Rehmatbi Abdul Aziz has three sons who work as labourers in a powerloom. The eldest is 40. But the 60-year-old widow did not get them married. “Where is the money for that?” she asked, shunting from one ration shop to another on a ruthlessly hot April afternoon, looking for wheat.
Grown ups in Malegaon will tell you about times when nobody wanted their daughters to marry boys from this textile town. And 19-year-old arts student Vicky Patil will confirm things still haven’t changed.
“My mother’s parents still repent getting their daughter married into this place,” said the pan-chewing, motorcycle-borne youngster.
Once known for its powerlooms that churn out about a crore metres of fine cotton and polyester fabric everyday, Malegaon, a little less than 300 km from Mumbai, has earned the reputation of being a communally sensitive town where it does not take much to spark a riot. Earlier, a Lok Sabha constituency by itself, Malegaon is now part of the Dhule seat, which is seen as another communal hotbed.
Home to 4.21 lakh people, Malegaon has 70 per cent Muslims. Little wonder, whipping communal passions to win elections has always been the easy way for politicians.
“Elections here have always been fought on non-issues from Afghanistan war to Iraq,” says Aleem Faizee, who runs a website on Malegaon, ummid.com.
Today, people want a leader, who will change the face of this town because years of communally charged politics have given the town nothing.
The contest here is between Congress’s Amarish Patel (56), BJP’s Pratap Sonawane (60) and Janata dal’s Nihal Ahmed (82).
While Azad Chowk, the Hindu-dominated locality is openly in support of the saffron alliance, Muslims here cannot look beyond, says Ahmed.
It was the 2001 riots in Malegaon that changed the dynamics of the town. Hindus and Muslims sold their houses in mixed localities to live in ghettoes. The Mausam river literally divides the town into a Hindu side and a Muslim side. And among various narrow, crowded roads that connect the two is the Shaheed Hemant Karkare road, named after the man Muslims here look at as their hero after his investigations into the September 2008 blast led to the arrest of Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and Colonel Prasad Purohit among others. The road was named after Karkare after terrorists killed him on November 26, 2008.
Today, neither Hindus nor Muslims want to talk about the blasts or riots in the town.
“The local people have nothing to do with all this,” said Pradeep Rajput, 39, a cable operator. “It is only those four-five days when riots happen that both communities react. After that it is back to business.”
The people have little choice but to live in harmony, especially since the industry that drives the town’s economy involves both communities. While the yarn traders and cloth merchants are Hindus, the weavers who convert yarn to cloth are Muslims. And they want the government to take steps to modernise the powerloom sector and eliminate middlemen who exploit.
The people now want institutes offering higher degrees in Malegaon, which does not have any institure offering post-graduate degrees till now.
“If people are educated and employed, riots and communalism will take a back seat,” says Shafique Ahmed (41), who lost his 18-year-old son Sajid in the 2006 Mushawerat Chowk blasts. Sajid was to go to China for further studies.