Mumbai teetered on the brink of large scale communal violence on August 11, 2012 as protests led by Muslim organisations turned bloody within minutes. The protests were to highlight what the organisations claimed were attacks against Muslims in Assam in the ongoing Bodo vs. Muslim conflict in the North Eastern state and attacks against the Muslim community known as the Rohingyas in Myanmar or Burma, as it was formerly called.
The protests turned violent due to incendiary speeches and the mob, which may have come prepared given the lethal rocks and weapons they carried, spun out of control torching media vehicles and attacking police officers. There was police firing and at least two people lost their lives but the police did manage to bring a smouldering problem under control after a few hours. The embers though are still burning and a fallout of that violence has sent tremors down the spine of this city. Elsewhere too, North Eastern residents are fleeing cities filled with trepidation of repercussions on them and there is palpable tension in the air.
One of the reactions to this incident is the formation of a group called Muslims in Solidarity for Justice: Voices Against Violence at the Azad Maidan protest. This group, formed in response to the violence, held a public-press meet yesterday at Mumbai’s Press Club, which is, in fact, adjacent to Azad Maidan.
The group emphasised that Muslims in Solidarity for Justice condemned the violence at the incident and sought punishment for the guilty. That seemed to be the overriding theme of the meeting, where the four speakers on the dais collectively claimed that they could not condemn the violence enough.
Hasina Khan, who was described as a feminist activist and a member of the Collective Forum against Oppression of Women and Aawaz-e-Niswaan, took the mike first, stating, “We are against this violence and the organisations I represent have been working for peace for the past 30 years. We want to ensure that this will not happen again. We are against all injustice and violence and discrimination. There are certain SMS messages and MMSes doing the rounds, increasing the hate and fear. We have to investigate the source of these messages.”
Social media, in fact, came in for flak from most of the speakers who agreed it is a double-edged sword. While in certain cases it does increase awareness and keeps channels of communication open, irresponsible use of social networking also helps spread baseless rumours, drums up dangerous hate sentiments and creates communal mountains out of very manageable molehills.
Said Asgar Ali Engineer, a well-known voice in the community and founder member of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism, “The turn the protests took was unexpected and shocking. One never thought that things would pan out like this. However, one has to understand the atmosphere that was created pre-rally and the prevalent sentiments sweeping the Muslim community about Burma and Assam. Overall, Muslims were being fed with the sentiment that there is a ‘world wide conspiracy’ against them, and Assam and Burma were being used as catalysts for this.
They were being told that, there is a conspiracy against you in this world. I do not think the organisers wanted violence but the way they mobilised people for this rally, they did create an atmosphere in masjids etc. that was rife for tension and problems. In fact, there was some kind of internal competition within the Muslim community itself, over who could mobilise more people for the rallies and this may have led to the charged atmosphere they created pre-rally.
One protest was planned for Saturday August 11, which turned violent and there was another planned by yet another section of the community, for Monday, August 13 but was called off, after the Saturday problem. There were also posters put up in various places claiming conspiracy against Muslims.”
Engineer also added that he has always been in close touch with what is happening in Assam and what is happening currently is a Bodo vs. Muslim clash not a Hindu vs. Muslim one. “Yet, a religious colour is being given to this conflict by vested interests and then, put that together with conspiracy theories, the community’s unemployment rate, lack of education and frustration which found a vent.”
Engineer praised the Police Commissioner and appealed to people that such clashes cannot be given a religious colour and religion makes the “people very emotional and then it is very difficult to control them. We have 1992-93 (riots in Mumbai) as an example. When people ask me about Mumbai, I say there is communal harmony in the city and 1992-93 was an exception. We have seen how violence claims innocent lives and the responsible go scot-free. There is also an onus on journalists to report responsibly and fairly. Muslims may be bearing the brunt of Assam but Bodos too have suffered,” finished Engineer who reminded everyone that 2014 is election year and much of this may be politically motivated with an eye on the elections.
It was dial L for leaders, for speaker Shakeel Ahmed, part of an organisation called Nirbhay Bano Andolan who laid the blame squarely at the Muslim leadership door. “We have to blame these leaders as they have pushed back the fight for justice. One can see there is a link between violence and justice.
