Being a Muslim in Mumbai

By Daipayan Halder

The last thing you would expect my colleague Rehan Ansari, foreign editor of the newspaper I work for, to be is a jihadi. I know he learns kickboxing, but I suspect it is more for upping his fitness levels than kicking a kafir’s butt. He’s well-mannered, well-read and as far as I am concerned, well-intentioned. We have chatted a couple of times near the office coffee-machine on how best to thrash out odd thoughts. By odd thoughts he meant subjects that are unpalatable to our publishers. Thoughts on naxalism, communalism, casteism and several such isms that are best left unwritten in the paper we work for. Our readers don’t want to start their days with a negative thought after all!

Brief, but our conversations have always been interesting. He chided me more than once for neglecting my writing. This Rehan, the Rehan I just described, is a different Rehan from the one I met this Monday. The new Rehan, with eyes that betrayed hurt, disgust and anger in equal measure, told me he takes the cab from his rented apartment in Bandra to Lower Parel, where our office is located. I asked why. He said after the train blasts last year, the Mumbai police conduct random checks in local trains. It gets very uncomfortable if you happen to be a Muslim. Doubts are raised about your loyalty and if you are unlucky you may hear a snide or two about Pakistan being your rightful place. Rehan said he fears he might retaliate one day and hence he has decided to take the cab instead.

We were discussing Salman Rushdie’s Mumbai visit and his interview to NDTV where he said Mumbai is just like New York, a truly cosmopolitan city. “Has he ever travelled in local trains?” Rehan said. “If he had he wouldn’t be saying such things. He would know the Mumbai that exists is different from the Mumbai he fancies.”

My wife Insiya doesn’t bother herself with such existential dilemmas. But I remember when she moved in with me to my swanky, new flat in Thane, she had frowned. She had frowned because I told her she is the only Muslim in that entire complex (it has six apartment buildings and more are coming up). The promoters of my housing complex don’t sell flats to Muslims because “they mean trouble”. It is okay in a way to them if Insiya stays because having married a Hindu she is now in the Hindu fold. But she could not have bought the flat in her name. There are other Muslims in Thane, India’s largest district that is witnessing a real estate boom due its proximity to Mumbai, but they stay in ghettos. And from what I have seen and heard, it would be difficult for Insiya or any other Muslim to buy a flat in any of the big housing complexes that are coming up. She shrugs it off, saying: such things happen.

Such things, in fact, happen with unfailing regularity to Muslims in Mumbai, irrespective of their social standing. City tabloid Mumbai Mirror reported that Bollywood actors Shabana Azmi and Emraan Hashmi couldn’t buy apartments of their choice in the city because promoters wouldn’t sell to Muslims. Other papers have also carried stories on Muslims being forced to stay in ghettos in Mumbai. But my friend Adnan insisted that we journalists have a tendency of sensationalising things. “It’s not that bad, come on,” Adnan had told me. “There are jerks everywhere. You can’t dump a city because of them, can you?”

Adnan at that time was high on Mumbai. He had switched jobs, landed in Mumbai and rented a spacious two-bedroom apartment in Bandra. “Told you, journos invent stories. I got my flat in a jiffy.” “But Adnan, Bandra is unlike the rest of Mumbai. It is one of the very few truly cosmopolitan places. It’s got a sizable Muslim and Christian population, the corporator himself is a Muslim and the real estate prices are prohibitive. What about those Muslims who can’t afford Bandra? It’s either the ghetto or nowhere for them,” I had argued. “Deep, you guys cook up stories to sensationalise. Admit it, my friend,” he had chided me. My protests had fallen on deaf ears.

Adnan’s Mumbai honeymoon had lasted for a few months. During which time, he had got himself a promotion, a car and a girlfriend. Life was a breeze before he encountered a friendly, neighbourhood pandu (slang for a beat constable). It was Adnan’s fault to begin with. He had oversped on the eastern express highway and got caught by the constable. The man asked for his licence, when Adnan handed it to him, he sneered: Bhag kyun rahe the. Gaadi mein bomb hai kya? (Why were you running away? Have you hidden a bomb in your car?) “What do you mean?” Adnan had screamed. “Mian, aap log bahut tez bhaag rahe ho aaj kaal. Thoda sambhal jao” (Mian, you people are on the fast track these days. Better mend your ways.)

