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Trapped in Malegaon

Friday?s blasts are bringing the undercurrents of distrust and hostility between the communities back.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2006 04:15 IST

The smell of blood hangs heavy outside 29-year-old fruit-seller Anees Ahmed’s home, tucked inside a cramped alley outside Malegaon’s Hamidiya Masjid–Bada Kabragaah compound. Anees’ older relatives sit, bent on mattresses spread out in the space outside his 15x10 ft home to offer prayers; his younger cousins are preparing to bathe him before he is buried.

He will be laid to rest in the graveyard where he met his end on Friday afternoon, when three blasts went off in the mosque-cum-graveyard compound. “Who killed him? Hindus, or Muslim terrorists?” weeps his 22-year-old cousin Shafiq, a fruit-seller as well. “Give me an answer,” he orders, his eyes blood-shot and unblinking.

A little further away, 50-year-old local corporator Bismilla Bi Aziz stands at the entrance of the mosque, shouting at nobody in particular, though angry young men and aggressive mediapersons swarm around her. “We’ve always helped you. We celebrated Ganeshotsav with you. And what have we got in return — this?” she asks, the fingers of her right hand stabbing the air. “Yeh to dhoka hua hamare saath. (We have been betrayed)”. As she raises the decibel
level, the crowd gets more restive.

The narrow two-way street outside the Hamidiya mosque bears scars of fearsome Friday — strewn across its 100-metre length are leather shoes and rubber chappals.
At the graveyard, small boxes called petis, which contain Quranic passages for solace to the dead, lie on the ground along with incense and urma packets, and the bicycle probably used for
the blasts.

‘Us’ and ‘Them’

The day after the blasts in Malegaon, the communal divide seems dangerously deeper across the Mosam river, with the Muslim-dominated Nayapura on one side and the Hindu-dominated Sanghameshwar and Camp area on the other.

Malegaon, with its small-scale textile industry that was established in the 1930s, was once touted as the ‘Manchester of Maharashtra’, says social activist Shafiq Khan. Locals take pride in the fact that it is dotted with mosques as well, with over 300 of them, big and small, dotting its thickly populated slum colonies.

According to current estimates, the town houses a population of over 8 lakh, 75 per cent of which is Muslim. Nayapura’s non-Muslim population is only around two per cent. While the two sections are not at open war with each other, there is a disquieting undercurrent of fear and suspicion.

The town seems to be in a state of siege with the cross-fire between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Malegaon is in a piquant situation. The Muslims dominate the town but the Hindus are the majority in the hinterland, where Malegaon’s agricultural produce comes from.

The Muslims complain that Marwari moneybags control the town’s small-scale textile industry — a majority of the two-lakh-plus power loom units in the city are owned by Hindu businessmen.

According to a rough estimate, around 96 per cent of the Muslim population survives by working the powerlooms in two shifts.

Abdul Momin, a 51-year-old weaver who stays in Sonapura, where the three blasts occurred, earns Rs. 50-Rs. 60 a day and is bitter about the chasm between his earnings and that of the owners. “They boast that they own the textile trade despite being the minority community. They say if we do not behave with them, they will call in their people from the villages,” he says.
The Hindu population, on the other hand, feels that the other side of the town is a breeding ground for banned anti-national outfits like the SIMI.

Mahesh Solanki, who owns a general store in the Camp area, says, “SIMI has a strong base in Malegaon. So who supports them?” He, of course, believes it is ‘them’.

A spiralling fury

This polarisation, locals say, has developed steadily since the riots that took place here in 1992-93. It crept into the city against the background of a slump in the powerloom industry and a period during which religious outfits like the Jamat-e-Islami and Tabligh-a-Jamaat began fanning out across the city, exhorting Muslims to return to the more puritanical form of Islam.

Alongside, the Shiv Sena and affiliate outfits like the Jaanta Raja were also gaining greater acceptance. So deep was the rift between the two communities after the ’93 riots, that mohalla-level peace committees had toyed with the idea of persuading Marathi-medium and Urdu-medium school children to become pen-friends.

Rashid Shaikh, the local Congress MLA, was reported to have proclaimed after the riots that he was a Muslim first and then, a Congressman. He is said to have not even visited his party colleagues who had suffered during the riots.

The three weeks of rioting in late 2001 dealt an even more crippling blow to the already fragile relationship. Hindu mobs attacked businesses owned entirely by Muslims, while the latter targeted power-loom units.

Violence erupted after a policeman allegedly misbehaved with a Muslim volunteer. He was distributing handbills advocating the boycott of American products like Coca Cola to protest against the American action against Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. In the fury that spiralled, around 15 people, most of them Muslim, died.

Those scars have yet to heal. 

“The Hindu police shot Bilkis Bano in the chest when she was drying clothes on her terrace,” says Muzammil Ansari, a 24-year-old B.Com student. Bano was hit by a stray bullet in police firing that day. A moment later, Ansari  shoots a question: “Why is the SIMI banned? The blasts are carried out by others, but it is always SIMI that is blamed.”

Local police officials say students in the madarassas live in a cocooned environment that makes them receptive to the “persuasions of SIMI recruiters.”

Their view echoes that of Malegaon’s superintendent of police Raj Vardhan, who gave his statement to a citizens’ enquiry committee after the riots in October-November 2002. “On both sides, they were below 20 years old, violent, agitated and opportunistic. They are directionless, they have no ideals. This generation doesn't know where to go, and it has no opportunities.” He remarks exasperatedly, “This is a social issue. How can you expect the police to solve it? I can’t bring about peace by wielding lathis.”

But who’s listening to him in Malegaon?