|On July 11, 2006, seven bomb blasts erupted across Mumbai’s lifeline, its suburban railway. The blasts, which killed over 200 people, reminded the world of India’s ongoing battle with Islamic separatists, and the impact their actions have on the country’s minority population.|
The second of the seven blasts was on a track overlooking the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Naupada, in suburban Bandra. This explosion ripped the train compartment open in a shower of blood and limbs. Shocked residents rushed to the scene to help, carrying the dead and injured from the wreckage. People tore the clothing off of their own back, removed their shawls, even their lungis, and the covers from their beds as they scrambled to stem the flow of blood. Over the following weeks, having zeroed in on Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) as its main suspect, police picked up seventy men from the same neighborhood for questioning. Says resident Liyakat Sheikh wryly, “One moment we were saving lives, the next we were accused of taking life.”
In the aftermath of the bomb blasts, Mumbai’s Muslims feared a violent reprisal from the majority community, mirroring the riots of December 1992-January 1993. The riots followed the destruction of the Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya by a mob led by Hindu fundamentalist leaders perpetrating the belief that the mosque was built on the birthplace of Lord Ram. The riots killed over 1,000 people, demarcating forever Mumbai’s people and places. Shortly after, on March 12, 1993, fifteen serial explosions, masterminded by members of the underworld and Islamic terror groups, struck Mumbai’s most famous landmarks including the Bombay Stock Exchange, killing 257 people. The blasts were believed to be payback for the riots.
It is not surprising then, that after the attacks this July, Mumbai’s Muslim community was immediately on its guard.
The reprisal came, but it was not violent. Mumbai has learnt from its experiences, and found a new way to channel its anger. The Muslim community has been reminded, as though it were necessary, that they practice the same religion as the members of the LeT. In a sophisticated backlash, they are being made to pay for the sins of a terror group by suffering economic and psychological damage manifested in a loss of income, police and public harassment, and a curdling of employment opportunities. Says Ram Puniyani of Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) EKTA, Committee for Communal Amity, “The blasts confirmed for many the popular psychology that to be a Muslim is to be a terrorist.”
While stray incidents of violence were reported, most agree that community leaders and the police are ensuring no flare ups occur. Yasmin Ali Shaikh of NGO, Mohalla Committee Movement Trust, says, “We put up signs boards in sensitive neighborhoods, saying ‘Do not get provoked’. We immediately organized dialogue between the two communities.”
Many of the city’s Muslims are restricted to Muslim majority areas like Naupada and Nagpada, where they work as daily wage laborers or own small businesses. Even the loss of a day’s work impacts their lives. Yunus Khan, a newspaper vendor in Naupada, says “Our houses aren’t stocked with rations. If we don’t go to work one day, we don’t eat the next.” Mohammed Taj Qureishi, a tailor in Central Mumbai’s Nagpada has seen his earnings plummet by fifty percent. “More than half our customers are non Muslim. After the blast they stopped entering Muslim neighborhoods. Business after all, is built on trust. Mothers tell their daughters ‘There are other tailors,’” says Qureishi.
Maulana Sayyed Akhtar of the Madarsa Minara Masjid on bustling Mohammed Ali Road sums up the problem: “When people are afraid they migrate leaving behind their businesses, however profitable. Ultimately that impacts taxes and the Government’s revenue.” Akhtar points out that after the 1992-1993 riots, two Lakh Muslims, who at the time constituted seventeen per cent of the city’s population, left their jobs and education, and returned to their villages. “Mobs armed with lists of addresses where Muslim families resided systematically attacked their victims. We didn’t know where other Muslim families lived, but they knew every detail. So of course, people fled. Tailors, bakers, street side vendors, all left.”
This July, the city returned to work a day after the blasts, and the immediate economic repercussions were limited. But fear of, and separation from, the Muslim community blossoms. Select Hindu housing societies have banned Muslim tenants. In trains and buses, Muslims are accosted by the police. There were two reported incidents of Muslim men being beaten up, and thrown out of the train. The jeers of “Return to Pakistan” are daring and frequent. On the broken walls which surround one impoverished Muslim neighborhood, serving as meager fortification, have been pasted fresh posters exclaiming in Hindi, “This is a Hindu Nation!”
Laughs Mohammed Nizwan, a garment exporter in Naupada, says “I don’t even have a passport!”
