, the widespread nature of the riots demonstrated that the slums of Mumbai were not merely sleepy localities but were affected by the dominant atmosphere that prevailed in the city.

Third, the existence of areas such as Mumra has led Mumbai residents to rethink how they perceive their city. At the time of the riots, many Mumbaiites could not comprehend the fact that such violence could occur in their city. This sense of bewilderment arose from their belief that Mumbai was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in India. This bustling financial and commercial centre was an unlikely site for violence. Many wondered why Mumbai's cosmopolitan character had not precluded communal violence. Former Police Commissioner Satish Sahney, who commanded the city's police force in the rehabilitation period after the riots, says that the cosmopolitan nature of Mumbai remains intact. "This city has great resilience. It has the capacity to bounce back to normal largely because finance moves it. Its money-making goal ensures that, on the face of it, things get normal soon. At the same time it is a communally sensitive city." For the Muslim population in the city, its cosmopolitan nature was doubtful to start with. Faizal Nigar, a resident of Nagpada, explains: "The cosmopolitan nature was always questionable. As in the rest of India, we knew that job opportunities would always remain limited for us in Mumbai. We knew that we would have to fight harder to get anywhere. Post-1993, it is obvious to an ordinary Muslim that it is better to remain quiet and not protest against any kind of discrimination."

A disenchanted minority

Politically, Muslims in Mumbai are isolated from the rest of the city. Post-1993, they temporarily moved away from the Congress. Abdul Ansari, a resident of Mominpura, says: "Earlier it seemed the Congress was an alternative for us but after the Babri Masjid demolition it was obvious that it was doing lip service when calling itself a party for Muslims." After 1994, the Samajwadi Party has emerged as a realistic alternative to the Janata Dal or the Congress. It has been projecting itself as a party that seeks to represent ordinary Muslims of the mohalla, who have been marginalised, impoverished and neglected by the Congress, the state and the community's leadership. The emphasis is less on portraying the plebeian on the basis of religion. However, the Samajwadi Party has not been successful in Mumbai owing to the segmented nature of the Muslim community. Although the government increasingly deals with Muslims as a cohesive unit, the community does not have a homogeneous social character. As a result, it does not have a strong political base.

The demonisation of Muslims as the `other' has taken place despite the fact that there are multiple linguistic groups and sects among them. Historically, Muslims of Mumbai have been one of the most heterogeneous groups in India. The oldest Muslim communities in Mumbai are the Bohras and the Khojas, who are relatively small, wealthy trading communities of the Shia persuasion, and the Sunni Memons. The city also has a large number of Konkani Muslims, who hail from the coastal region south of Mumbai and constitute a Marathi group that is well-integrated into Mumbai's industrial economy. The majority of the Muslims of Mumbai have come from U.P. and Bihar, since the 1920s, in search of jobs. The Ansaris, who are Muslim weavers from U.P., came in large numbers to work in the textile mills. Since the 1970s, there has been a steady inflow of impoverished Muslims from Bihar; they do many of the lowest-paid jobs, as coolies, sweepers and so on. Finally, there are smaller groups of Muslims from South India. The divisions between the older Muslim population of Mumbai and the newer migrants from North India are manifested not only through sectarian differences (Shia and Sunni) but also through class differences. The more recent migrants dominate the mill districts such as Nagpada and Madanpura, which have numerous small and informal businesses and workshops.

While these distinctions continue to divide Muslims, the state and several political parties project them as the `other' and continue to handle them as a `unified problem.' In fact, certain political parties, particularly the Shiv Sena, thrive on this propaganda. For a long time after the riots, there was a feeling that the Muslims would be safe only if the Shiv Sena was in power. Many believed that the Shiv Sena would harden its stance against Muslims in order to consolidate the Hindu vote, if it was out of power. Ram Punyani, a member of the EKTA Committee for Communal Amity, says: "People used to say it humorously. The people who are the cause of the riots should remain in power so that they remain occupied and do not resort to riots. The element of seriousness in this argument is that it is the political parties, whether they are in power or not that cause riots. This holds true for Mumbai as anywhere else."

Eminent social scientist Asghar Ali Engineer emphasises that politically, in the post-riot period, Mumbai's Muslims have been a subdued lot. He says: "The present-day Muslim leadership is low key and more cooperative. There is a greater emphasis on the uplift of the community and women's education. Post-Gujarat, there is a sense of helplessness. This is different from the post-Babri period, where there was no sense of helplessness, only a deep sense of insecurity and a realisation that confrontationist postures will not pay and that we have to correct our faults. Post-Gujarat there is helplessness and the belief that we are doomed."

It has become obvious to the Muslims of Mumbai that confrontation with the police is not an option before them. Journalist Jyoti Punwani explains: "The city's Muslims have refused to get provoked into coming out on the streets. They want no more confrontations with the police." At the same time there is a preoccupation with making up for the lost years by excelling in academics - for the last three years, school and college toppers have been Muslims, many of them from lower-middle class backgrounds.

Riots in the future?

In the long run, do these changes in Mumbai, particularly the ghettoisation of Muslims, suggest that the city is more communally polarised and ready to burn at the first spark of a provocative incident? According to Engineer, the reasons for making a city communally sensitive need to be explained to the political parties and not the people. "No riot can take place without tension building first." Engineer suggests that tension builds because some political parties decide that they benefit from communal violence. "If people from a locality participate, they do so out of a sense of insecurity and not necessarily because of animosity. Rioting does not take place primarily owing to Hindu-Muslim animosity. That is why those who participate in a riot in a locality and their victims start living together after some time."

Emphasising the major role that political actors play in communal incidents, Punyani also offers a similar explanation. "There is no clash between the two communities. Violence is politically sponsored and deliberate." He says that in Mumbai in 1992-93, it was not that Hindus and Muslims were on an equal footing and were trying to attack each other. "People do not say that they belong to the other community, so let us kill them. What has happened in society over the last 50 years is that there has been a demonisation of the `other' community by the dominant community. This is a political process, which is manifested at the social level. This becomes a part of social common sense. The average person starts thinking that these people should be punished."

Mumbai's communal tension cannot be entirely explained either by the argument that Muslims and Hindus cannot coexist or by the suggestion that the ghettoisation of the minority community is bound to create conflict. Nor can political parties be completely blamed as the sole reason for the problems. All these explanations miss the reciprocal relation between the elite and the masses. The masses who participate in a riot are not a homogeneous lot who act collectively with a common aim. There are differences in their aims and motives. While some are members of political networks, which stand to gain through violence, others are lumpen elements who participate on their own.

The non-participants, who let the violence occur, can also be divided into specific groups. Punyani explains: "The first section believes that whatever is happening is right. A second section does not help the victims because of fear; it is not overtly opposed to violence but is uncomfortable. The third section knows that democracy is being violated but is helpless at the moment because of its political and social weaknesses and is not able to react." He suggests that there cannot be a uniform analysis of the bystanders.

This article was written under the Independent Fellowship Programme of Sarai/Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The topic of her research is: `Examination of localities in Mumbai that were hit by the 1992-93 riots.'

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