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Muslim youth in Mumbai: The myth of governance and the spatio-temporality of resistance in India

By Muhammed Mashkoor

“The new year is coming. Since Modi Ji has given us a calendar incorporating his pictures in various poses, I have decided to present him a calendar. I couldn’t include all the pictures that come to my mind. All we have is just twelve months. Sorry, Modi Ji.” This was the caption for a calendar featuring atrocities against minorities in India posted by Velunaikar V on his Facebook wall. The calendar was a critical response to a calendar published by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) on which Prime Minister Narendra Modi replaced Gandhi. When KVIC’s decision to replace Gandhi with Modi met with fierce criticism from political parties, the government sources defended the move stating, “Modi Ji is a youth icon, and the increasing popularity of khadi products among youths is an example of this.” Velunaikar’s calendar exposes the rise in the number of violence against Dalits and the Muslim minority in the country even as the KVIC calendar tries to polish Modi’s image portraying him as an icon of youth and development. Instead of the glossy pictures of Modi in his expensive kurta pyjama, Velunaikar featured the picture of victims of mob lynching, Rohith Vemula, and Najeeb’s mother, and others in his calendar. Apart from the issue of organized efforts to erase Modi’s image as the executor of Gujarat riot by showcasing him as a symbol of New India and icon of youth, what interests me in the controversy is the calendar and its role in the production of a homogeneous linear time in the modern nation-state.

In his book, Rule by Numbers: Governmentality in Colonial India, U. Kalpagam has impressively demonstrated the attempts of colonial government to homogenize temporalities in India and how the calendars played a vital role in the reconstitution of chronology. He writes: “The colonial state reconstituted temporalities as certain practices and domains of activities were provided with a new focus and framework of observation such that their temporalities hitherto perceived and experienced as cyclical, nonsecular, subjective and local were now seen to be either transformed, subordinated or made to coexist with linear, secular, objective and universal time.” He shows that the unification of time is made possible through restrictions and regulations of the daily life of the ordinary people. Calendar as a tool of linear interpretation of time helps rulers standardize the time, so as to control and organize the social life. Before the introduction of a single official calendar, there were thirteen calendar systems in the Indian subcontinent at the beginning of the colonial period: Bengalee, Moolkee, Muggee, Shaka, Burmese, Amil, or Vilaity, Tamil, Malayalam, Nauroz, Fuslee, Sumbat, Telugu, and Hijree.

Velunaika’s ‘counter calendar’ in the wake of KVIC calendar is an attempt to resist the imposed temporality by invoking alternate memories of the time. When Modi tries to wipe out the history of violence that enabled his journey to the prime minister’s seat with the help of print and visual media capital, Velunaika revives the images of Modi’s violent past and present. The same pattern is visible in the activities of Muslim organizations in India in observing December 6 as Babri Day. Preserving the memory and generating a particular consciousness of time are central in this production of parallel temporalities of resistance. Clock and calendar time are closely related to the nexus of power/resistance. When the state uses time to control the everyday life of masses, civil society actors reorient time to resist oppressive power. Foucault has shown that control of time and space is fundamental rather than instrumental to the disciplinary power of a modern state. When we think about resistance, it is also imperative to understand that resistance by civil society actors is also temporalized as they try to negotiate within the modern logic of time and space.

Spatial segregation in Mumbai

My understanding of the role of memory in resistance has been a bit complicated since my encounter with ‘Mumbai bike riders’ during my college days at the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS). Mumbai has many strange things in her belly that are difficult to understand. How do people struggle and happily live in the inhabitable slums is one of the most intriguing questions that came across in my Mumbai life. The riots in 1984 and 1992-93 have an active role in the spatial redistribution of religious communities in the city. Muslims have fled from the areas, where they used to share their neighborhoods with the Hindu community, to murky inhabitable locations seeking security for their life. Some of them had returned to previous areas after the 1984 riot. But the 1992-93 riots put a permanent end to that trend. Muslims in the city found their unhealthy ghettos safer than the areas where they had to stay with people from other communities. These congested and untidy Muslim ghettos are considered as ‘problem areas’ or ‘Chota Pakistans’ by the police and government officials. The government didn’t do much to improve the conditions of these slum areas. Gradually the social boundaries in the city got embodied by the structural inequality. Anthropologist Sarover Zaidi has observed that the construction of massive flyovers through the Muslim ghettos in Mumbai provides a new horizon of biopolitical surveillance and easy escape from the Muslim ‘problem areas’. She uses Eyal Weizman’s term ‘sovereign verticality’ to refer to these gigantic flyovers.