Some Muslims like Nizwan blame the police for not stemming anti Muslim propaganda. He recalls the words of a police inspector during the 1992-1993 riots. “When I’m wearing my uniform, I’m a policeman. When I’m in plainclothes I’m a Shiv Sainik,” he had said, referring to the political party, famous for its emphasis on Hindu nationalism and provocative, anti-Muslim rhetoric. Others, like Akram Qureishi, find comfort in publicly condemning the terrorists. “Terrorists have no religion, but the religion of bloodshed,” he says, to encouraging nods from his group of young friends. “They should be punished in the harshest possible way.”
Of course, not all the adverse reactions are new to the Muslim community.
Activist Khatoon A.G. Shaikh of the Federation of Mahila Mandals, Mumbai, works with the women of Naupada. She says one of her greatest struggles has been ensuring that they receive their voter’s identity cards on time. “Being Muslim, women, and illiterate, they are the last priority,” she says. “And as a result, they have no vote in who will represent them in the Government. They are silenced at every step.” Muslim men in the area complain of interminable delays vis-à-vis travel and official documents. “Our name gives us away,” says Qureishi, bleakly. On festivals, tailor Farhan Sheikh reveals, “policemen enter the neighborhood and prevent us from slaughtering goats, which is an important commemorative ritual for us. Do we enter Hindu neighborhoods and prevent families from celebrating Diwali?”
Still, many Muslims who lived through the dark days of the 1992-1993 riots are comforted by Mumbai’s response to the 2006 blasts. Qureishi says, “One thing all the communities have in common now is our distrust of politicians. They manipulate us for their own benefit. The other factor responsible for this relatively calm response is the fact that we’ve got used to bomb blasts. It’s happened before. And sitting at home from work, or harassing other people is not going to put food on anyone’s plate, whether that person is Muslim or Hindu.”
Nevertheless, feelings of suspicion against the Muslim community have been sharpened. The net is wider now; since the blast suspects are not uneducated youth but include a businessman, a computer engineer, and a commerce graduate. Muslim leaders fear this will impact the employment opportunities of educated youth, thereby exacerbating the economic downslide of the community. “Muslims are feeling vulnerable. They are suffering heightened fear psychosis. Over the years this will increase the sense of alienation of young Muslims from the mainstream,” says Puniyani.
In suburban Mumbai’s Jogeshwari and Juhu slums, Feroze Ashraf tutors 400 Muslim postgraduate students daily. All the students were present for class the day after the bombings. Ashraf credits this to the realization that now more than ever there is a need for Muslim youth to secure their future. “Every time members of our community are involved in a terror attack it impedes our efforts to take our children forward,” sighs Ashraf. “It’s just another problem for us.”
In 2006 in Mumbai, young men with or without a criminal record are also routinely picked up for questioning, during religious festivals or when terror attacks occur elsewhere in the country like Kashmir or Gujarat. “They stop boys without explaining why and ask them their name, where they’re going, where they’re from, what their father does. They search their bags, and abuse them in the vilest language. Even if a boy isn’t a criminal if he’s repeatedly arrested, he will come into contact with criminals and become one,” says Yasmin Ali Shaikh. “The police made criminals of many young boys after the riots of 1992-1993.”
Housewife Zubeida Sheikh may agree. After the 1992-1993 riots, Sheikh and her family fled their Hindu Majority neighborhood for Naupada where they lived on the generosity of friends. After months her elder son Qasim, then twenty-two, got a job as a waiter in the UAE. Two days after he returned to Mumbai on holiday, police arrested him on charges of participating in the blasts. He has been in jail for thirteen years. In the interim, Sheikh married her daughter to a prisoner in the same jail where her son is confined. No one else, she says, wanted the brother of a suspected terrorist. “My son wouldn’t even leave the house, let alone kill someone but because he traveled to the Middle East they put him in jail,” says Sheikh. “It’s been only loneliness and regret since that day.”
Mumbai may not have erupted into communal riots as it did in 1992-1993, indicating that the city has learned from its past. But hostility is still finding other means of release, manifesting itself in insidious ways that continue to damage the Muslim community’s well being. Paranoia, prejudice, and stereotypes have gained muscle. And it is in these ways that terror groups who thrive on carnage, ensure that the negative impact of their actions continue long after their victims have been carried away, and our tears for them have been shed.
An edited version of the article appears in Himal Southasian, November 2006.
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