The struggling Muslim tailor and the Hindu school clerk met in the backdrop of the deadly communal riots in Mumbai 15 years ago, a quick friendship was struck that would transform the lives of thousands of others.
As death swept through Mumbai’s poverty-choked underbelly of Dharavi, India’s largest slum, Waqar Khan, 24, ran into Ramchandra Korde, 54, both weary after witnessing violence between communities who live there elbow-to-elbow.
Both struck a close friendship that expanded into a mohalla (neighbourhood) committee, Mumbai’s most prominent signpost of religious amity — in a sprawling city within a city that has not seen a single religious skirmish over the past 15 years. The experiment that was undertaken to ensure peace between Hindus and Muslims is now helping combat terrorism and its aftermath.
Moral of the story: Cooperation of people with the police is the biggest weapon again terrorism, especially in a country where the neighbourhood beat constable, the frontline soldier against terror, has become all but a relic. The experiment in Mumbai – like community policing experiments in other parts of the country (see box) – shows how people can prevent terrorist attacks with close interaction with the police, and prevent a violent religious flare-up.
“Every time there is any kind of tension, we’re on alert. Around 100 of us start moving around in the neighbourhood, quelling rumours and initiating a dialogue with youngsters in mixed groups,’’ said Khan.
The story began with one police officer in 1988 in the powerloom town of Bhiwandi outside Mumbai, as BJP leader L.K. Advani had started talking about his rath yatra. Tension spread. Suresh Khopde, then deputy commissioner of police, set up 70-odd mohalla committees.
“The idea was to just break the prejudices and get the members of the two communities to interact... once in 15 days,’’ said Khopde. It worked. Four years later in 1992-93, even as Mumbai burned twice after the Babri Masjid demolition, Bhiwandi, despite a history of communal riots, was calm. Not a stone was thrown. Khopde’s experiment became the subject for social scientists.
“The signal to field officers is to do better community policing and to engage with people . It’s the only way to keep a tab on a city of 14 million,” said AV Parasnis, Maharashtra’s secretary for law and order.
Khopde, now Additional Commissioner of Police (north region), is convinced that a similar initiative will help the city fight terror.
Khopde has expanded mohalla committees in his area in western suburbs to enrol 30,000 Mumbaikars. “Our access to what is happening in a locality is so much better today,’’ said Jayant Hargude, inspector of communally sensitive Malvani, in Malad, who reports to Khopde.
And half the battle would be won if attitudes changed, Khan said. “I think everyone in our community wants to know why and how youngsters are being seduced towards terror.”