Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022

Mumbai’s Mohalla Committees: The Keepers Of Faith

Mumbai is a place of diversity where people from India and foreign countries live together in harmony. The mohalla committees have ensured that there is peace and harmony in the city.

Wakar Khan and R Ramchandra (Bhau) Khorde, who set up the Dharavi mohalla committee
Wakar Khan and R Ramchandra (Bhau) Khorde, who set up the Dharavi mohalla committee Getty Images

Chandni Shaikh has been a victim of domestic abuse. Her husband Mateen, an autorickshaw operator, beats her black and blue even without provocation. One day as she writhed in pain and screamed loudly after being beaten by a leather belt, her neighbour Vaishali Kale banged on the door and barged into her house through the partially open door. Kale was followed by her husband Anil and daughter Sheetal. While Vaishali took Chandni out of the house and into the shelter of her own home, Anil and Sheetal caught hold of Mateen and thrashed him. By then the people in the mohalla (area) had gathered near Shaikh’s doorstep. Had fate not intervened in the form of a patrolling police van, Mateen would have suffered grievous injuries. 

The assembled public warned Mateen of dire consequences if he ever beat up Chandni again. In fact, the residents of the area ensure that there is no domestic abuse in their mohalla. Pathanwadi in Goregaon—a western suburb of Mumbai—was not always a peaceful area. In fact, even the slightest provocation could ignite the area. However, after the 1992-1993 communal riots in Mumbai which affected this area too, the simmering has calmed. The establishment of a mohalla committee here and in the surrounding areas has positively impacted the peace and harmony of this area. Though the area has its share of hooligans, they have been kept in check due to continuous interactions of this committee.       

The mohalla committees of Mumbai are a civil social initiative started by the Mumbai Police and involve personnel of the local police stations and the public living in the area of the committee. Such committees are present throughout the city and its suburban areas, enhancing not only social interactions between communities but also ensuring that the law and order is maintained. Despite provocations by politicians, the dominant religious communities have made sure that the tightly-woven social fabric of Mumbai remains intact. In the operations of the mohalla committees, the representatives of the public and the police work in tandem, not at a tangent. The two are partners, not adversaries, is the operating principle of the committees, which were set up after the 1992-93 communal riots when Muslims and the Hindus suffered equally following the strife in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition. 

Kandivali police station personnel  engaging with Patel Nagar Mohalla Committee I Getty Images
Kandivali police station personnel engaging with Patel Nagar Mohalla Committee I Getty Images

Following the Mumbai bomb blasts, when both these religious groups were pitted against each other, the decision of some senior officers of the Mumbai Police to establish such committees in the mohallas considered to be sensitive to communal riots has worked magic in maintaining the peace and harmony of Mumbai and its suburban areas. Over the years, their activities have expanded—they conduct workshops, organise cricket matches and take up various other social activities. 

Mumbai is a mesmerising mosaic of diverse people, cultures, traditions and practices. It is during festivities that the brotherhood and sisterhood is overtly visible. The senior inspectors of all police stations are continuously interacting with members of mohalla committees and seeking their support. 

Since community leaders of repute are part of these committees, the public respect their word, said a senior inspector to Outlook.    

According to the police officer, the good work of mohalla committees is the primary reason for the peace and harmony of Mumbai. “There have been so many provocations, but Mumbaikars have remained calm. We salute Mumbaikars for not succumbing to the provocative pressures through speeches,” said the police officer.   

A case of the camaraderie in point is the 10-day Ganeshotsav celebrations in Mumbai, participated by all the communities living in the city. There are numerous localities where the Muslim community work in close coordination with the Hindus and celebrate Ganeshotsav. Ditto is the case during the long month of fasting during Ramzan. Makeshift eateries are set in many places across Mumbai by Hindus for those Muslims who are unable to reach home to break the evening fast.

Speaking to Outlook, a vegetable vendor in Andheri, Ghenu, says that he and his friends set up a stall and keep sherbet, fruits and other eatables. “We have done this for years. There is no religious hatred between us common people. It is the politicians who are making us fight with each other. During Ganpati and Diwali, we all celebrate together,” he said.   

The camaraderie is clearly visible during the immersion day celebrations of the famed Lalbaugcha Raja, one of the most popular deities in the city. The route this Ganesh idol takes as it heads out for immersion to Girgaum Chowpatty passes through the Muslim areas in central Mumbai. Excited cries of Ala re ala, Raja ala re (the king has come) rent the air as Hindu and Muslim residents of the area come out in hordes to bid farewell to Lalbaugcha Raja. According to Yusuf Shah, a resident from the Mohammed Baksh building located in Byculla, he has been coming down to watch the procession for two decades. “I offer a garland and sweets to the deity. I pray at his feet. My family too does the same,” said Shah. 

In December 2019, when the Muslim women sat in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on a by-road in Mumbai Central, they were joined in by people from other faiths, who provided logistics and other support to the protestors.   

The commercial centres of Mumbai—be it Crawford Market, Chor Bazar, the Bandra market etc. — are examples of the economic interdependence binding the various communities of Mumbai together. 

“It is difficult to break the social fabric of Mumbai,” said Ketaki Ranade, a social activist who has been involved in various women’s literacy programmes. 

She told Outlook, “There have been many attempts made, the latest being Raj Thackeray who tried to make the loudspeakers on mosques an emotional issue. Other than him and some of the MNS workers screaming, no one paid any attention to them. People come together when something affects the city like the terrorist attacks. We are all one community.”

According to Padmashree Dr Taytarao Lahane, a well-known ophthalmologist, Mumbai is a multi-dimensional city. 

“This is a city which is the best example of co-existence of communities. Each one understands the needs of the other,” he told Outlook

Kshitij Gume, a former bank collection agent-turned-salesman, was an active member of a political party prior to the lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic. During this period, he and his neighbours pooled in their monetary resources to survive the period. Many of them in the basti they lived in had lost their jobs and making ends meet was a daunting task. 

He said, “We shared all the resources and food each of us had. We did not look at caste or religion. Each was in need. Covid has taught us valuable lessons in humanity. Mumbaikars suffered more than the others. When we are faced with a survival crisis due to lost jobs, lack of money and so many other factors, communal riots are the last thing on the people’s minds.”