Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The man who could have built Malegaon—but didn’t

A Bitter, Battered Town Picks Up The Pieces And Struggles To Return To The Routine Of Daily Life

Jyoti Punwani

If Malegaon’s image has remained unchanged for the last 15 years—a large ghetto of uneducated and poor Muslims ready to erupt at the slightest provocation—every political party in Maharashtra has been responsible. But some individuals and groups have played a key role in keeping Malegaon divided and backward. Nihal Ahmed, the 79-year-old king of Malegaon for 22 long years from 1977-1999, heads that list.

Not too long ago, Ahmed was one of a dying breed: the khadi-clad Muslim who always wore a Gandhi topi; sharptongued follower of Lohia who had little patience for religion. The appearance and the irreverence remain; but when Ahmed saw his power over Malegaon slipping away, Lohia gave way to communal politics of a kind the porkeating Jinnah would have marvelled at.

In the 1978 assembly elections, when the Janata Party was in power at the Centre, Ahmed won the Malegaon assembly seat with 57% of the votes, a percentage unmatched till today. But by the late ‘90s, the self-confessed disciple of socialist legends Nanasaheb Gore and S M Joshi, the comrade-in-arms of Madhu Limaye and Mrinal Gore, had turned into the man who kicked out at a Ganpati pandal because it blocked the way of a Moharram procession.

This was the same man who used to readily join in the Ganpati aarti at Malegaon’s various mandals.

In an interview with this reporter after the October 2001 riots, Ahmed blamed his failure to build up a strong organisational base for his defeat in the 1999 assembly elections. Forget a base, 22 years was enough time for Ahmed to have changed the profile of Malegaon’s residents. Instead of concentrating only on regularising slums and issuing ration cards, Ahmed could have built schools, hospitals and provided water, to these slums. His political base would have been built automatically.

From 1984-2004, the BJP and Sena went all out to communalise the country. Every Lohiaite worth their khadi tried to counter this venom. Nihalbhai did so in his own way: sometimes by ganging up with the Shiv Sena against a common enemy, the Congress; at other times by matching provocation for provocation: calling a public meeting to denounce the burning of the Koran by the Bajrang Dal in Delhi, when everywhere, the attempt was to play down the incident; or leading, against the advice of his fellow Hindu Janata Dal (S) councillors, a Muslims-only procession against the US invasion of Afghanistan, flanked by youth bearing Osama Bin Laden’s portraits.

A week after this procession, Malegaon saw riots in which 13 persons were killed. The immediate cause was the unnecessary snatching by an SRP constable, of Urdu leaflets entitled ‘Be Indian, Buy Indian’ (calling for a boycott of US products), which were being distributed outside the Jama Masjid after Friday prayers. Ahmed could have rushed there and pacified the crowd, thereby possibly preventing the loss of many young lives. “Why should I?’’ he countered. “It wasn’t my programme. If they didn’t have the power to control their followers, why did they distribute the pamphlets? Those who died were fools, jumping headlong into wherever the current took them.’’

Ahmed’s cynical politics was matched by the RSSSena’s equally cynical use of religion in the Hindu-dominated villages adjoining Malegao. The VHP’s ‘Dharmayudh’ against “Islamic and Christian terrorism’’, and the Sena and Jaanta Raja (a new organisation inspired by the Sena’s Anand Dighe), built up an atmosphere which resulted in attacks, for the first time in 2001, on the few Muslims living in these villages for generations. A Muslim woman was raped there, in retaliation, for similar acts perpetrated on Hindu women in Malegaon—a rumour deliberately spread, but which could not be substantiated by the police or by fact-finding teams.

The 2001 riots saw 13 deaths; only one of them was a Hindu. Four Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs, and eight in police firing. Thus the police, who fired only on Muslims, must be included in the list of those who’ve kept Malegaon divided.

Any surprise that SIMI has flourished in Malegaon?

(The writer was part of a fact-finding team that visited Malegaon after the 2001 riots)

(The Times of India, September 12, 2006)

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