Is there a point in making people remember events they wish had never occurred? Reading and listening to the testimonies of Mumbai riot victims made to the Srikrishna Commission, a single thought consumed me: this city must never forget the full extent of the evil committed by the police and groups acting in the name of Hinduism. Twenty years later, I am not so sure. There are those who cannot forget even if they want to. Reminding them of what happened is an act of cruelty in itself.
For this story, I avoided Hazira Bi, who saw Shiv Sainiks from the neighbourhood shakha kill her husband after cutting off his hands. They then threw her from the verandah. When she regained consciousness, she was in a refugee camp for Muslims on a school campus. Her eldest son, aged 18, was missing. He never came back. Her youngest children, Shabana, then seven, and Rizwan, three, escaped. They were visiting relatives. Though Hazira Bi told the police that her husband’s killers were Shiv Sainiks, she did not know their names. Her case was classified as ‘neither true nor false’.
Hazira Bi, Shabana and Rizwan have gone through life protecting one another. The children often ask each other how things would have been had their father and brother—or either—been alive. Shabana would not have had to go to work, they reckon. Rizwan may have been more than a commerce student who failed in one subject and did not bother to re-take the exam. He wanted to start earning as soon as possible so his mother could stay home. Determined to fulfil her husband’s desire to see his youngest son educated in a convent school, Hazira Bi had been going house-to-house teaching Muslim children the Quran for a fee of Rs 50 a month, often passing out from exhaustion on the road.
But the children make sure their ‘what ifs’ are not discussed near Hazira Bi. They have not forgotten the days when the family had to survive on one meal a day in a house with walls that still bore bloodstains, even as their father’s killers roamed the streets outside free. But they will not mention this, nor allow anyone else to in their mother’s presence. Their aim in life is to see that she lives in some peace at least now. Rizwan did not attend the protest rally called in August by religious leaders against attacks on Muslims in Assam and Myanmar. Doing so would have alarmed his mother. Even news of his new job in a Hindu-owned company had sent her blood pressure sinking.
Pawan Patil did not even know who fired the bullet that left him paraplegic at the age of 19 as he walked home that January afternoon. He remembers pain so unbearable that he did not want to live anymore. Even today, he walks unsteadily on crutches and cannot urinate normally. Seated at his phone booth on a busy street in Muslim-dominated Dongri, Pawan watches the world go by and often wonders, ‘Why me?’ Outside his home, where he lives with his mother and brother’s family, is a Shiv Sena sticker. The Patils are diehard Shiv Sainiks, but except for a corporator who helped once, the party did nothing for him. And Pawan refuses to go to them. His brother helped locate this phone booth, and Pawan had to travel all the way to Pune to get it transferred to his name. He has named it after his parents. But with the spread of mobile phones, his earnings have dropped so low that he can no longer pay for his medicines.
Soon after Pawan was shot, his family had sent him to a centre for paraplegics in Navi Mumbai. There he was trained to walk and type, and encouraged to appear for his class 10 exam. The seven years there did him a world of good. Unfortunately, the rules made it impossible for him to stay on once his training was over. For years after that, he roamed the streets on his three-wheeler chair—till he got this booth. Today, tired and pessimistic, all Pawan wants is to go back and work in that centre. To return to that cocoon where everyone is like him, and he is no burden on his family.
Like Pawan, Rubina Shaikh’s eye was injured by a stray bullet during the violence. She was nine years old. Twenty years later, she still has shrapnel. Her mother quit voting after the incident because no politician would help them. The police were not sure which jurisdiction the incident fell under—their home is in Dongri and the bullet came from the direction of Pydhonie. “Had you been a policeman, I would have slammed the door in your face,” says her mother. “Had you been a male, I’d have chewed your head off. It’s only because you are a woman that I let you sit here.” And yet, this woman, so full of rage, refuses to let me leave without a Diwali gift.
Riot victims have banged the door or slammed the phone down on me many times. So it was with some nervousness that I approached Ruksana. I first met her in 1998 when she was struggling to get compensation for her ‘missing’ husband. Her mother-in-law, who lost both her sons in the riots, sold her belongings—clothes, ornaments, et al—to pay the school fees for Ruksana’s children. Weeping bitterly, the old woman had told me then how she had started hating Hindus but had to live among them.
Ruksana has chosen to work with Hindus. Given the job of a cleaner in a BMC Urdu school on compassionate grounds (her husband was a BMC employee), she opted for a Marathi school when due for a transfer. “I could have been packed off anywhere,” she says, “I applied to this school because it was convenient for me. My Muslim colleagues warned me that Marathi principals are very strict. But I found the principal and entire staff very considerate, even more than my Muslim colleagues were. There, despite knowing my story, they wouldn’t let me leave early, even though my kids were small. Here, no one knows anything about me, but if I’m unwell, they tell me to lie down in the rest room. And they don’t eat until I join them.”
