A Community of "others" in the Making
AsiaLink reports on the making of Agripada, a residential area in
Bombay, India, that is home to mostly textile workers who live close to
their workplaces. Over the past few years, the area has become notorious for
criminal activities. This report is drawn from a detailed case study that
appeared in the publication, Saptahik Sakal, in its 1997 Diwali issue.
Agripada is near Byculla, in Bombay, and known for its underworld
activities. This aspect Agripada's identity has been emphasised over and
over for the past ten or fifteen years. The Arun Gawali Gang, the rival Amar
Naik Gang and the Agripada police station, always in the news because of the
gangs, have further strengthened the identification of Agripada with
criminality. Few other areas have seem gang wars, everyday brutality and
encounters with the police on the scale that Agripada has. Agripada has seen
the rise of many a notorious criminal, suffered at his hands and watched his
downfall. Today, Agripada is known as the hotbed of Indian organised crime.
Agripada's identity as a criminal stronghold is recent. Earlier, it was
known for its textile mills and for the chawls, or tenements, that the
Bombay Improvement Trust, a philanthropy, built to house textile workers.
The Indian textile industry itself dates back to the latter part of the 19th
century, when many rich Parsees -- Zorastrians from Persia who had settled
in India -- noted that textiles was a very profitable business. Many Parsee
seths had earlier amassed fortunes in Britain's infamous 18th-century opium
Bombay's Byculla-Agripada-Nagpada communities saw rapid growth in the number
of textile mills and, of course, in the number of workers the mills
employed. What were earlier green fields became transformed into an
industrial centre teeming with mills and chawls. The original farming
community, the Agris, was closely linked to the fishing community, the
Kolis, and the Agris live on in the name Agripada. The Kolis drifted slowly
off towards the coast. Later they were uprooted from there too and now find
themselves barely able to survive in special settlements on the outskirts of
Some one hundred years ago, the area was dotted with one-storey buildings
and hutments. Though it has long had a mixed population of Muslims and
Hindus, it is predominantly Muslim and is surrounded by mosques, including
the Jumma Masjid, the Haji Ali Darga and the Madina Masjid. Muslims from all
parts of India move to Bombay to look for work. Invariably, Agripada becomes
their first home in the city.
Even with the steady influx of people looking for work in the textile mills,
Agripada could accommodate them without becoming congested. It's textile
workers came first from the coastal region of Konkan in the state of
Maharashtra. (Bombay is the capital of Maharashtra.) Konkan Muslims formed
the largest chunk of textile workers in Agripada, followed by Muslims from
the northern states, particularly Uttar Pradesh. And then there were workers
from other castes -- cobblers, weavers and dalits (former untouchables).
After Konkan, the Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur districts of Maharshtra
contributed the greatest number.
Even in Madanpura and Mominpura, areas in Agripada today seen as Muslim
enclaves, there were large Hindu populations. But there is no record of
rioting in either area before those that erupted in 1992-1993. There had
always been skirmishes and clashes between different groups, mainly within a
community, but none of them carried the taint of religious or caste hatred.
During the 1982 textile worker's general strike the textile workers lost
everything they had.
The 1982 strike proved to be a watershed in the city's history. It was one
of the longest, most bitterly fought strikes and lasted over two years. It
ended in a crushing defeat for the workers and almost wiped out working-
class life there.
Before the strike, though hardly prosperous, workers could make ends meet
and people looked happy and contented. The mandals (local cultural circles)
were then very popular in and around the BIT chawls in Agripada and the
Dagdi chawl near Byculla. The mandals regularly organised bhajan and
kirtans. (The terms refer to community devotional songs and popular
devotional discussions, respectively; both sprang up with the Bhakti
Movement, a popular movement against Brahmin orthodoxy, and both continue
--SM). There were also theatre and music along with a kind of social work.
But the mandals' main activity was organising festivals. The ever-present
kreeda mandals (sports clubs, but nowhere near as formal as the cultural
circles) used to participate in all these activities in a big way.
The sport clubs had credibility and status. Arun Gawali (the don from Dagadi
chawl and leader of his own political party, Bharatiya Sena formed after his
release from prison after he was charged under the Anti-Terrorist Act, TADA,
and now in jail on other charges -- SM) was a kabbadi player (an Indian team
sport included on exhibition basis for the first time in the Nagano Olympics
-- SM) with the Om Byculla Kabbadi Mandal. There were many such mandals in
Agripada too. Every community had its own teams.
That fact is important because the caste structure, its stricture to marry
only within the group, the professional opportunities it affords or rules
out, remains unchanged. The teams may be becoming a means for carrying caste
forward into an urban context, as a peculiarity of Indian urbanisation.
Hindus had their own team and so did the Neo-Buddhists and others. Even the
Jews had a kabaddi team. Christians, Muslims -- all communities were active
in the mandals and sports clubs. They played regular competitions. Cricket
and volleyball were quite popular. While kabaddi was popular all over,
Muslims favoured football, and football tournaments were common and the
Madanpura team won most of them.
Celebrations of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedekar's birthday brought together all the
residents of the area. The making of banners and bunting was distributed
amongst the households. Each household participated in some way in the
preparations. Everyone, the young and the old, made it a point to attend the
festivities. An all- white dress used to be the special outfit for the day.
The main speakers and guests got a proper welcome as they entered the area
and were accompanied by music as they were taken to the place where the
celebration would take place. It is one event that continues.
Today things are very different. Nothing else brings the people of Agripada
together. The change has not taken place overnight. It has been a gradual
one (assisted by the invasion of TV). And once criminal money began to be
poured into the festivals, the festivals were reduced to a vulgar farce.
