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A people still hurt

The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and the communal riots in Mumbai that followed — the worst in its history — shook the faith of Muslims in the secular fabric of the country. In the light of the ninth anniversary of the events in Ayodhya, poet and columnist DOM MORAES spoke to eminent Islamic scholar Rafiq Zakaria and a cross-section of the community.


Rafiq Zakaria.

MAHARASHTRA College is in the heart of Nagpada, a Muslim part of Mumbai. Most men here wear loose white clothes, skullcaps and beards; the women are usually in burqas without veils, or attired in the salwar-kameez. One hardly sees any sarees. The area is miserably poor. The college was founded in 1968 and has 3,500 students. Eighty per cent are Muslims from the neighbourhood, and 50 per cent of these are girls.

"Colleges like this are the only hope we Muslims have," said the man who sat next to me. "Only if our young people are educated and work hard can they survive. They have to make opportunities for themselves. They won't get any here." He was a maulana, one of several around me. It is the month of Ramadan, and several leaders of the Mumbai Muslims had collected at the college to pray and break their fast. Dr. Rafiq Zakaria, who helped found the institution, had invited me to meet them. I had questions to ask.

Exactly nine years ago, on December 6, 1992, after the destruction at Ayodhya, the worst communal riots in the history of Mumbai erupted. The Shiv Sena and the police, according to reports later made by non-government organisations and the Srikrishna Commission, played a prominent part in the killing of Muslims all over the city, particularly in this area. While the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shared power here — that is until recently — these reports were for the most part ignored or suppressed.

The anniversary of the riots was now near. I wanted to know how the Muslim leaders felt now. They were anxious to speak, and clamorous; Maulana Kashmiri, the Ulema Council secretary, was perhaps most to the point. "When the Constitution was made," he said, "it guaranteed us equality, but we have never seen this equality. And in 1992 when the Babri Masjid was destroyed it seemed to us the end of democracy, certainly of the secular state mentioned in the Constitution. The whole world watched and knew what was done."

They complained that a kind of discrimination existed. Their children were not offered opportunities. Mostly they agreed that they had to keep a low profile, and to be patient; things might improve with time. When I asked if they ever wanted to emigrate, several of the elders said emphatically that they were sons of the soil; they loved this land. "Even if they wanted to leave," Dr. Zakaria asked practically, "where would they go? Pakistan has closed its doors to them, so have other Muslim countries. And still some people talk of a pan-Islamic movement."

"The Government has not protected Muslims," said a younger man. "The whole community was deeply hurt by what happened at Ayodhya. Then came the riots. It is as though certain Hindus deny that we are Indians. It's true that we're treated like second-class citizens, but we try not to behave as though we are."


The destruction of the Babri Masjid seemed to signal the end of democracy.

"Now it is not a secular state," Kashmiri said. "It is a Hindu country." His hawk-like face hardened. Everyone present was a little sad, a little angry. The Kashmir issue wasn't mentioned, but I didn't think it was foremost in their minds. Their pride and their identity have been shredded away from them by the fierce Hindu fundamentalism of recent years. They have to worry about their children's future, and watch how they behave.

I was reminded of Jewish friends who existed precariously in Nazi Germany under Hitler. What they said of their lives then was not very unlike what these Muslims in Mumbai said of their lives now. Generations of them had lived in this city and leavened its earth with their dead. Now they were like uninvited guests in a house where they had once lived happily.

* * *

After this meeting, I remembered a trip I made to Bihar, a couple of years ago. Most of what I saw there horrified me: nothing did so more than the situation of the Muslims in Chandeli, a village in the north. Here a population of Bhumiya Hindus and Muslims had coexisted for centuries: not as intimate friends, but tolerant of each other. In 1990 L.K. Advani's rathyatra, bound for Ayodhya, passed. Next day the Bhumiyas of Chandeli slaughtered most of their Muslim neighbours and threw their bodies in the village pond. The few survivors were saved by the arrival of the army.

They remained in Chandeli for the next decade, in terror always. Recently the Bhumiyas had told them that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had come to power. Now, the Bhumiyas gloated, they could kill Muslims freely. Even after this, the Muslims had not tried to flee. The ragged and haggard men I met in the squalid acres of their home had lost all pride. A shrivelled woman, Yasmin, spoke for them. She told me that they had no money to flee, or they would have done so after the massacre in 1990. Even then, they didn't know what was happening in other parts of India. They could not read and had no radio. For all they knew, Muslims were being killed everywhere. They had asked Government officers who visited the village for help. None came. So they stayed where they were.

