[In this Looking Back series, we will republish some of the pieces that we had earlier published in the previous issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine. This piece was published in the first issue of Cafe Dissensus on Indian Muslims after Assam Riots and Mumbai Violence in 2012.]
By Rama Akhtar
I live in a Muslim ghetto in Jogeshwari (East). I am aware that this sounds jarring and may reek of stereotyping right from the first sentence since ‘Muslims’ and ‘ghettoes’ have been co-related more often than not. My house is inside a narrow by-lane seconds from the main road and across this road lies a Hindu ghetto. Since a ‘ghetto’, especially in slum areas, is a part of the city occupied by minority groups, it befits my part of the settlement to be called a ghetto. However, working and residing in the locality for a decade has enabled me to construct meanings of people’s lives spatially, socially, and psychologically. Clearly demarcated settlements in Jogeshwari (East) are delineated by distinct markers of green and saffron flags, hand-written boards put up by Sunni Dawat-e-Islami in Urdu or the Shiv Sena in Marathi, and frequent dappling of minarets atop mosques or tridents atop temples.
Defining a ghetto in terms of a minority settlement also brings me to a structural understanding of spaces inhabited by people. Snapshots from a Hindu settlement: clean roads, regular clean up of community garbage bins, and covered drainage. Overfull garbage bins, roads overflowing with sewerage water, and uncovered drainage: dismal pictures from the Muslim habitation. The question of negligence or structural deprivation by the local municipal ward office and the larger civic structures of the state loom large against this backdrop. This also brings me to question the very need to form ghettoes as we have noticed a history of particular incidents and a particular kind of leadership may lead people to practice ‘self-exclusion’ as communities.
I shall now start peopling the streets within these settlements. For a month in December 2010, I decided to walk around the streets of Jogeshwari (East). I would start late in the evenings and continue to move around Hindu and Muslim settlements just to observe patterns of interactions among people. Surprisingly, streets in the Hindu settlements were almost without people on weekdays except for those returning (read running!) home from work and this comprised both men and women. Later in the nights, the only flock would be people queued up outside an ATM booth. On the other hand, settlements inhabited by Muslims were abuzz with activity and the streets would be crowded with men, mostly young, and standing in small groups around street corners. At times, I found them standing at the same place until 12.30 a.m. On weekends, the settlements took on a different colour. Both sides would be crowded. Young men would play on the roads while women would be out shopping at the local bazaars, a feature particular to weekends or more specifically Sundays. This description is important to understand what occupies young people across these settlements in current times and will help us build the scenes closer to the Azad maidan protests that took place in Mumbai on Saturday, August 11, 2012.
Nearly a week before the Azad maidan protests occurred, some of my young Muslim friends from the community (all men) came to me to show a series of facebook posts that had been doing the rounds on their smart mobile phones. These posts had gruesome pictures of people, especially children subjected to physical violence, and claimed to be pictures of Muslims killed in Burma. I asked them what they knew about Burma only for them to draw a blank. One of them then went on to describe what was happening to Muslims in Assam with another mentioning that Assam was a place next to Gujarat.
Very soon, I realised that a complete lack of information regarding history, geography (both national and international), ethnicity, and politics was leading to a surge of emotions simply on the basis of what was being described as violence against the Ummah (1). Armed with my limited understanding of ethnicity and politics, I tried to build some perspective around ethnic violence, the Rohingyas (2) in Burma, and the strained relationship between Bangladesh and Burma that impacts the position of ethnic minorities. I was careful to reiterate that violence, in any form anywhere, needs to be denounced. My friends informed me that young Muslim men and boys in the community stood in small groups discussing these facebook posts and were planning to participate in the Azad maidanprotests, coming up on August 11.
