Hope Still Alive in ‘Terror Town’ of Malegaon

‘Innumerable flies buzzed over garbage heaps in the narrow lanes. Powerlooms clanged in regular rhythm. Small dwellings lined the slush-filled lane we were in.’… This was the sight that greeted Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda when they walked into Malegaon – a town located 280 km north-east of Mumbai that seemed to have never recovered from the blasts of September 2006. For many years, the youth of Malegaon had been closely watched; their every action scrutinised. They were branded ‘anti-social,’ ‘bomb experts’, even ‘killers’. Their town was ‘terror town’. But in this deprived, desperate place, the duo found that one glimmer of hope quite unexpectedly. Find out more in this excerpt from Beautiful Country – Stories From Another India, published by Harper Collins.

Innumerable flies buzzed over garbage heaps in the narrow lanes. Powerlooms clanged in regular rhythm. Small dwellings lined the slush-filled lane we were in. We covered our noses and mouths with our duppattas. The stench was unbearable. To our left, pigs wallowed in a pool of stagnant black water. A skinny little boy stood before us. Vacant eyes, inert body, he made no move to ward off the flies circling his head. His faded black t-shirt caught our eye. Three simple words were embossed on the worn-out shirt which hung on his bony body. Today, we can see the words as clearly as we did on that sultry Friday evening. It was October 2006.

Early that morning, we had got off the Nashik railway station and got into the waiting Maharashtra government car. Out destination was Malegaon – a town located 280 km north-east of Mumbai and 110 km from Nashik. …

A month earlier, on 8 September 2006, three blasts had taken place around this mosque. Thirty-seven people died, and 125 were seriously injured. As soon as we entered the mosque, we were surrounded by people of all ages, including many teenagers. Their nervousness was palpable. We noticed that they were looking at us with suspicion as if saying, ‘Now what?’

For many months, even years, the youth of Malegaon had been closely watched; their every action scrutinized. They were branded ‘anti-social,’ ‘bomb experts’, even ‘killers’, and associated with groups like SIMI, LeT and words like RDX2. Their town was branded ‘terror town’. Their loyalties were suspected, their patriotism challenged at every step. Even when their own town was attacked, instead of receiving sympathy, they were looked upon with scepticism. This attitude, along with the recent blast investigations, has left them shaken and disillusioned. …

Voices came from all directions.

‘We were attacked, and look what the government did. They picked up and tortured our children.’

‘Two Unani doctors from Malegaon have been arrested.’

‘Have you heard of anyone who will bomb his own house?’

‘This is saazish, a conspiracy.’

(Almost two years later, the anti-terrorism squad of Maharashtra arrested five people affiliated to the Hindu Jagran Manch, including Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, under suspicion for their role in the Malegaon and Modasa blasts. This case is under trial.)

By the time we left the mosque, it was close to iftaar (meal that breaks the Ramzan fast); the streets were bustling with people and vendors were selling food. Next door was one of Malegaon’s many slums – the Saman Habib Compound. It was here that we saw the skinny twelve-year-old boy. His black t-shirt was emblazoned with the words ‘The Lost Boys’ across the chest. Three words which summed up the vulnerability of the youth of this town. Three words which could become the epithet for an entire generation. Three words which filled our hearts with a sense of foreboding.

‘What is your name?’

A look of fear flitted across the face that had thus far been expressionless. We drew him near and smiled at him. By now, a few children, possibly the boy’s playmates, had gathered around us. Gradually, he relaxed. Then in a shy voice he answered: ‘Saddam.’

‘Do you go to school?’

The head went down and we heard a barely perceptible, ‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘I am learning to work the looms.’

‘What about your friends?’ we asked, pointing to the other children.

‘They also work.’ …

The deprivation we had seen everywhere throughout the day, and the enormity of the task ahead us was too daunting. We desperately wanted to spot a good practice, a glimmer of hope in this small town. It appeared unexpectedly at a police station in front of which our car stopped.

‘Why are we here?’ we asked Aleem Faizee, a young reporter who had taken us there. ‘This is one ray of hope,’ he said, pointing to a small board just outside the police station. It read ‘Mahila Shikayat Samadhan Kendra’ or ‘Women’s Complaint Bureau’. We stepped inside the small, one-room building. Four women were sitting around a wooden table with a prominently placed telephone. One of them was Irfana Hamdani,a young advocate who was a volunteer at this centre. ‘This centre,’ she explained, ‘is a women’s initiative to combat all forms of violence.’ We learnt that, after the Malegaon riots of 2001, women from both communities had come together to issue a call for peace which begins with fighting violence inside the homes. They had become partners with the Maharashtra police, and the Shikayat Kendra was established inside the Malegaon police station. At the time of our visit, it had been operational for three years. ‘Some of us are housewives; others are lawyers, teachers and doctors. We all give our time on a weekly basis. On an average, we get five to six hundred cases every year, 90 percent from the lower income-groups. We have already solved some 700 cases of violence,’ explained Irfana Hamdani.

The subdivisional magistrate (SDM) Rajesh Pradhan agreed that this community effort had reduced the cases of violence under section 498A of the criminal procedure code. Dr Rekha Rao, a cheerful woman in her mid-forties, was a college teacher. She said that polygamy and triple talaaq (signalling divorce) were among the principal causes behind domestic violence in Muslim bastis. ‘But whenever we go there and discuss triple talaaq, polygamy and sterilization, the men accuse us of being anti-Islam.’ Asma Shaikh, her colleague, agreed. “I wish we could have some police protection on these occasions.’ We left the kendra after posing for photographs with the women who counselled people on family planning, illiteracy, polygamy, hygiene and livelihood, sometimes at the risk of social boycott. Malegaon like other medium size towns has its share of good and bad. …

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