Rebuilding mutual trust

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

Residents of the riot-affected localities in Mumbai recall that in 1992-93 they saw familiar faces in the mobs, which came equipped with kerosene, firearms and iron rods. In many cases, the victims were subjected to looting by their neighbours and, in some cases the neighbours killed. What leads a person to strike at his neighbour at the time of riots? A decade later, many people who participated in the riots live in the same localities as the victims. Burhan Parkar of Mahim says: "It is not that those who were in the mobs are all powerful in the mohallas. The victims are not that insecure. Next time there is a riot there is very little chance that the same neighbours will take part in it. It seems they were caught in the communal madness brewed by the Shiv Sena."

A common explanation for the participation of neighbours in the riots is that they are affected by mass politics. Political parties spread communal hatred with the aim of dividing people, and the masses succumb to the propaganda. This argument suggests that political parties alone are responsible for dividing people and that if there is no political interference, there will be no communal violence. This line of reasoning does not explain why people listen to politicians at all and resort to violence. The fact of the matter is that mutual distrust has become deeply embedded in the two communities over the years. This distrust increases the possibility of violence and communal flare-ups are now quite common. This is true in most cities that witness communal riots. Mumbai has seen several major communal riots.

Sections of the press and civic organisations are working to remove the communal mistrust. These sections belong primarily to the upper middle educated elite, who usually do not live in the neighbourhoods from where the rioters come. In Mumbai, the press and the civic organisations are still working to defuse communal tensions, primarily through the mohalla committees in areas that were affected by the 1992-93 riots. Yasmin Ali Shaikh, who heads the mohalla committee in Nagpada, says: "Our primary task was to create communal reconciliation in the city. We were to work with police officials and help them gain the trust of the riot victims." Mohalla committees are set up in such a way that they include residents of that particular area, who might help to remove the distrust between the two communities. Police participation was an important component of this exercise, and the Police Commissioner at that time, Satish Sahney, showed an inclination towards `intellectual policing'. Sahney says that the idea was to build a network that would work towards defusing communal tension. The police had to undergo courses in Islam. They were asked to cooperate with civic groups and attend sessions where riot victims narrated their experiences.

Over the past decade, the functioning of these committees has changed completely. At present there are 27 active mohalla committees working in Mumbai. Concerned citizens, including lawyers, doctors and activists, work with these committees. Some mohalla committees are run by the Mumbai police, others have been formed by ex-police chief Julio Ribeiro and activist Sushobha Barve. The latter are different from the committees run by the police. The committees run by the police are infested with small-time politicians who use them to show-off power in their neighbourhood. Over time, the activities of the mohalla committees formed by Ribeiro and Barve have changed. Initially the focus was mainly on cultural events that carried the message of communal amity. Cricket matches were held, involving Hindu and Muslim youth. Yasmin Shaikh asks: "How many lectures on communal harmony can you give? At the same time, if our objective is to defuse tension at the starting point, then we need to work closely with the people. As a result, we now work with them on different issues, which in my case means running a women's cell."

Burhan Parkar says: "In the initial meetings we listened to Muslim women describing the loss of children and husbands at the hands of the police. We had to give assurances that we would inform the higher police officials. It took a great deal of time to bring back a basic trust in the working of the state in their minds." Parkar is the peace facilitator in Mahim, one of the most communally sensitive areas. The 1992-93 riots left 9 people dead and 63 injured in Mahim. Eighteen persons, including nine Muslims, were injured in police firing .

The facilitators are known in their areas by what one resident of Nagpada described to this correspondent as "sahi sochney walle log" (wise people). Waqar Khan and Bhau Korde, Dharavi's facilitators, are among the most popular. Khan who sells readymade shirts has had his name mentioned as a peace facilitator by at least 15 publications, including books and reputed magazines, copies of which are neatly stacked under a desk in his Dharavi shop. "I was a changed person after the riots. Before 1993, I was like any other middle-school educated small businessman who tried to make a living in a big city. I did not think about peace or communal harmony. When I saw neighbours killing each other in Dharavi during the riots, I was taken aback. I thought I should do something. Since then we have been working towards bringing Hindus and Muslims together." Khan says that over the years by approaching the residents themselves, several issues have been resolved between Hindus and Muslims in Dharavi. One such instance is the observance of Vinayak Chaturthi. Previously, the Ganesha idol that was to be immersed in the sea was taken out in a procession that passed in front of the Badi Masjid. Korde says: "Through discussion we resolved the issue. Now the Hindus do not take the procession outside the masjid if it is prayer time or a Friday."

How effective are these neighbourhood meetings? Can they check sectarian violence? It must be recognised that such exercises are better than nothing. Social scientist Ashgar Ali Engineer emphasises: "In Mumbai peace committees have been effective but they are yet to be tested since no major communal riot has taken place since 1992-93. If a communal riot happens, it will be the real test." Ram Punyani says that for these committees to be effective syncretic ideas would have to become a part of mass culture. "Mohalla committees are formed with good intentions. They are important. However, they lack the ideological training, which the Right has. Whether there are self-sustaining mechanisms in the mohalla committees to withstand the pressures needs to be tested."

The response of citizens and the media to the riots cannot be used as a measure of popular resistance. A popular resistance to communal violence would have to include the reactions of those who are likely to participate in riots. In an interview, Julio Ribeiro said: "After the Gujarat riots, much of whatever we had gained has been eroded. You know, we had made a film on communal harmony, which we showed in all these areas, but now we do not. The Hindus do not even want us to show it. The Muslims are very enthusiastic about it but the Hindus are objecting to it. The Muslims are living under a pall of fear, there is no doubt about it. Perhaps they (Hindus) feel that the Muslims are terrorists. We tried to point out that the great majority of Muslims are not terrorists. But they are stamped with it now."

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