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Mumbai's mohalla committees: Giving peace a chance

Last updated on: January 30, 2019 12:01 IST

The mohalla committee movement in Mumbai celebrated its 25th anniversary last weekend.
The movement, which was born in the wake of the horrific Mumbai riots of 1992-1993, has played an important role in ensuring that Hindu-Muslim riots do not recur in the Maximum City.
Jyoti Punwani reports.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Yasmin Shaikh

It's 25 years since the mohalla committees began in Mumbai, in the wake of the devastating communal riots of 1992-1993.

Mumbai hasn't seen a major Hindu-Muslim riot since then.

Can we be certain there won't be another riot on the same scale again?

Talking to those who have worked to keep the peace in Mumbai all these years, one thread emerges: Since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre and in Maharashtra in 2014, the communal situation in the city has become more worrisome.

This is manifest in two ways:

1. Muslims living in mixed areas admit to feeling insecure.

2. Senior Mohalla committee members have found that the police now openly display prejudice against Muslims.

 

"Four or five times a year, since the last three years, I get a feeling of dread, the feeling that anything can happen," says Noorjehan Safia Niaz, co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.

Noorjehan lives in a mixed locality, and admits that when she enters a group of strangers, her first instinct is to check whether there's any other Muslim around.

Similar fears grip Masood Akhtar, who along with wife Rama Shyam used to run SAHER (Society for Awareness, Harmony and Equal Rights) in the slums of communally sensitive Jogeshwari East, north west Mumbai, where they lived.

He has shifted from there, and his new home too has Muslims all around.

But it is located on the main road, hence crowds belonging to all faiths are always present just outside.

Akhtar says he is constantly apprehensive, sometimes even wondering whether strangers will barge into his flat to see if there is beef in his fridge, as they did with Mohammed Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh's Dadri village in September 2015.

Akhlaq became the first of many Muslim mob lynching victims; the latest was Sheikh Kabul, lynched on December 31 in Araria, Bihar.

Both Noorjehan and Akhtar have worked at the grassroots in Mumbai to bring Hindu and Muslim youth together, as part of the mohalla committee movement, as well as on their own.

For them to feel this fear indicates that Mumbai is not that far away from the highways and villages of North India where Muslims are lynched on suspicion of cow slaughter.

While this insecurity is indicative of a failure of the State, does it also mean that the famous mohalla committees set up after the 1992-1993 riots have failed?

The fact that there has been no major widespread riot since 1992-1993 is a testimony to the success of the mohalla committees.

But talking to Yasmin Shaikh and Maria Ishwaran, two of the senior most mohalla committee movement members, makes one realise that two things are essential for this movement to be a success: Total commitment to what is time-consuming work, and an equally committed police force.

Yasmin's many successful interventions in her Muslim-dominated area of Nagpada-Madanpura, which has Hindu pockets, illustrates this vividly.

The lawyer has often had to rush out at the most inopportune times, and mostly alone, to pacify charged mobs.

One Ramzan, Yasmin had to deal with three agitated parties.

The family and friends of a 32 year old who had died suddenly of a heart attack, forcibly brought home his body from the hospital after assaulting the doctors who had failed to revive him.

The doctors were insisting on a post-mortem, which the relatives felt was against their faith.

The police had rushed there and the hospital staff were furious.

Requesting the police not to intervene, Yasmin managed to not only persuade the family to take the body back to the hospital so that a death certificate could be issued, but ultimately saw to it that they agreed to a post-mortem.

But after all this, one more obstacle awaited Yasmin: It was a Sunday, so the post-mortem could only be done the next day.

Yasmin got the hospital to agree to perform the procedure on a Sunday, then arranged for a vehicle (the police offered theirs) to fetch the post-mortem workers from home.

By the time the death certificate was issued, it was almost time for sehri -- the pre-dawn breaking of the fast.

And Yasmin had been called out just as she was sitting down to break her day-long fast at dusk!

In effect, she had fasted for nearly 24 hours.

Another peace-making effort required Yasmin to climb up on top of a vehicle at Nagpada junction and snatch the mike from a well-known maulana when she saw him whipping up a frenzy among an already disturbed crowd of Muslims.

Yet another time, she plunged into the midst of a mob which, upset at the goings on in their mosque, had turned on the police which had rushed to the spot.

All these situations involved dealing mainly with her own community.

But Yasmin recalls a particularly dark episode involving both communities.

A game of cricket turned deadly when a boy attacked another with his bat; the attacker happened to be a Dalit and the victim a Muslim.

It took a month for Yasmin and her team to subdue the understandably volatile atmosphere -- the boy, who ultimately died after slipping into a coma, had been the only son.

Mohalla committee members brought the body home.

The funeral passed off peacefully, but after that followed days of talking with both sides.

"We would place our chairs on the road and just spend hours there," recalls Yasmin.

"The Dalits felt genuine remorse -- who wants an innocent killed? Of course, a case was filed against those boys."

None of these difficult situations could have been resolved had Yasmin not built up her own standing with the police.

They agreed each time to stay away, trusting her when she said she would manage the situation.

At the same time, her standing with the community helped too.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Yasmin Shaikh

In the episode involving the death in hospital, Yasmin recalls threatening both the agitated Muslims as well as the hospital authorities at three different times that she would leave if they refused to listen, and then it would be up to them to handle the situation.

The threat worked each time.

But Yasmin admits she would not have been able to achieve the success she did without her team of 25 trusted members from both communities.

However, of the 25, only five are Hindus.

Trying to get more Hindus involved in her team has been her biggest challenge.

Maria Ishwaran has managed to get Hindus in her team, but she admits, doing so has meant "going out of our comfort zone."

For Maria, the biggest constraint in expanding the mohalla committee movement has been the rule that prohibits membership to anyone affiliated to a political party.

Earlier, Maria was the Andheri East, north west Mumbai, facilitator.

Since she became a coordinator in 2012, she has been able to form 13 committees, which she feels is too low a number.

"These days, everyone has political affiliations," she rues.

The other handicap she faces is that unlike in the 1990s, when the wounds of the 1992-1993 riots were still raw, now, few feel the need to form such committees, given the peace that has prevailed since then.

"But," says Maria, "the need is more today -- I sense undertones of mistrust between the communities, specially since 2014."

What is equally alarming is the other change Maria notices: Today the police display their dislike of Muslims more openly.

It had always been there, but thanks to the mohalla committee movement which works closely with the police, and which is headed by two former police commissioners: Julio Rebeiro and Satish Sahney, it was not manifested too openly.

Today, Muslims tell her how long they are kept waiting at police stations before being called in; how reluctantly police record their complaints. One-sided arrests after a squabble involving both communities is a complaint mohalla committee members are familiar with.

"These policemen know that today, they can get away with this," says Maria, who nevertheless brings this conduct to the notice of senior officers whenever necessary.

Jyoti Punwani Mumbai