At 3.25 pm last Saturday, I received a call from my wife. “We are in the middle of a riot,” she said with as much composure as she could muster.
A violent mob of young Muslim men was burning buses, police vehicles and TV Outdoor Broadcast (OB) vans in front of our car in Mumbai’s central business district near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). Through my phone, I could hear the muffled shouts of the rioters as they hit our car with whatever they could lay their hands on.
The protest by several Muslim groups in Mumbai was led by the Raza Academy, Jamata Raza-e-Mustafa and Sunni Jamaitul Ulma, ostensibly against Bodo-Muslim violence in Assam and “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in Myanmar. It had begun peacefully enough at Azad Maidan, the traditional venue for peaceful protests, including several by Anna Hazare in the past year.
The protest, however, soon turned violent. As it left Azad Maidan, the mob began torching vehicles. Our car, along with many others, was caught in the middle of what was now a full-scale riot in south Mumbai’s busiest commercial district.
The mob threatened passengers, ordering them to abandon their vehicles. Many did. Within minutes, the mob had smashed their windscreens.
A police jeep in front of our car was set on fire. Three BEST buses a few metres to the right were stoned. I could hear the mob’s growing fury through the phone line.
My wife, Kahini, an artist and the daughter of a decorated Admiral, does not panic easily. She held her nerve and refused to abandon the vehicle. For the next 15 minutes I stayed on the phone line with her, helping guide our driver as he wove the car through the frenzied mob, heading towards the JJ flyover which lies beyond the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s office.
Finally, as the Rapid Action Force and police reinforcements arrived, our car reached the flyover and sped to safety. Two people died in the riot in which the police and the media were deliberately targeted. More than 50 were seriously injured.
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Despite 26/11, and despite bomb blasts in suburban trains and in commercial areas over the past five years, Mumbai has remained largely riot-free. That Muslim-Bodo violence in Assam could spark the sort of riot we saw in Mumbai on Saturday afternoon shows how deep communal fissures are. They have lain quiescent for years but the anger, on both sides, has been simmering. It takes little to light the fire.
Who is responsible for these communal fissures? The RSS with its Hindutva philosophy? The BJP with its version of nationalism? The Congress with its brand of secularism that preaches inclusiveness but practises separateness? The NCP and regional parties like the SP with their open agenda to win Muslim votes? Or Muslim leaders – mullahs – who encourage such fissures to retain their hold over impoverished Muslims?
The NN Vohra Committee report following the serial bomb blasts in March 1993 had exposed the deep nexus between politicians and the Mumbai underworld led by Dawood Ibrahim. The Sharad Pawar-led NCP and the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) have been in the forefront of commmunalising politics in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh respectively in order to win Muslim votes and stay in power.
It is hardly surprising that a party like the NCP is a staunch ally of the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress in the UPA government and that the discredited SP lends it outside support in parliament. The Congress itself uses a slightly more sophisticated modus operandi to achieve the same votebank objective as the NCP and SP.
The Congress’ alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s MIM in Andhra and Omar Abdullah’s NC in J&K represents another marriage of communal convenience. Ironically, NN Vohra, whose report exposed the political-underworld nexus, is currently the Governor of J&K. No tangible action has ever been taken on his report.
The open support given today by the BJP, JD(U) and other NDA constituents to Baba Ramdev is a signal that the electoral battle for 2014 has been joined. If the UPA government’s corruption and economic paralysis persists, an early general election could be upon us. The UPA’s hope that a “Team Anna” party would split opposition votes could be dashed if the opposition unites with Ramdev’s rural constituency and urban civil society movements.
Ordinary Muslims are both victims and willing fodder of communal parties wearing a secular mask. They want to join the mainstream. But 65 years of Hindu-Muslim schism, engendered by the counterfeit brand of secularism practised by the Congress and communal regional parties in order to stay in power, has divided communities.
This has made it doubly difficult for Muslims to escape their self-made ghettos. Muslims – even “important” ones like Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar – don’t get flats in areas they would like. Ordinary Muslims don’t get jobs; they simply aren’t trusted by employers. They end up as electricians, mechanics and spot boys.
Where are the liberal Muslim voices? Azim Premji speaks of governance and philanthropy, rarely about secularism and communalism. He must speak up now. So must Aamir Khan and others in order to put 175 million Muslims in India on the path of modernity and social and economic progress rather than the path of medieval self-destruction.