The Muslim youth in the city uses their motorbikes to challenge the spatial discrimination. During the Muslim festivals like Eid, Muharram, Melaadunnabi, they gather in a huge number on their bikes, asserting their identities with skull caps and green flags, and ride to the nooks and corners of Mumbai without paying much attention to the traffic rules. It is these bikes that allow them to enter the high-class protected zones where they are usually considered as trespassers. The frustration and discomfort of elite towards the unwillingness of the Muslim youth to be abided by the hegemonic norms and spatial restrictions are evident in the statement of a public intellectual: “Look at these Muslim boys speeding across town, no respect for rules, civic space, probably a hangover of riding camels.” The question I am particularly interested in looking here is what makes the Muslim youth in Mumbai confident to transgress the spatial boundaries when their older generation still fears to do so.

What makes Muslims transgress spatial boundaries?

Jyoti Punwani, a Mumbai based journalist, has convincingly explained the answer to this question in her talk at ‘Mumbai collective’ on ‘twenty-four years after the riots’. She describes how Mumbai has changed after the riots presenting three different examples. The first was a rally gathered at Azad Maidan, organized by Muslim religious organizations, to protest against the violence against Muslims in Assam and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Part of the protest became violent and started attacking media and police. This whole incident was unprecedented in Mumbai where the number of Muslims killed in police firing after the riot was 223. The only way the Muslim community chose to make a demand till the rally after the riots were through delegations. The other incident was a Facebook post by a Muslim girl when Bal Thackeray died for which she and her friend were arrested. The 21-year-old girl’s post read, “People like Thackeray are born and die daily, and one should not observe a bandh for that. Respect is earned, not given and definitely not forced. Today Mumbai shuts down due to fear and not due to respect.” Punwany observes, “The very fact that a Muslim girl could post something like this about Bal Thackeray shows how much the city has changed and how much the community has also changed.” According to Punwany, it is the post-riot generation which contributed to both these incidents. This generation has no memory of riot or fear of the police and Shiv Sena that their elder generation has. The third example is the presence of Muslim motorbikes all over the city. Most of them ride without helmets, breaking traffic rules and making nuisances. Soon after the riot, Punwany had witnessed many people saying that they were scared to go to Hindu areas because they felt that even a small quarrel might invite terrible consequences. But the free roaming of Muslim bike riders who publicly assert their identity by wearing kurta pajamas and skull caps shows that there is no such fear twenty years later. One of the most striking points Punwany makes is that it is the loss of memory of the brutal incidents of the riots that allows the new generation of the Muslim community to reclaim their right to the forbidden spaces in the city.

How to resist structural violence and find justice?

Punwany’s account on Muslim life in Mumbai raises questions about how to resist structural violence and find justice when the very system that is responsible for ensuring justice instead protects the culprits. I will elaborate the question a little more by adding one more account from a different context. Raza Rumi, a Pakistani diplomat cum writer, describes his encounter with a Gujarati Muslim at Delhi in his book, Delhi by Heart. He writes:

A man sitting next to our table started up a conversation by asking me where I was from. His name was Ashraf, and he was visiting from Gujarat to follow up on a court case. Obviously, this was most interesting – meeting up with a real victim of Modi’s Gujarat. So I prodded him to talk of the dislocation, of camps, and of the general state of affairs in Gujarat. To my utter surprise and embarrassment, (maybe because I was with a Hindu friend), Abdul’s lack of coherence and his recourse to a religious theology while speaking about the political everyday-life question was shocking. Abdul quoted several sayings of Prophet Muhammad which promised ‘justice’ in the afterlife so that the suffering of the temporal world was somehow the ‘fate’ of pious Muslims. Our ‘pious’ Muslim, Abdul, was recently fired from his factory job and his union had challenged the dismissal in the Supreme Court of India. So ‘justice’ was perhaps a reference to that and piety, a path leading to wish-fulfilment. I could make little sense of what he said despite the familiarity with theological references. However, Abdul did not mention Modi, communalism and the violence that may have jolted his life. After all, he was living in a big camp when I asked him about the riots.

After describing the incident, Rumi continues: “Perhaps Abdul was too terrified to speak up? Or the violence and personal struggle for a livelihood had impaired his coherence? His inability to rationalize his plight in the context of Modern India synchronized with the gems of the retrograde sermon being poured into the ears of ‘believers from the blaring loudspeakers of Jama Masjid’.” The experience Rumi describes and the questions he raises have to be analyzed carefully. The first thing that came to Rumi’s mind, when he realized that the man sitting next to him was from Gujarat, was Modi and the Muslim victimhood in the state. So he expected Abdul to talk about dislocation, camps, and the plight the Muslim community. But when he found that Abdul considered the sufferings as the ‘fate’ of pious Muslims, he was surprised and embarrassed. What Abdul had replied was incoherent for Rumi, and he found the inability of Abdul to rationalize his plight as an outcome of the uncritical absorption of religious sermons. Rumi admitted that though he was familiar with the theological references Abdul employed to establish his view of justice and suffering, he couldn’t make sense of the whole argument.

