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Why India needs more mohalla committees

January 30, 2019 11:58 IST

Mumbai's 45 mohalla committees and the many voluntary groups working to bring communities together in the city can be counted upon to do their utmost to stop riots.
Jyoti Punwani reports.

IMAGE: Among the mohalla committee's activities, the most successful have been the 'Cricket for Peace' matches, where policemen and ordinary citizens formed part of the same team. Photograph: Kind courtesy Yasmin Shaikh

One reason for the effectiveness of mohalla committees have been individual police officers -- at all levels -- who have over the last 25 years not only been impartial, but even shown enthusiasm for mohalla committee initiatives.

"They believed in (then Mumbai police commissioner) Satish Sahney's rule that the police must go to the people," says Yasmin Shaikh who has been with the movement from the start.

"They knew that without the people's support, there can be no peace."


Maria Ishwaran, another mohalla committee veteran, recalls how senior cops used to urge her to revive mohalla committee activities whenever there was a lull in them.

Among these activities, the most successful have been the 'Cricket for Peace' matches, where policemen and ordinary citizens formed part of the same team.

She remembers a 19-year-old Muslim who was the captain of the inter-faith team telling her proudly: "The ACP was in my team and I could order him around!"

However, Yasmin Shaikh finds that the new crop of policemen, who were not around during the 1992-1993 riots, show little enthusiasm for "community policing".

"Only before festivals do they call mohalla committee meetings," she complains.

Noorjehan, whose organisation BMMA works with their area mohalla committee, echoes this.

"It should be made mandatory for the senior police inspector of every police station to regularly hold meetings of the mohalla committee," she says.

"It shouldn't depend on the whim of individual officers."

It is obvious that regular mohalla committee meetings are the easiest way of maintaining peace in the area.

That this is not being done points to indifference at the top, an indifference that is puzzling, given the high-pitched communal rhetoric that has become the norm since 2014, and the unprecedented reach of social media that spreads this rhetoric.

However, while the police may be apathetic, mohalla committees haven't forgotten their responsibilities.

Says Maria Ishwaran: "We have instructed all members not to forward provocative videos that they receive on WhatsApp; and to use WhatsApp to counter rumours."

The difference made by the presence of an active and well-known mohalla committee became obvious in March 2017 when a riot erupted in the sensitive Cheetah Camp colony.

The police had to lathi charge a riotous group of Muslims outside their police station, who then burnt a police vehicle.

They were demanding action against a Hindu who had posted a provocative image on his Facebook page.

The FB post had gone viral across the city, but the riot took place only at Cheetah Camp.

"As soon as it went viral," recalls Yasmin Shaikh, "I spoke to our DCP who contacted the cyber cell. Our team informed all their WhatsApp groups that the police were dealing with it."

In Cheetah Camp, despite the presence of mohalla committee members, the youngsters enraged by the FB post approached the newly elected AIMIM corporator.

The area had seen high pitched communal rhetoric by Asaduddin Owaisi's party during the just concluded municipal election campaign.

The corporator, himself a youngster, went to the police station with the mob.

The usual procedural delays in filing the complaint led to stone throwing at the police station, leading to a lathi charge and then the burning of a police vehicle.

Had the Cheetah Camp police held regular meetings with mohalla committee members, the situation could have been avoided.

Similarly, had the youth contacted the latter instead of the AIMIM corporator, there would have been no violence.

One reason why mohalla committee meetings were taken more seriously earlier was the presence of two senior and respected ex-police commissioners at the head of the mohalla committee movement: Julio Ribeiro and Satish Sahney.

These two were also the reason why many youngsters got involved enthusiastically in those days.

Dr Rama Shyam remembers Satish Sahney listening to Muslim slum-dwellers and narrating his family's own experiences of Partition, a few years after the riots.

Today, Ribeiro is not as active as he was, thanks to his age, though Sahney still is.

Dr Rama Shyam and Maqsood Akhtar of SAHER, both of whom worked with the mohalla committee movement for many years, feel it has failed to attract youth.

Maria Ishwaran agrees, but points out that the movement has not appointed anyone as a recruiter, which has to be a full time occupation.

