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A disturbing disconnect

Mohalla committees and occasional workshops for the police and communities do work to promote communal harmony. But why haven't the Hindu-Muslim ties among ordinary people, ties that have survived the worst riots, been harnessed, asks Jyoti Punwani. Is there such a total disconnect between what is called ‘civil society’ and the people it seeks to represent?

 Late last year, soon after the myriad Indian Mujahideen modules were “busted” and all their masterminds “nabbed”, a meeting was held in Mumbai’s Islam Gymkhana. Organised by influential Muslims in the city, ulema and ‘social workers’, its main theme was: How long will Muslims continue to be targeted by the establishment as terrorists? How do they cope with the constant stigmatisation? How can they convince the media to stop labelling them? 

These were not English-speaking Muslims cut off from their community, part of the city elite. They were another kind of elite: Urdu-speaking, well-off community leaders, the kind that went in delegations to chief ministers; who were called by the police to restrain their community every time communal tension arose in the city. Yet they seemed helpless, up against a fortress of prejudice. 

The state has long discriminated against its largest minority; denied it some rights taken for granted by the majority, mainly the right to protest on the streets. The anti-Muslim conduct of the most powerful arm of the state, the police, is by now an unchallenged fact. The media by and large toes the police and government line on matters such as terrorism and riots, but being intrinsically sensational, magnifies these prejudices and displays them to the world. 

So where do we go, asked the Muslims present there. Their anguish was disturbing, reflecting the failure of ‘civil society’ vis-à-vis its largest minority. The meeting organisers had specially invited a few non-Muslims to advise them. These included retired judges, non-party political activists, a journalist, and an academician-turned-activist. The meeting was startlingly frank -- the non-Muslims telling their hosts the problems they faced working with them; the Muslims admitting that some of their youth had indeed gone over to Pakistan for training. 

It was ironic that the Muslims could bare their soul (almost) to these Hindus, yet not find reassurance in the relationship. To them, all that mattered was the attitude of the establishment. One of the Hindus present pointed out that society was more than the government; ordinary people continued to relate to each other with mutual trust and genuine good-neighbourliness, unaffected by the acts of a few terrorists. 

“Mutual trust and good-neighbourliness have become empty phrases to lull us,” countered one of the Muslims cynically; others kept silent but were obviously not convinced. 

Why? Constantly, one finds evidence of the deep bonds between Hindus and Muslims among the uneducated poor. A Muslim taxi driver married a Hindu. When her brother died, he entrusted his two daughters to his Muslim brother-in-law. The taxi driver, a “typical Mianbhai”, did not convert them, and got them married to Hindus according to Hindu rites. Ironically, the taxi driver was an accused in a communal riot case (he was acquitted). 

A traditional Hindu woman fasts regularly all through Ramzan because her wish was granted the first time she went to a dargah. A Hindu would travel 38 km to attend every hearing of the trial of his Muslim co-worker because he knew the latter was innocent. The charge against his Muslim co-worker? Rioting against Hindus. A Muslim never failed to bow her head before the Ganpati idol installed in the building where she worked as a domestic. Asked if this was not against Islam, she shot back indignantly: “Ganpati too is God. I bow my head at all the temples I pass.” Her daughters waited eagerly for the festival of Raksha Bandhan to tie rakhis to their Hindu neighbour. 

Even among the educated, there is enough evidence of Hindus fasting during Ramzan and going to dargahs -- of all places, in Ahmedabad, even after Godhra; of Muslims immersing their Hindu neighbours’ Ganpati idols. After the Mumbai riots, not all Hindus sacked their Muslim employees, even if those employees lived in neighbourhoods that had become bywords for violence. A young Hindu chawl resident rushed to the police with the names of her Hindu neighbours who had stripped and beaten a Muslim mother and daughter. Another Hindu slum-dweller testified in court against her co-religionists whom she had seen lynching the Muslim mason who had repaired her hut. All these incidents seem like miracles, but to the Hindus and Muslims involved they are nothing to wonder about, just part of daily life. 