I was back at work and at the same time kept myself quite updated on the Assam riots through the print media and about the situation in Burma through the electronic media, until I was completely taken by shock and surprise on Saturday, August 11. At around 12.30 p.m., I got a call from a friend asking me to go home from work since there might be trouble owing to the protests at Azad maidan.With a small baby back home, my only concern was the train schedule and the fear that trains would be disrupted. From the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (my workplace), I reached the Govandi (3) station at 1.30 p.m. to witness a huge crowd of Muslim men of different ages (distinct in their skull caps) shouting ‘Chalo Azad maidan’. I stood at my usual place for the ladies first class compartment even as numerous thoughts crossed my mind. Little children in skull caps walked with posters that said ‘Stop killing Muslims in Burma’. A middle aged man urged his young companion to call up his friends to join in the protests and, as the train entered the platform, I sighted several young men in skull caps on top of the train hooting, yelling, and having fun. While I was left stranded, some boys on the platform rushed into the ladies compartment, even as some other young Muslim men shouted at the boys, asking them not to enter the ladies compartment.
The crowd at Govandi station was, in my opinion, a microcosm of the thousands who had gathered at Azad maidan on that day. Completely dominated by men, the unnerving aspect for me was whether many of the protesters even knew about the incidents they were protesting against. Glued to the television at home, I was baffled at news that protesters attacked the media for not covering the Assam riots. Here I was, under the notion that the protests were against the killings in Burma! At the same time, I have mentioned above that my source of information was the print media that had been covering the Assam riots over the past two weeks right since the first incidence of violence in Kokrajhar. Realising that it was time to analyze the profile of the protesters, I turned to my partner who was equally stunned. A devout Muslim by faith, he was at a loss attempting to recognise and accept the leadership – social and political – that led this mob to Azad maidan.
What transpired was that a crowd, mostly comprising of young Muslim men who were ill-informed, lacking perspective on socio-political issues, and provoked by emotions stoked by self-styled leaders, had gathered at Azad maidan. They were there, perhaps, not just to protest against Burma or Assam, but to give vent to their sense of collective identity that has been neglected, kept at the margins, not only by an ineffective state, but also by a stunted Muslim leadership that clearly reeks of class bias and believes in keeping the masses in their place. It was noteworthy that most of these youth were from slum communities that exist in the form of excluded Muslim settlements with dismal civic infrastructure, very low quality educational institutions, and a large presence of religious structures, symbols, and insignia. At the end of the day of protests, two lives were lost, and civilians, police personnel, as well as media persons were injured. And all this combined with damage to public property.
The rhetoric that followed was a repetition of how Muslims are ‘born to be aggressive, they indulge in mindless protests, and they must be taught a lesson for unleashing violence’. There was not one voice, Muslim or otherwise, that was ready to dig at the root of behavioural issues of young people from marginalised communities. Yet, there were voices, either raucously defensive about the protesting ‘Muslims’ or of those Muslims who did not wish to belong to this community of ‘poor’ and ‘uneducated’. What happened in the heart of Bombay on August 11 was symptomatic of a deeper social, cultural, economic, and political malaise. Muslims and non-Muslims need to introspect alike to find answers to the following questions: When will the Indian state stop playing second fiddle to the nationalists who label Muslims as people who do not belong here and if they were to live here, they would need to do so under certain terms and conditions? When will governance structures start following the spirit of the Constitution and lead an exemplary path to proclaim that irrespective of religious, caste, and gender identities, citizens have equal rights before the law? When will self styled Muslim leaders garner the will to envision a community where each Muslim man and woman is educated, economically productive, and socially aware? When will the utterly progressive opinions in Islam be liberated from the shackles of parochial interpretations of right and wrong? When will the politically right, left, and moderates stop working towards consolidating vote banks and rather think about developmental goals?
Above all, when will people like you, me, and friends around us start thinking critically, addressing sensitively, and behaving responsibly to create a win-win for all?
Rama Akhtar is currently working with We, the People, an Indian Non-Profit committed to responsible citizenship. Rama Akhtar has been working in the development sector for the last ten years, especially in areas of peace building and youth development towards social action. As the co-founder of SAHER, a community based organisation in Mumbai (India) working with youth and adolescents on peace building through active citizenship, Rama has facilitated workshops with around 1000 youth and adults on issues of self awareness, deconstructing identities and stereotypes, and politics of development. She was felicitated with the President Martti Ahtisaari Peacebuilder Award in Washington D.C. in June 2012. This award has been instituted by Nobel Peace Laureate and Ex- Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari and the International Youth Foundation, USA. Rama loves to cook and travel apart from experimenting with global cuisines. A Ph.D. in Social Sciences from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, she draws a lot of inspiration from reading about different cultures and learning from people around the world. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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