Social media addiction among youngsters is a major factor in their lack of involvement, she says.

Some of those once associated with the movement have found their own ways of focusing on youth.

SAHER, for example, worked among college students in Jogeshwari from 2006 to 2016, while Noorjehan's BMMA has started working with school students.

Significantly, for both, the focus was not communal harmony.

But their interaction with students led to barriers of religion and caste and also gender being broken among the latter.

Rama recounts how SAHER's many activities with students led to an opening of their minds, a questioning of tradition and of friendships being struck across communities.

"For the first time these students realised there's more to life than religion," says Akhtar.

For Noorjehan, the core focus was to give them a perspective on gender.

IMAGE: The legendary police office Julio Ribeiro played a stellar role in the mohalla committee movement. Photograph: Kind courtesy Yasmin Shaikh

"We started off with telling them about the Constitution so that they become better citizens. But when we tell them 'Under the Constitution you are a citizen with equal rights', the question arises: 'Equal to whom?' The answer is 'To others, be they of different communities or a different gender'."

But given the communal situation today, Noorjehan's group has decided to make communal harmony a focus too.

The first step has been to get children who live in ghettos, with little opportunity to mingle with other communities, to celebrate the festivals of the other community.

Thus, during last year's simultaneously occurring Ganpati and Muharram festivals, Muslim children were escorted to Ganesh pandals, while Hindu students were taken to see the tazias installed during Muharram.

Bharti Shetty, a volunteer with the BMMA, recited "Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim" to a bunch of curious 7 to 12-year-old Hindus, explaining that it was no different from taking the name of Lord Ganesh before beginning anything new.

Sajid Shaikh, another activist who worked with the mohalla committee in Jogeshwari East, has also brought communities together outside the mohalla committee movement.

In 1986, Sajid joined the Muslim Youth Association in Jogeshwari East.

The Ayodhya movement was then underway.

Starting off with educational activities, the MYA began taking up local issues which agitated the community.

Campaigns against the proliferation of liquor dens and video parlours in Jogeshwari East, and fighting the tanker mafia there, found enthusiastic participation from both communities.

Today, the group's name is the Modern Youth Association (a police officer suggested the change from 'Muslim' to 'Modern' to avoid trouble), and it continues to work on civic issues which bring both communities together.

IMAGE: Secular concerns preoccupy young people's minds today. Photograph: Kind courtesy Yasmin Shaikh

In the 2017 municipal elections, points out Sajid, the AIMIM, despite its communal rhetoric, stood fifth in his area.

"Every party had to focus on the campaign we have been carrying out -- fighting against big builders for slumdwellers's rights under SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) schemes. This problem is what is agitating all slum-dwellers today."

Noorjehan echoes this.

Secular concerns preoccupy young people's minds today, she has found.

"Uppermost in the minds of Muslim youth is the desire for a good education and a steady job; how to do better and support their families. But their minds are being vitiated with communal poison. We can do our bit to counter that. But what is the government doing?" she asks angrily.

Maria Ishwaran points out that of 93 police stations in Mumbai, mohalla committees exist in about 45.

Where they do not exist, committee members rush to quell any potential fires in their neighbourhood once they are informed.

What worries her though, are the coming elections.

"The 2019 general election is the most crucial election because it's going to be fought on Hindutva. Whoever wins, the aftermath of that election is going to be very challenging for us."

IMAGE: The first step has been to get children who live in ghettos, with little opportunity to mingle with other communities. Photograph: Kind courtesy Yasmin Shaikh

So, to repeat the question:

25 years and many peace-making efforts later, can Mumbai again witness another widespread riot like it did in 1992-1993?

"Not if the State doesn't want it," says Noorjehan.

"Hindus and Muslims may fight in their own areas, but neighbours intervene to patch up the fight. Every time a riot has spread, it's because the State has played an active role in sustaining it."

Significantly, the experience of everyone interviewed has been that politicians never help; in fact, they often mar chances of a solution.

One thing is for sure, the 45 mohalla committees and the many voluntary groups working to bring communities together, can be counted upon to do their utmost to stop the riot. Can the police?

Jyoti Punwani Mumbai