In Malegaon's 200-year-old east quarter, textile transporter Abdul Ansari (75) has been coming every weekday since 1962 to his spartan office in this street of small businesses, and shops selling cosmetics, hijaabs and glasses of steaming tea.
<b1>Residents of this bereaved town, 285 km north-east of Mumbai, are now pushing for the 500-metre stretch to be named 'Shaheed Hemant Karkare Road', in memory of senior police investigator Hemant Karkare. He is among the 183 people killed in Mumbai's November terror strikes.
As chief of Maharashtra's Anti-Terror Squad, Karkare was probing the 2008 blast where bombs planted in an anonymous motorcycle left outside Ansari's office went off on a September night, killing six.
In Ansari's office where pockmarked walls, and a frozen clock mark the bombing and its time—9.38—the transporter said: "Karkareji ko maara gaya hai kyonki sab khulaasa kar rahe the, aur kya? Ek umeed ki kiran thi hum logon ke liye, who bhi chali gayi. (Karkare has been killed because he was exposing the real forces behind the Malegaon blasts. We had one ray of hope, he too is gone.").
The troubling yet unwavering conclusion—Karkare's killing was a targetted assasination to stymie the uncomfortable revelations of the blast probe—echoes across a cross-section of the over four lakh Muslims who make up 70% of the residents of Maharashtra's poorest town.
In addition, residents fear the police will again mechanically arrest members of their community in the course of future terror investigations.
TWO BLASTS AND A FUNERAL
Charging nine Hindus including former and serving armymen, and a sadhvi, the probe under Karkare sparked a divisive debate around religion and identity, led by protests by major political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena.
In beleaguered Malegaon however, Karkare's findings were greeted with a collective sigh of relief because they suggested to the rest of India what its residents had been pleading for long - that terror is not synomymous with Muslims.
"When the news first broke, I could not believe what I was reading. I kept going back to the newspaper through the day," said Dr Sajid Sidiqi, who also runs a foundation that propagates inter-faith dialogue. "My wife and I asked each other if India's police could really charge people other than Muslims?"
Scarred by the periodic communal riot and firings, Malegaon's Muslims have had a history of deep mistrust of the law enforcement agencies. This lack of faith peaked two years ago with the ATS investigation into the serial blasts in the city in September 2006, which had killed 32 people and injured several others.
Today, nine Muslims from the city in their 20s and 30s are in jails across Maharashtra awaiting a trial. The Central Bureau of Investigation which was meant to take over the discredited probe is yet to present its findings.
The town is convinced meanwhile that policemen have fabricated an investigation, a troubling view backed even by the city's Shiv Sena MLA Dagadu Bhuse. The government engineer-turned-legislator said, "Malegaon's awaam does not believe these arrests are correct. I also wrote to the police asking them to reinvestigate the matter."
In the chemist shop of Shafiq Khan, who lost his teenaged son and nephew in the blasts, the father said, "My heart refuses to believe that Muslims could have planned and carried out the blasts in a Muslim-dominated area."
Garage manager Nooruddin Shamsoda (22) whose brother Noorulhuda (25) has spent the past two years in a Ratnagiri jail, charged with carrying out the blasts said, "Present proof. Hang the guilty. None of us will tolerate the breaking of the law. But this investigation is completely fabricated."
Shamsoda likened Karkare's death to "Losing a family member. He would have reinvestigated the 2006 case for links with the 2008 blast. But he was been killed…our hopes have died again." Khan added, "Noor's brother is the acccused. My son died. But we have the same demand."
Today, neatly ghettoised along religious lines, the city of 1.25 lakh powerlooms was built through waves of migration of weavers and workers from the 19th century on.
On the banks of the putrid Mausam river cutting Malegaon into two, the 1740 sprawling fort which saw English troops battle Arab fighters, marks the head of the Muslim quarter. The river's west bank houses the Hindu community, better-off houses set in neat gardens, banks and even a shopping mall. The eastern side does not have a single ATM, and its density of 62,000 people per square km is among India's highest.
"But any Muslim who suffers after riots in India finds refuge, and work, in Malegaon", said Sudhir Raut who heads the town's 1863 municipal body. "Their condition is no better than bonded labourers though."
A government survey in 2006 found that 44% of its residents—more than any other town in Maharashtra—survive on Rs 400 a month.
The falling incomes have been a direct outcome of crippling power cuts, which ensure that the British-era powerlooms, purchased as scrap from India's defunct textile mills, today stand silent for 10-12 hours each day.
"Malegaon's powerlooms lose Rs 1 crore a day in earnings because of power cuts", estimated Ziya Hakeem. Hakeem invested Rs 16 lakhs in automated powerlooms for his 3-generation-old textile unit, but the attempted modernisation has barely taken off. His smaller peers like saree weaver Mohammed Hasan today resort to expensive diesel generators to keep their looms running.
The prolonged damage ripples across the town's economy. In the 3-year-old but already crumbling government housing colony called Sonia Gandhi Nagar, Malegaon's, its weekly wage earner residents are rendered virtually jobless. Yaseen Painter's desperate account is typical: "If looms run, everybody gets work. I used to employ nine people till two years ago. I have had no work since August." Looking away, he said, "I am Rs 25,000 in debt."
Today, Raut heads a corporation which runs up a deficit of Rs 35-40 crore, or a third of its annual budget.
The most damaging impact of this plays out in Malegaon's 116 civic schools, where children of poor families regularly drop out to join looms, and teachers haven't been paid in months. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's decision this June to clear the Rs 9 crore outstanding wage dues with a special grant is still caught in bureaucracy.
The administrative callousness might be common to towns across India, but Malegaon's Muslims make sense of the decades of neglect through the prism of discrimination. "We could have been as good or better than Nasik (the town next door), but see where we are," is the common refrain.
It is the same sense of alienation that fuels the deep suspicion around the death of a police officer in Mumbai, whom the town had begun to view as a messiah.
In the office of the Malegaon chapter of the Jamiat-Ulama-I-Hind, a 1919 national socio-religious body built by figures like Malauna Abdul Kalam Azad, lawyer S Sheikh is putting final touches to a petition to move the Supreme Court.
It will ask that the 2006 blasts be reinvestigated in the light of Karkare's findings around the town's second blast. The silver-haired, urbane lawyer determinedly says, "Why was Malegaon bombed in 2006 and 2008? Who directly benefits from Karkare's killing? We need credible answers to these questions."