Ruksana is the only Muslim in the school. This was her first close contact with the Hindu community. “On my first day, I told them I didn’t want to hear any nagging as long as I did my work well. I had decided I wasn’t going to take any nonsense—it was their community that had killed my husband, after all.” Despite the camaraderie with her new colleagues, Ruksana still misses her old school. “Gair toh gair hi hain ” she shrugs. Others are still others. Yet, she has no regrets about her leap into the dark.
“You have to take risks, or you can’t get ahead,” says Shama Inamdar, whose home in Pratiksha Nagar was looted and her husband’s brother killed during the riots. It was only a couple of years ago, after his grandchildren were born, that her husband stopped brooding over his loss. The family had fled with just the clothes on their backs to their old building still under repair in Madanpura. “We broke into our own home,” recalls Shama, “we had no choice.” They needed a safe enclave. “It was heaven,” adds her daughter, “You wouldn’t know there were riots on outside had it not been for the Muslims pouring into this area from all over.”
This heaven lies in Gosht Bazaar—an area, mother and daughter tell you gleefully, that makes Hindus break into a sweat. “The computer mechanic asked me how I could live here. I told him we have grown to love the very things that horrify outsiders,” says the daughter. (When Hazira Bi finally left her old home in Wadala, it was to go to a butchers’ market in Kurla. It is safe, says Shabana, with no Shiv Sainik in sight.)
The Inamdars too have settled down to life-as-usual thanks to the risks they took. They started their garments business anew in a Hindu dominated area. Husband and wife worked from morning to night, leaving their home to the care of their nine-year-old daughter. Often, they would come back to burnt dinners; once, the house almost caught fire. Their business, however, did well. Today, they can afford to buy a bigger home in some other locality for their expanding family, but their son will not let them leave. After the riots, recalls the daughter, the word ‘Hindu’ would sear them. But now her brother has so many Hindu friends, the mother sometimes worries.
It is hard for those directly affected by the riots to shake off their distrust of the majority. This is so even of those who returned to their old homes to live among Hindus. The Satkuts lost everything—timber marts, paan shops, all their means of livelihood. But they came back to what was left of their home on a hillside in Parel Gaon because the entire neighbourhood stood on land that belonged to them. Gradually, their relatives moved to distant suburbs. But, says Razia Satkut, she will never leave—even though hers is the only Muslim home there now. However, she believes that once buildings come up on their land (which she has sold to a builder), it is best for her children to move out. “I have no fear, but I have to think about their safety.”
That is perhaps the most enduring legacy of the riots: a gnawing need to live among one’s own. The violence spelt a ghettoisation all too stark for a city with claims to a cosmopolitan identity.
In January 1993, six Hindus, five of them women, were burnt to death in Jogeshwari’s Radhabai Chawl. Hindus moved out of the chawl, and all over Jogeshwari, their co-religionists swore they would never step into Muslim localities just across the road.
Yet, those divides are blurring. Over the past two decades, Muslims have turned to education, and given the intermingling this assures, they now have more Hindu friends than ever before. Hindu youngsters can be found studying with Muslim friends at their homes. After the riots, Muslims of Mohammed Ali Road had been afraid to linger in Hindu areas. Today, topi-clad boys fearlessly race motorbikes across the city.
Other ties remain. When the Parmanand Wadi dargah at Parel was attacked in 1993, Hindu devotees escorted its priest Azmatullah and other employees to Sewri. Even now, Hindus continue to bring their children to the dargah for blessings and often give Azmatullah a lift to the shrine when they see him trudging up the incline. A Hindu performs the main ritual at the shrine’s annual urs.
But living alongside each other is another matter. Part of the reason is that Muslims are unable to get homes in Hindu-dominated housing societies. “Our building has an unwritten rule—we sell flats only to Marathis,” says Nilesh Sane, a proud Shiv Sainik of Cement Chawl near Masjid Bunder. “No one dares attack us.” Interestingly, though, other buildings near that chawl have seen a steady influx of Bohra businessmen who’ve bought properties from Gujarati Hindus. It is Shiv Sainiks who regulate traffic whenever the Syedna, the Bohra high priest, visits the area. But that could be an exception. Social worker Faridbhai Batatawala has seen Hindus leave his building one by one despite its prime location near Jogeshwari station. “When an area becomes Muslim dominated, Hindus leave,” he says, sadly.
Ghettoisation results in heightened religiosity. Farrukh Waris, principal of Burhani College, finds religious fervour—alongside exposure to the world via the internet—a striking feature of her students. Almost all were born after the riots, and four-fifths of them are Muslim, mostly first-generation learners from poor families with no space for “cosmopolitan excesses”. She says, “Madrassas and mohallas are their meeting grounds.” So Waris pushes them to take part in off-campus activities: helping cops clean up Chowpatty after Ganapati immersions (one parent objected) and internships with Mohalla Committees (cross-community groups of peace volunteers), et al.
Waris finds Muslim mothers especially keen to get their daughters educated. For this, some of them do not tell their husbands about field trips that their daughters have to go on. Still, girls are often forced to drop out. Thanks to an ‘action alert’ put in place by Waris, though, Burhani College has more than halved the dropout rate among female students from 57 to 23 per cent in the last five years. From the clerk who receives an application for withdrawal of admission to the principal herself, at every stage the girl is counselled not to leave college.
