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Spinning a communal yarn

It will take more than a stitch in time to save Maharashtra?s languishing textile towns, which have religious tensions.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2006 04:23 IST

On a Friday afternoon in November 2003, when a bomb exploded outside a mosque in Parbhani, 500 km east of Mumbai, shopkeepers in towns several kilometres away pulled down shutters, fearing communal tension. Nearly three years later, Parbhani responded in a similar fashion when a bomb exploded 400 km away in a Malegaon mosque on Friday after namaaz.

Parbhani. Malegaon. Nanded. Bhiwandi. Crumbling and edgy, they are all towns where the Muslim populations ranges from 20 to 70 per cent, untouched by the great wave of globalisation that has made Maharashtra India’s number one destination for foreign investment. This may seem strange, considering the stock-in-trade of these towns is textiles, posited as one of India’s great global opportunities.

But these towns are much too hobbled by illiteracy and infrastructural woes — and now the strain of terrorism — to make any global headway. With their overflowing drains, shattered roads and power failures, the towns attract few or no investors. As the power-looms shut, so do opportunities in these essentially one-industry towns.

The result: lakhs of unemployed and illiterate young men, comprising a society so sensitive and touchy it can flare up at the least provocation.

So incidents like Friday’s threaten to trigger off a chain reaction that Maharashtra, mainly Marathwada, has seen too often to ignore.

Easy target for terror recruiters Malegaon itself, notorious as a communal hotbed and a hub of fundamentalist activity, is facing a crisis in its power-loom industry. Of 1,78,000 power-looms, nearly half have shut down. Of the remaining, nearly 35 per cent buy raw material from traders outside and process it to create the finished product.

Once known for the cotton saris and lungis woven here, Malegaon finds the backbone of its economy crumbling. Nearly 70 per cent of the population — less than 40 per cent is literate — finds itself without jobs. “All these factors make people very vulnerable,” explains Mufti Ismail, a religious scholar in Malegaon. “The smallest incident is enough to provoke them.”

Malegaon is an easy target for terror recruiters. In the past, everything from the Babri Masjid demolition to a local Ganpati procession became open invitations to communal riots. Once a stronghold of the now-banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), Malegaon, in the police’s eyes, is synonymous with terrorist activity and extreme views.

In turn, this reputation has isolated the people of Malegaon even further. It has also started affecting the working of existing power-looms. “Whenever there is a riot, the workers — mostly from the Ansari or weaver community of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — pack their bags and flee the town fearing victimisation,” Asif Khan, freelance cartoonist and a regular visitor to Malegaon, observes. “This sends the power-looms into recession.”

The absence of a direct rail link to financial hubs like Mumbai makes things worse. “There are no employment schemes for this city. The government does not care about us,” Ismail laments.

“Wherever Muslims are involved in small or cottage industries, there are greater chances of communal riots,” Aslam Ghazi, public relations secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (Maharashtra), states. “Because they feel their community’s livelihood or economy is being attacked.”

Varied theses, similar reality Parbhani and Nanded in Marathwada have similar stories to tell. Like Malegaon, these two districts also have a sizeable Muslim population and a huge Hindu-Muslim divide.

Today, Parbhani has no known industries and in Nanded, of four sugar factories, only two are functioning. Most people run small businesses of their own. Gambling dens have become a social menace and elections are fought mainly along communal lines. In another textile town, Solapur — known for its bedsheets and towels — three to four mills have shut down in the past decade.
Mumbai does not have to look too far for a link with these towns. In Bhiwandi — 100 km to the north of Mumbai — power cuts up to six hours, fluctuating yarn prices and a preference for cheaper imported cloth has increased production costs and cut profits and wages.

And so, Bhiwandi, a far-flung stepsister of India’s commercial capital, is a haven for fundamentalist activity. It was only in July 2006 that locals and police clashed over the construction of a police station near a Muslim burial ground. Two policemen were killed.

But State Minorities Commission Chairman Naseem Siddiqui isn’t convinced of the link between unemployment and communal discord. “If one community is denied justice and victimised repeatedly,” he reasons, “these activities will rise.”

The theses vary. The reality, alas, doesn’t.