A Muslim social worker confirmed this. "It is hell for them here," he said. I observed, "The old lady's like Mother Courage." He replied, "I don't know this Mrs. Courage. But why do you call Yasmin an old lady? She is only about 25."

* * *

Cuffe Parade is a civilised residential area, now a rarity in Mumbai. Diffidently elegant old houses and occasional highrises face the Arabian Sea. Dr. Rafiq Zakaria lives here. He also fulfils a function as an outpost of civilisation.

He is one of the last true Islamic scholars left in India. He is also a journalist, a lawyer, and an educationist who has put up several colleges for Muslims in Mumbai, including Maharashtra College. For most of his life he has been a politician, and a spokesman for his leaderless people.

At 81, he now spends most of his time writing books. The most recent of these, The Man Who Divided India, is a very fine biography of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, on whose gaunt shoulders the responsibility for Pakistan must rest. Dr. Zakaria, as a young man, met Jinnah a few times.

"This morning I phoned up Mr. L.K. Advani," he said, "to wish him happy Diwali." He has a more than passing resemblance to the aged eagle in Eliot's poem, and his sharply defined features now wore a sardonic smile. `The BJP nowadays finds it difficult to accept Muslims as Indians, but I have been of some service to the country, so they kindly accept me as one. I've been telling them for years that Indian Muslims need their help.

"There are 140 million of them, so they have political value as a vote bank. But they are wary of voting. They have been too often betrayed. The first betrayal came from Jinnah himself. Mountbatten and he forced Partition on India. A million people were killed on both sides during Partition. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped and kidnapped. Whatever communal hatred already existed was intensified a hundred times over. Then, in 1948, came the Kashmir issue."

The enmity between India and Pakistan started at the birth of the two countries. Dr. Zakaria puts the entire blame on Jinnah. "Sardar Patel was strongly opposed to Jinnah's two nations idea. Someone suggested to him that the Muslims might cause trouble in the future, if they stayed in India; it was better that they had their own state. That was a stupid idea. Had the Muslims stayed within an undivided India, their problems would have become a domestic issue that could have been settled internally. As it is, by accepting Partition, Nehru and Patel helped to create a new hostile nation perched on our doorstep.

"See what Jinnah did to the Muslims of the subcontinent," he said. "In Pakistan they hardly enjoy any freedom; even the laws are not properly enforced under successive military dictatorships. Many emigrate. Bangladesh is in a miserable state. And as for the 140 million Indian Muslims, after September 11 another finger has been pointed at them. They have enough trouble as it is. In urban areas you may find a few young men who shout in the streets against American interference with Afghanistan. Hindus perceive them as typical Indian Muslims, but they are not typical at all. Most Muslims don't want to complicate their lives any more. They don't want to express opinions. They are afraid."

Zakaria meets a lot of young Muslims. "At Partition those who stayed behind were mostly illiterate and poor. Their main needs now are education and employment. This is where the Government could help, where I am pleading with them to help. If they do not help, the Muslims may replace the Dalits as the most depressed class in India." He was completely serious. "If Pakistan should ever take Kashmir, the lives of 140 million Indian Muslims will be in serious danger. Today they are a bewildered and broken people, and nobody will help them."

His hooded eyes have seen much stupidity. "The Hindu middle class now sees Muslims as a threat. What threat do they constitute? They have no leader. They are ignorant, poor, and alone, scattered through villages all over the country. They need help, yet they are seen as a threat. They live with the knowledge that the Hindus do not want them. They must be educated and work hard to become accepted as full citizens. Young Muslims in the cities know this. I tell them they must do it, and they are trying. But those in the villages?"

Eminent Muslim intellectuals like Zakaria once played key roles in the life of Mumbai, and India. But he is, alas, one of the last of his kind. I looked at his aristocratic, tired face and heard the kitehawks, another endangered species, wheel and cry in the sky above his flat. I imagined the raw sun of Bihar on my skin, and over miles and years recalled a face that had shed all its tears, the ageless and worn face of the peasant woman Yasmin.

Dom Moraes' first book of poems won the Hawthornden Prize in 1958. He has since then published several collections of poems and books of prose which include biographies, travelogues and collections of reportage.

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