Adnan didn’t know what to say. To have a beat constable raise aspersions about his community in broad daylight in a city like Mumbai, his Mumbai, was unthinkable to him. “It felt surreal Deep. In the badlands of Bihar, yes; in Modi’s Gujarat most definitely; but to be told in middle of Mumbai that people of my faith will always be suspect was a rude jolt to me,” he told me later that day. Adnan had taken the day off, he was too dazed to concentrate on work, I had met him in the evening to buy him a drink and talk him out of his depression. It didn’t work. “You were so right Deep. So right,” he said.

I told him it’s a stray incident and he should put it behind him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that what happened to him is far less shocking than what was reported in Mumbai Mirror on July 17, 2006.

Correspondent Aditi Sharma had met a certain Hamid Pir Mohammed Ghojaria, who was yet to recover from his shock even a week after he was assaulted. Ghojaria (39) was attacked on a running train between Marine Lines and Churchgate railway stations for no fault of his. On that day, the Jogeshwari resident had gone to Marine Lines to submit his son’s college admission forms at Ismail Yusuf Trust. After completing the formalities, he decided to visit his brother-in-law who owns a watch shop near Churchgate. Around 5.15 pm, he went to Marine Lines railway station to catch a Churchgate-bound local. “As soon as I entered the train, I saw some commuters beating up a Pathani-clad man. Even before I could realise what was happening, two of the commuters saw me and started hitting me as well. They just kept saying ‘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’,” says a shocked Ghojaria.

The watch repair mechanic was all the more stunned when he was asked to take the name of Lord Ram and Lord Krishna. “When they started hitting me, I screamed ‘Allah’. That’s when they told me to call out to Ram and Krishna instead. They said they wouldn’t let go of me if I did not chant the names,” alleges Ghojaria, adding that the mob even pulled his beard. The abuse stopped only when the train reached Churchgate terminal. “Nobody came forward to help me. I felt utterly helpless throughout. When the train came to a halt at Churchgate, all the commuters, including the attackers, simply walked away,” adds Ghojaria. After alighting from the train, he reported the matter to the police at the station, who first sent him to GT Hospital for a checkup and later registered a case under Sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 325 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt) and 34 (common intent) of the Indian Penal Code against unknown persons in Ghojaria’s case. “Investigations are on, we should be able to locate the men soon,” Deepak Bagwe, senior inspector, railway police, Churchgate told Mumbai Mirror. Nothing happened.

I couldn’t narrate this incident to Adnan. I didn’t have the heart. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my friend Atif’s grandparents have been living in Mumbai for six decades now. They have never wanted to live anywhere else. But in the last three decades, they have gradually withdrawn into a shell. There is a Shiv Sena sakha in front of their house. Every day when they pass it, they shudder. They shudder as they remember how their next door neighbour was cut to pieces in the 1993 Mumbai riots and his wife and teenaged daughter gang-raped. They shudder because they see those men sometimes on the streets, walking tall and walking free.

I didn’t remind Adnan that between December 1992 and January 1993, the city set a record for itself in the matter of communal madness. In the riots that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, more than a thousand people were killed. Unlike previous riots, violence spread to relatively new urbanised areas. Violence affected not only slums but also apartment blocks and chawls. What was common to all the areas was the systematic targeting of Muslims, who comprised 17 per cent of the city’s population.

The relief work that followed the riots helped members of the Muslim community resume their everyday lives. However, although successive governments promised to do away with communal forces and civic organisations worked towards communal amity, stray communal incidents still occur in Mumbai. “Mumbai changed after 1993″ is a common refrain of long-time residents.

I didn’t need to. The encounter with the Pandu broke Adnan. He had a long-standing offer from an Ahmedabad-based company. He had refused to consider it earlier. “That city gives me the jitters man. After what Narendra Modi did, you can’t stay in the city,” he had said. He has decided to take it now.

On the nature of fear, Jodie Foster’s character says in The Brave One: “It’s not like anyone has gassed the subway. And yet now we have this ongoing fear that pretty much sits on top of you every minute. So it’s the fear in some ways that’s the bad thing. It feeds on people. It turns people against people.” If you are a Muslim in Mumbai, chances are you might feel the same way.


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