Apart from the judgments and outsider’s views of a high-class diplomat, what excites me in this account is the idea of justice and sufferings for Abdul, who has the first-hand experience of one of India’s deadliest genocides, the Gujarat Riots. In his belief, justice is what waits for him in the life hereafter, and the suffering in this life is the fate of a believer. Here Abdul talks about a different space and time of justice that doesn’t make much sense to Rumi. Before coming to a conclusion about what this justice really means, we have to understand the Muslim experiences of riots and the judicial system in India. The inability of state judicial system in delivering justice to the victims of catastrophic communal massacres is evident in the fact that the Indian state has never appointed truth and reconciliation commissions after a riot. What is often done in the name of bringing justice is to appoint judicial commissions of enquiry, which can only produce a report with unbinding recommendations. Governments that have direct involvement in the riots use several tactics to undermine the fairness of these judicial commissions. The appointments of judges, who have ties with the culprits, into the commissions, delaying the proceedings, and delaying the placing of the report of the commission in the legislature or Parliament are some of these tactics.

Gujarat is a classic example of all these modes of structural injustice. The Gujarat government appointed a commission with judges close to the political leadership. They presented the report after 12 long years, and the report isn’t available for public yet. The results of judicial process after anti-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar and Mumbai were not different. The 1992-93 Mumbai riots have almost the same story to tell. The riot was a major blot on the image Mumbai as a cosmopolitan economic capital of the modern India. Anti-Muslim biases of the state machinery were blatant in the process of controlling the riot and ensuring justice to the victims. Police officers issued ‘shoot to kill’ orders for Muslims while using milder methods to control Hindu Mobs. In January 1993, Maharashtra government appointed an inquiry commission headed by Justice Srikrishna. The commission collected information from both public and officials and submitted its report in March, 1998. After delaying for five months, the Shiv Sena-BJP government released the report in August 1998. Though the report had pointed out the role of both the Shiv Sena and police officers in the carnage, justice has never been delivered. In an interview aired in 1993, Bal Thackery, the then supremo of Shiv Sena publicly admitted his connection with the riots. He said, “Riots took place, if we didn’t get on the field, Hindus would get killed.” The parading of Thackeray’s dead body wrapped in the tricolor national flag was a clear message to Muslims in the country.

It will be easier to understand Abdul Ashraf’s answer to Raza Rumi’s question in this context of Muslim historical experience of Indian judiciary. To wait for justice in the life hereafter sounds more meaningful for a victim of a riot in India than Rumi’s belief in what Thomas Hanson calls ‘the myth of state,’ the imagination of the state as a distant but persistent guarantor of a certain social order and a measure of justice and protection from violence. Describing the incidents after Mumbai riots, Hanson in his article, “Governance and myth of the state in Mumbai”, argues that the imagination that there is a neutral body of the state that could provide justice to the victims is nothing but a myth. In most of the riots, police and other state machinery were actively involved in perpetuating the violence and denying justice. In this context, the question of resistance has to be thought more carefully. Drawing a line between resistance and compliance is not possible outside of the existing structure of power. Approaching any apparatus of the state to find justice will only be possible through romanticising one over the other.

The modern sensibilities that make Raza Rumi unable to comprehend the actions of Abdul Ashraf have a certain spatio-temporality of justice, and it is when Abdul transcends that logic of modernity, Rumi finds Abdul’s statements incoherent and irrational. In the case of Muslim youth in Mumbai, the lack of fear and the sense of confidence are an outcome of loss of old memories of violence related to the spaces and attribution of new meanings to it. What I point out here is that Muslim everyday transgressions of hegemonic spatio-temporal fixations call for a rethinking of resistance narratives. It is paramount to realize that the present is not a singular and linear moment to understand different ways of overcoming oppression. The binary of resistance and compliance often restricts us from making sense of the actions of those who form their life outside the modern logic of time and space.

Muhammed Mashkoor is an M.Phil. student at International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) Mumbai. He is interested in demography and anthropology of religion.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Narrating Care: Disability and Interdependence in the Indian Context’, edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata, India and Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad, India.

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