The changing colours of Malvani | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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The changing colours of Malvani

ByJyoti Punwani
Apr 09, 2023 06:45 PM IST

Lodha is equally driven by themes of ‘love jihad’ and ‘land jehad’ in Malvani. In December last year, organisers of a Bajrang Dal rally in Malad to commemorate the demolition of the Babri Masjid, told this reporter: “Rohingyas and Bangladeshis trained to lure Hindu girls are coming into Mumbai in droves every day and being settled in Malvani

MUMBAI: The incidents in Malvani, Malad, on the occasion of Ram Navami recently, did not occur out of the blue. A lot of work went into them. This was only the second Ram Navami procession ever to be held in Malvani, after last year. It passed through the main road that runs through what’s considered the second largest slum in Mumbai, with a population of five lakh. The road becomes so crowded that commuters often have to get off their vehicles and walk on broken footpaths, open manholes and through stinking garbage. The area has elected the same man for three terms as MLA, but Aslam Shaikh hasn’t done much to resolve these civic problems, though under the MVA government, the Congressman was a cabinet minister.

The Ram NAvami procession had lingered in front of Jama Masjid and loud music was played. (HT PHOTO)
The Ram NAvami procession had lingered in front of Jama Masjid and loud music was played. (HT PHOTO)

But that’s not the reason Shaikh has been under attack by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister and builder Mangal Prabhat Lodha, who represents Malabar Hill. Videos of Lodha’s attacks on Malvani have been doing the rounds on WhatsApp groups over the last couple of years; he has taken his campaign to the Assembly too. “Hindu palayan (flight) from an area where the demographics are being deliberately changed” has been his main theme, the subtext being Aslam Shaikh’s alleged patronage of criminals and his control over the local police station.

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Lodha is equally driven by themes of ‘love jihad’ and ‘land jehad’ in Malvani. In December last year, organisers of a Bajrang Dal rally in Malad to commemorate the demolition of the Babri Masjid, told this reporter: “Rohingyas and Bangladeshis trained to lure Hindu girls are coming into Mumbai in droves every day and being settled in Malvani.”

Ground reality

It would be worthwhile to consider two facts here:

* During a crackdown on illegal immigrants in February 2021, the Malvani police arrested one Rubel Jonu Shaikh on the charge of being a Bangladeshi who had stayed illegally in the city for 10 years, assisted by fake Pan and Aadhaar cards. Turned out, he was the chief of BJP’s north Mumbai youth wing minority cell.

* In the midst of an interview, a Jamaat-e-Islami member in Malvani suddenly paused to show me a message he had received on his mobile: ‘Our Muslim sister (identity withheld) is all set to marry a Hindu boy; can you do something?’ “You were asking about ‘love jihad?” he asked with a wry smile.

There are many mixed couples cutting across all faiths in Malvani today, said social worker Nisar Ali, so much so that he was planning to arrange a function where the couples could present their stories to break the ‘love jihad’ and ‘bhagwa trap’ myths. This year, Ali was shocked when a neighbour hesitated to join the Republic Day flag hoisting organised by Ali’s NGO, Safal Vikas Welfare, and mentioned the “growing incidents of ‘love jihad’”. He had been a keen participant in the past.

Polarised forces

Similar experiences have escalated over the last few years – chants of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram’ being suddenly raised by members of the audience during programmes conducted by NGOs; Muslims being told by close friends to ‘Go to Pakistan’ when mob lynching is discussed; temple loudspeakers staying on throughout the day even for minor Hindu festivals when no worshipper is present in the temples, to name a few.

Malvani, which, like other Muslim-dominated areas in Mumbai, has always been classified as “sensitive” by the police, saw little violence during the 1992-93 riots. Nisar Ali remembers seeing a Muslim being attacked near him; he was rushed to hospital by Ali’s Hindu friends.

These bonds have only strengthened over a period of time, say those who’ve lived here all their lives, partly because of their joint struggle for basic amenities and also because of the phenomenal increase in the number of English schools where children of all communities study and play together. “It is by dint of sheer hard work that Malvani residents have been able to wipe off the taint of tadipar (externed) associated with them for years,” said Vikas, of the NGO YUVA.

“I have seen neighbours rush to help each other in times of need,” said Shyam Jhalke, convenor of a Bahujan rights group. “Religion never entered the picture.”

