August 25, 1.03 pm — unsuspecting shoppers at Zaveri Bazaar are caught in the worst explosion in Mumbai since the serial blasts of 1993.
By 1.30 pm, Abdul Sheikh, a businessmen with the Nagpada Mohalla Committee is on the spot. Sifting through the wreckage for the dead and rushing the injured to hospital, he whispers into the ears of his Muslim brethren that they should maintain the peace if provoked.
Sheikh was not the only one playing out this role on Monday. There were many other mohalla committee members doing for free a job others wouldn’t take up even if they were paid for it.
A phenomenon that took shape after the 1992 riots and 1993 blasts, the ubiquitous mohalla committees have been doubling up as social workers and peacemakers. Credit must go in large measure to these faceless committees for ensuring there has been no communal violence following the seven blasts that have hit Mumbai since December.
The initiative to form the committees was taken by former police commissioners Julio Ribiero and Satish Sahaney. The outfits contain well-respected figures from both communities who have the guts and the standing to break up dangerous-looking huddles of young men during times of trouble.
“We need these committees more than ever now because most Indian cities are sitting on a tinder box,’’ says Humayun Siddiqui. “Earlier, there was a lot of doubt and suspicion from Muslims. They thought that we were police informers. But now times have changed. More people have faith in us. They have begun to understand that at the end of the day it is the greater good of the community that we are working at,’’ he adds.
A police officer at Nagpada says at times committee members point out potential troublemakers and are anxious to avoid trouble and bloodshed.
“The mohalla committees have both Hindus and Muslims so it will not be fair to call the Muslim members informers,’’ he says. “Had it not been for these people, Mumbai could have burst out in communal flames. Look at how hard terrorists are trying to drive away communal harmony,” the officer adds.
“There are always those who are looking to brew trouble during bad times,’’ says Rafiq Khallilur Latif, another committee member. “But our job is to not let it happen. The first thing we do is douse any traces of rumours. Only then do we plan carrying out relief operations,” he adds
Syed Khan, a businessmen from the Mazgaon dock area, says that immediately after the explosions, he saw Muslim boys “line up the streets” leading to the blast site at Zaveri Bazaar.
“I am happy to say that they were doing everything, helping the injured, cleaning up the mess and locating bewildered family members. In the absence of a substantial police force, they were also regulating traffic,’’ Khan says.
He attributes the success of this largescale social participation to a “new’’ realisation among Muslims. “After the (2002) Gujarat riots, there were many who kept quiet, overtaken as they were with thoughts of injustice and revenge,’’ Khan says. “But now I see that the feeling of distancing themselves from those who are only harming them has reached the deepest corners of the Muslim community.”
After the blasts, a grateful Sushil Kumar Shinde thanked the mohalla committees and the Mumbai Aman (Harmony) Committee. “It would not have been possible to maintain peace without them,’’ the chief minister said.
But committee members like Irfan Butt say they have no time to bask in glory. “We still have a lot to do. We have to reach out much more,’’ he says. “In these times there will never be an end to violence but peace has to defeat it. That is all we pray for to Allah,” Butt says.