Saturday, July 29, 2006

How 'normal' is Mumbai

On the surface, life in Mumbai is normal. Better than normal, some would say, because despite the July 11 bomb blasts, trouble has not broken out between Hindus and Muslims. Better than normal because despite the police rounding up and questioning hundreds of Muslims, mostly young men, in the different Muslim mohallas, there has been no outcry and protests against the police.

Yet, this is the surface. Underneath there is trouble, there is resentment, there is disappointment.

Within days of the blasts, two stories appeared in the press (Mumbai Mirror, July 27) that illustrate the trouble that is brewing and that could grow. Hamid Pir Mohammad Ghojaria, a watch repair mechanic from Jogeshwari, took a train to south Mumbai to submit admission forms for his son to a local college. At around 5.15 p.m. he entered a train that he planned to take to the next station. He says, as soon as he entered the compartment, he saw commuters beating up a passenger who had worn a Pathani suit. Before long, the commuters spotted him. Ghojaria sports a beard and wears a cap. He said these men shouted, “Get out of this country, go back to Pakistan, you do not belong here, you are the ones responsible for the blasts in the city”. They turned on him and began hitting him and when he cried out “Allah”, they insisted he take the names of Ram and Krishna. Luckily for him, the next stop, which was the last stop, Churchgate, came and he was let off. He has registered a police case but the men who did this to him simply walked away.

A similar case has been reported of Abdul Aziz Kandhai from Malad. A salesman of mobile accessories, Kandhai had taken a train from Kandivili to Marine Lines in South Mumbai. Like Ghojaria, he too sports a beard and wears a cap. There was a bomb scare on his train half way to his destination and most people jumped off the train. Kandhai stayed on board and was chanting with his rosary beats. But others in his compartment, who had stayed on the train rather than jumping off, began to abuse him and accused him of having planted the bomb. He says seven or eight men pounced on him and hit him. He managed to get off the train at the next stop and approached a policeman for help. But he got none.

These might be stray incidents. Or they might be indicative of something more that is brewing in the city.

Women, for instance, acknowledge that there is a great deal of fear in their areas as the police undertake combing operations in connection with the bomb blasts. Hundreds of young men are being rounded up and questioned. And although the majority of them are innocent and are eventually allowed to go, the very fact of being summoned to a police station sends a message of fear to the entire neighbourhood.

A woman who runs an organisation for Muslim women says that Muslims in Mumbai have not forgotten that nothing has been done to punish the people responsible for the killings during the 1992-93 post-Babri Masjid riots. There has not been a single conviction in a riot related case even as the long awaited judgment in the ‘93 bomb blasts case will finally be delivered on August 10, after 12 years in trial courts. She also points out that while the English language newspapers are running daily profiles of the 182 people killed in the July 11 blasts, the majority of the thousands who died in the Gujarat massacre of 2002 are people not known to the general public. No newspaper ran such detailed profiles.

And little is also known about what the survivors of 2002 are facing in Gujarat today. It’s as if Gujarat has been forgotten as other troubles hog column inches and broadcast time. But Gujarat is a wound on the psyche on the majority of Muslims that will not just disappear with time.

She also says that some of the women she works with -- many of them live in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods and wear the burqa – have noticed that people that people stare at them with hostility and pass comments suggesting that the entire community is made of terrorists. One of these women said that she wished she didn’t have to travel by train and that when she does, she wishes she had ear plugs to block out such comments.

We need to look beneath the surface and bring out the real tensions that minorities face at times of terror. Writing about this does not mean one condones those who helped the terrorists. It also does not mean that the police should be stopped from doing their jobs. But what it does mean is that if we truly believe in a multi-cultural and secular society, then we must be alert and sensitive to the wrongs that can so easily be perpetuated in the name of fighting the war against terror.

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