These are not isolated stories. Shared celebrations have been de rigueur – some of the local Ganpati mandals are sponsored by Muslims, and Hindus bring offerings of coconuts to the 60-year-old Jama Masjid. Everyone pauses respectfully whenever a funeral procession of the other community passes by.

BJP, Congress clash

But all this may change as the BJP goes all out to do what it has failed to so far: smash the Congress’s hold over the area, which has seen a BJP MLA only once, in 1995, soon after the ’92-’93 riots. The Assembly constituency was much larger then, and included the Gujarati-dominated Kandivli. While the local MP representing Mumbai North is the BJP’s Gopal Shetty, who stares out of posters captioned ‘Ramzan Mubarak,’ in Malvani, a Hindu vote bank is being carefully cultivated.

Local Ganpati mandals are being brought under the fold of a ‘united Hindu samaj’. All of them now carry the same flag, and Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini programmes, which talk of “them” and “us” are on the rise. “They come out in full strength in their religious processions,” said a new Bajrang Dal recruit. “Why shouldn’t we?”

Qawwali in praise of Ram in Sangam Nagar

Interestingly, the same pattern was at play in Sangam Nagar, Wadala, which saw its first huge Ram Navami procession this year. For the first time, all Hindu groups of the basti – from sports groups to Navratri mandals -- were made a part of the VHP’s shobha yatra. As in Malvani, here too, outsiders participated in large numbers.

But unlike in Malvani, that shobha yatra passed off peacefully. Ironic, because Sangam Nagar was the scene of some of the worst killings of Muslims in the ’92-’93 riots. But since then, the residents have learnt to live in peace. Before the yatra began, a qawwali was played in praise of Ram!

The local police too were proactive -- an offensive banner was taken down two days before the yatra; and mosques along the way were guarded by a phalanx of policemen.

There is another crucial difference: the MLA in Sangam Nagar is from the BJP. It made no sense for the BJP to create trouble in his area, or target him the way Lodha has targeted Aslam Shaikh.

A young Muslim businessman in Malvani, whose friends and clients are mostly Hindu, laughed: “It is not Hindu vs Muslim in Malvani; its BJP vs Congress.” It does not help the BJP that Aslam Shaikh enjoys the support not only of his own community, but of Hindus and Christians too. It was no coincidence then, that AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi chose Malvani, which has a popular Congress Muslim MLA and a weak BJP presence, to address a rally in March.

The Ram Navami procession has now thrown up another Muslim messiah to challenge Aslam Shaikh: local businessman Jameel Merchant, the only accused who was not arrested though he was named in the FIR filed hours after the procession ended. He not only managed to get anticipatory bail, but a delegation of Muslim leaders even met the additional police commissioner to protest against his inclusion in the FIR.

Merchant has claimed that he actually helped prevent a riot; that the police had called him to pacify the Muslims who had gathered outside a small mosque built by him, where the processionists stopped for long and where the fracas took place.

Why was this nondescript mosque specifically chosen by the processionists? Is it only a coincidence that Lodha has blamed this mosque alone for the alleged exodus of Hindus from a nearby residential complex, and that Merchant’s office is also right behind this mosque?

Locals point out that more than Hindus, it’s Muslims who opposed Merchant in 2020 over allegations of forced eviction. Also, both Muslims and Hindus have moved out of that particular residential complex.

“People leave places like Malvani when they can afford to live elsewhere,” pointed out a local housing rights activist. “But it suits the BJP to give every development a communal colour.’’

Being in power also helps. Last year, the police filed FIRs against former BJP corporator Vinod Shelar and Yuva Morcha head Tejinder Singh Tiwana, for playing loudspeakers outside the Jama Masjid during the first Ram Navami procession to be held in Malvani. This year, they refused to even accept a letter from Ajmal Khan, head of the Jama Masjid, asking for strict precautions during the Ram Navami procession. And though an officer had to pull the plug from the loudspeaker to shut the music outside the Jama Masjid, and videos showing saffron-clad youth hitting a Muslim with a lathi and threatening a policeman have gone viral, the only ones booked have been Muslims.

In February, the VHP took out a rally against a Muslim cemetery in Marol though the matter is sub judice. As elections approach, more such flashpoints will occur, especially in areas represented by non-BJP MLAs. The police may or may not prevent them; the residents of those areas will have to.

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