“Today, parents don’t need convincing to send their daughters to college,” says writer Feroze Ashraf, having offered free coaching to Muslim girls from poor families for the past 15 years. That is the only change he sees among Muslims since the riots. The violence forced him to leave his Hindu neighbourhood for a Muslim one and brought him in close contact with his community’s wretched poverty, ghettoised isolation and sense of utter vulnerability. None of this has changed, he says.
How then does one explain the violent outburst at the Azad Maidan rally on 11 August? Anyone who lived through the riots 20 years ago knows that a Muslim mob is a red rag to the Mumbai Police. Yet, here were Muslim youth attacking the police without provocation—and without the latter opening fire in response. If this showed how the nature of Muslim-vs-police confrontations had changed, its aftermath quickly re-established the old order. Arup Patnaik, the police commissioner who restrained his men (to avoid a repeat of 1992-93), was shunted out of his job by the state government after some fist waving at him by the MNS demagogue Raj Thackeray at a morcha held in the same maidan. Patnaik’s
behaviour, his transfer suggested, was out of line. Also, those arrested after the 11 August rally reported that the treatment meted out to them by the police was exactly the same as had been to Muslims back in 1992-93. They had their beards pulled by policemen to taunts of, “Landya, go to Pakistan!”
So, has nothing really changed in Mumbai since Justice Srikrishna indicted the city’s police force for its attitude of ‘One Muslim killed is one Muslim less’? Not at the ‘cutting edge’ where Muslims encounter cops, says advocate Yasmin Shaikh, who works with the post-riots Mohalla Committee movement led by former Police Commissioner Julio Ribeiro. If junior cops abide by the law, it is because they know someone will complain to their seniors or go to court if they do not. But, she says, and other social workers confirm this, senior police officers today can be counted upon to involve Muslims in keeping tense situations from turning ugly.
Shaikh says Muslim youth hate the police because they see their community as an unfair target, whether for petty traffic offences or terror charges. Mohalla Committees, especially in Muslim areas, have to work overtime to prevent mobs of Muslims coming face-to-face with battalions of armed cops. There is a distinct possibility the former will attack the latter. Often, Shaikh has asked senior cops to withdraw their forces while she runs around calming members of her community. This happens whether the initial provocation is from the Bajrang Dal or from hotheads among Muslims.
That is why, feels social worker Harun Mozawala, there should be no let-up in educational efforts. Battling indifferent BMC officials to get Urdu schools running can take months, but Mozawala does not give up. “Muslims react emotionally,” he says, “They have to learn not to take the law into their own hands.”
What about the Shiv Sena, which went all out against Muslims in 1993 and won power in alliance with the BJP in Maharashtra two years later? To their surprise, local Muslim leaders found the Sena-BJP government more willing to fulfil their long-standing demands, be it granting a change in floor-space-index norms for mosques or handing over Mumbai’s Hajj House to them. Sena MLAs, even those who had led riotous mobs only a few years earlier, proved more approachable than their Congress predecessors, they say.
At that time, Muslim disenchantment with the Congress was at its peak for the party’s failure to prevent the BJP-led Babri Masjid demolition. Today, many believe that Muslim youth are being falsely implicated in bomb blast cases by the Congress-led regime. Some say that they are keen to give the Sena a second chance, but cannot risk openly campaigning for it until the party puts up at least a couple of Muslim candidates in Hindu areas.
The Sena may oblige. “We are looking for good Muslim candidates,” says Sena leader Jaywant Parab, a man who was convicted of a hate speech in the 1992 riots but forged ties with Muslims during a brief stint in the Congress. He is not the only one. Baburao Mane, acquitted in a riot case, has started a multi-lingual school in Dharavi where Urdu teachers feel freer than they did in Urdu-only schools. Former Shakha Pramukh Hemant Koli, whose name featured unfavourably in the Srikrishna Report, today assures people that no riot can break out in his Masjid Bunder area: “We are all friends now.”
With Bal Thackeray gone, Muslims who have interacted with his son and successor Uddhav feel the Shiv Sena may soften its Hindutva stand. Some Sainiks regret the riots, they note, and the party does not need such violence as a political tool anymore.
The greatest enemy of Muslims to emerge over the past 20 years, according to Nabeel Shah, an RTI activist, is the community’s political and religious leadership. “They prevent us from working alongside our humwatan (compatriots) in citizen movements like India Against Corruption. They feel threatened, so they label these movements ‘anti-Muslim’.”
Activists Sajid and Siraj, both of whom have worked closely with non-Muslims, believe that this is a moment that Muslims must seize. Sajid started propagating education in the slums of Jogeshwari even before the riots; Siraj heads the Mumbai branch of the Movement for Peace and Justice, a Jamaat-e-Islami outfit that focuses exclusively on social, non-religious issues.
Today, it is education that is everyone’s aim, Sajid and Siraj point out. Globalisation has opened avenues for Muslims that the State had denied them. Moreover, the Judiciary remains secular. The hatred of the Ayodhya years and riots of the time belong to a century that is more than a decade past.