The Muslim leadership gives precedence to such issues, instead of talking about evolution of Muslims who live in the city’s poorest, dirtiest pockets and thinking about their progress. We need these leaders to give us answers. On that day, August 11, I could feel the ‘poison’ seeping into the city. I saw several communal incidents. Instead of all these protests, the community needs schools for children and opportunities to go ahead. Muslim leaders need to think about that.”
Shakeel’s words resonated with Communalism Combat’s Javed Anand who stated that, “sorrys by Muslim leaders will not do. We need answers.” Anand added, “The history of this city has shown that usually in cases like these, it is the police on one side and the minority on the other along with human rights organisations who criticise the police.” Anand cited examples like rallies against Salman Rushdie’s book, “Satanic Verses where there were clashes between the protestors and police and blood was spilled.
This time though the provocation was by Muslims and the police showed great restraint.” Anand also said that there were numerous SMS messages and MMSes doing the rounds. After scrutiny it was found that there was absolutely no connection between these MMSes and violence in Assam or Burma. He said that people who incited the protestors to violence, “already had a ready audience because this is the month of Ramzan and there were a lot of men in the mosques coming in to pray. Instead, they should have given the correct picture because Ramzan after all, is a time for ‘hosh’ not ‘josh’, it is time for prayer and patience.”
The operative word is calm and Anand stated that leaders have to come out and calm the community, restore confidence in the North East community and it is heartening that this is already being done in certain sections. “We have seen certain Maulanas standing with leaders in cities like Bangalore and asking them, tell us what you want to say to the people and calm them down. But I have also heard some right wing people are standing with sticks and worsening an already difficult situation.” Anand emphasised that Assam is not, “a Hindu vs Muslim issue, in fact it is a property issue, which is being given a communal colour.”
Anand passed on a message from the Assam Association of Mumbai to the people stating that the Association had explicitly asked him to “tell the press to report responsibly so that truth is not a casualty in this. Today, an Urdu newspaper has printed a long letter, which begins with the words Muslims are being murdered in town after town in India. I do not know how such irresponsible writing can be printed. Do they not have news editors, sub editors and editors looking at the same?” he asked.
Anand also cited the hate mongering going on through Facebook with various bogus ‘groups’ being formed to protect the North East people from some perceived “dangers.” Anand reiterated that there is a modicum of control in the printed press and television channels but there is no such editorial whetting on social networking sites, which are free to fan the flames of hate.
Hasina, who had spoken earlier, then cast an eye on the larger issues that beset the community and said it is important to improve the socio-economic conditions of the community. She said, “Muslim women face the brunt of right wingers outside of the community and within the community too.”
Hasina added, “There are some dangerous ideas being propounded and creative liberty is being stifled. Certain groups say that Satanic Verses should not be read. Why should other people decide what we should read or not read? We are not Iran or Afghanistan. Even the fact that writer Taslima Nasreen was told to leave India, as she had to flee Bangladesh it goes against Muslim women. There has to be artistic freedom here. Muslim women are the worst of the deprived.”
The session was thrown open for questions where things got a little tetchy with a listener asking the speakers why they were not at the venue on August 11 to defuse the situation. They said that they did not know there was going to be violence. “How would we know that?” they asked.
Another question asked was that why are Muslims always bothered about what is happening outside in the world, instead with them in their own community, where the speakers themselves said that they are suffering from poor socio-economic conditions, lack of education and other problems. Hasina replied that having said that, “in a democracy people have a right to protest against something anywhere in the world.”
Another man said that he respected Engineer’s views but stating that there is a ‘reason’ for everything might just be seen as justification for the incident. “It is very, very important to de-link what is happening in Assam and Burma from what is happening on D N Road,” he said.
To a question about whether Raza Academy, one of the organisers of the protests should be banned, the speakers answered that by that yardstick, numerous organisations and political parties too should be banned. The speakers claimed that instead, Raza Academy should be made to pay for the damage to public property in the city along with others responsible.