Yet, why didn’t these make a difference to the Muslims quoted above? Could it be that most of them have no routine interaction with Hindus at all; live in Muslim-only areas and, in accordance with the new trend, send their children to Islamic schools? A suggestion was made at the meeting: to have small Hindu-Muslim get-togethers during Diwali, with the Muslims taking the initiative in different areas of the city. Such get-togethers might have helped demonstrate that, notwithstanding terrorists’ bombs, Muslim leaders continued to care about their fellow citizens. The suggestion was met with an embarrassed silence. Obviously these Muslims craved endorsement from the establishment, not from ordinary citizens. 

Against the backdrop of these fears, what role have mohalla committees played? With the police as their pivot, they should have been a source of reassurance, especially in troubled times. The police select mohalla committee members to be their eyes and ears, helping the police prevent minor conflicts from becoming major riots. This concept is intrinsically flawed, given the relationship between the police and Muslims, in Mumbai. The police are comfortable dealing only with certain types of Muslims: sycophants, informers and criminals. That’s the reason the so-called ‘peace committees’ that existed everywhere did nothing while Mumbai burnt in December 1992-January 1993. 

The mohalla committees worked like a charm when they were first introduced.  The reason was that they were the result of a genuine desire by two policemen to resolve the deep hatreds that divided Bhiwandi, the powerloom township outside Mumbai that was practically wiped out in two major riots in 1970 and 1984. The brainchild of Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Suresh Khopde, they were put to the test during the 1992-93 riots. Under DCP Gulabrao Pol, Bhiwandi didn’t witness even a lathi-charge while Mumbai burnt. Keeping both communalists and criminals out, these committees, instead, involved the township’s respected as well as ordinary Hindus and Muslims. At regular meetings, committee members talked about their problems, while policemen, instructed by their seniors, listened. The entire exercise was aimed at making the policeman a friend of the people. 

After the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, when Muslim-police relations were at their lowest, the idea was adopted by citizens and police officers similarly motivated by a real desire for harmony. The mohalla committee movement continues to be active, headed by people still driven by the same desire -- former Commissioner of Police Satish Sahney, Julio Rebeiro, K M Aarif, Maria Easweran. It has worked phenomenally well in several crises long after the riots -- Bal Thackeray’s arrest (2000), the VHP’s  many provocations -- and it continues to work every day, unnoticed. 

But these committees are successful only in areas where dedicated people have remained in charge. Elsewhere, they have collapsed into committees of informers and police chamchas. The degeneration started in 1996 under Commissioner R D Tyagi, who sidelined the existing members and started appointing local-level politicians. When Bhiwandi erupted in violence in 2006, it became clear that even in its place of birth, and the arena of its most spectacular success, the mohalla committee had failed. Respected citizens had been sidelined by the police; fanatical, rabble-rousing leaders had been given undue importance. As one youngster put it: “Previously, if we got into a minor fight, the police would take the help of the committee elders and lock us up for a few hours to teach us a lesson. When we were tempted to take to the streets, the same elders would warn us: ‘Go at your own risk. We won’t bail you out.’ But when the police stopped listening to them, they stopped getting involved, and we too stopped bothering about them. Now there’s no one to guide us.” The latest nail in the coffin is the demand by a Muslim minister to scrap all mohalla committees. 

There have been other initiatives to improve communal relations. Asghar Ali Engineer has been conducting workshops for the police, college students, and community workers since the 1992-93 riots. Here, he counters myths about Muslims and historical figures such as Shivaji. According to him, policemen have told him how attending these workshops has helped change their image of Muslims. In the last couple of years, Islamic scholar Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali has organised a series of activities in Mumbai attended by the clergy from every community. These have helped tremendously in influencing those who are stepping into the priesthood. I cannot forget what a young boy from Gujarat, training to be a priest at Mumbai’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, told me: “I had never thought these people (madrasa students training to be imams) would be just the same as me. Back home, we were told all sorts of things about them.” 

Though these ‘civil society’ initiatives may be valuable, they need to be sustained for years before they can begin to have any widespread impact. A few committed people will have to continue putting in money and effort. Also, their target group is limited, and they work top-down. On the other hand, there exists the vast, solid foundation of Hindu-Muslim ties among ordinary people; ties that have survived the worst riots. Why has this reservoir not been harnessed? Is there such a total disconnect between what is called ‘civil society’ and the people it seeks to represent? 

(Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who specialises in communalism issues)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009