Youth had changed and preferred to spend time on street corners. After the
textile strike, change came very rapidly.
+ + +
A social worker and a teacher in the area tell a tragi-comic story which
illustrates how young boys fall into and become enmeshed in organised crime.
Some boys from Agripada were members of the Amar Naik Gang and some were
part of the Arun Gawali Gang. Their way of life influenced a group of four
tough-type teenagers to imitate them in their Bhaigiri. (Bombay vernacular
for a gangster is Bhai, brother; gangsterism is Bhaigiri, or, roughly
translated, brotherhood, connoting not only notoriety but a family and its
values as well -- SM.) It so happened that they had a fight with some boys
from outside the area. So they got ready to chop off their limbs.
The four had a younger friend who was rather naive. They rounded him up and
took him along on their mission. Then they caught hold of one of the
offenders and almost managed to kill him. The toughs fled as soon as the
attack was over. The naive friend was left behind, spotted by the police and
taken into custody. The inspector was fully aware that the boy wasn't really
involved. Nevertheless, he demanded a hundred thousand rupees from him, to
set him free.
Freeing the innocent boy became the responsibility of the four older ones.
They also looked at it that way, as a moral duty. But how to get hold of
that much money? They caught hold of a trader and kidnapped him. They didn't
even slap him. The trader didn't know who was kidnapping him or why.
Suddenly, one of the boys got greedy and decided they would get more money
if they also got hold of the trader's friend. And so that boy left them
midway, to go back and pick up the friend.
The other three brought the trader to the chawl and, having entered their
turf, they relaxed. The trader managed to escape and ran for his life. Since
it was daytime and they didn't want undue attention, they let him go.
The greedy boy, who had by then returned, saw the trader running. When the
boy realised that they were about to get nothing for their trouble, he
decided to get at least the gold chain the trader was wearing and took off
It happened to be the time for the regular police patrol, and police rounded
them up, trader and all. The trader didn't want to press charges; he was
grateful for having escaped unscathed.
There were police demands for even more money, to set the boys free. (The
story continues, with the four joining well-established gangs, changing
loyalties, and is, by now, routine -- SM.) Now the boys have become bhais,
looking for even greater sums of money. Extortion by the police plays an
important role. It cements entry into the underworld and practically ensures
that such boys not will cross back.
Such problems didn't happen overnight. The change came gradually, and many
attribute it to the change in the economy of Bombay. For some, the 1982
textile workers' strike, led by Dr. Datta Samant, is the reason.
There were also other important changes taking place. Globalisation, old
residents leaving, new and practically destitute people moving in, growing
unemployment, falling education standards, old expressions of culture dying
off, with nothing much to replace them, the mindless onslaught of TV and its
consumerist values -- all had a role to play. The strike brought all these
together, often in unexpected, unnoticed ways.
The possibility of a new job was simply not there: the workers were too old
and had no other skills.
The situation was so bad and so frustrating that workers were not only in no
position to think about finding work, they had lost too much to be of
emotional help to their families.
Children grew up witnessing their fathers' helplessness. They themselves
were very young and very few had any education or training, Yet many were
forced to seek work. The construction industry was booming, and they watched
their hutments get razed to make way for the multi-storied complexes housing
top companies and spacious homes of the newly and conspicuously consuming
rich. "If you can't get it, grab it" became the motto of the young.
+ + +
Except for the so-called Mutiny of 1857 (against British occupation and
rule), the only incident of religious rioting in Agripada before 1992, took
place six years earlier and involved Parsees and Muslims. A Parsee brought
out a newspaper called Chitra-Dnyan Darpan (literally, The Illustrated
Mirror of Knowledge). Each issue carried on its cover a litho-pressed
reproduction of a photograph or a painting of some well-known figure.
One issue carried a picture of the Prophet Mohammed. Due to low-quality
printing, the Prophet looked one-eyed. Some mischief-maker put it up on the
walls of the Jumma Masjid. People coming out after the noon namaj (prayers)
saw it and attacked the Parsees. The skirmishes continued for a month.
Finally, government officials, the police commissioner and highly-placed
Muslims and Parsees took the initiative and brought about peace.
Why then did the area became riot-prone? In part, at least, it has to do
with how people earn their livelihood. Nothing brings this out more than the
story of Madanpura.
There are now more than thousand garment factories in Madanpura (a sub-
locality). Madanpura had been predominantly an area of textile mills. It is
a myth that workers in these factories are all from the Konkan and Khandesh
regions of Maharashtra state. There have been Muslim workers from the
beginning working in the textile mills. When the textile mills started
closing down, all workers became jobless, but the Muslim workers had
handloom skills and they started working on handlooms. Once, it was hard to
hear anything in Madanpura because of the din of the looms. Later,
powerlooms replaced handlooms and the powerloom industry slowly shifted to
Bhiwandi (about 80 kilometres away), due to high rents for factory space and
problems with the power supply and the tariff. By the time of the 1982
textile strike, almost all the powerlooms had shifted to Bhiwandi.
What happened to the two hundred thousand jobless workers? Many of them got
into the garment industry.
A typical garment factory is but ten to fifteen sewing machines packed into
a very cramped room in the Madanpura chawls. The conditions are dreadful and
there is no regulation of any kind. Such working conditions, which prevail
in almost all small-scale industry here, do not give people to time think
and leave them with little time or energy for social and cultural life. To
eat, everyone has to work almost all the time. This is all the more true in
the predominately Muslim area of Madanpura. Its residents are hard-working
and it lies away from the gang warfare and the riots. The work is not
healthy work, and no one is free from the insecurities of city life, but it
does show that where there is work, there are no Bhai, no rioters.
The Saptahik Sakal case study was authored by Mukund Thombare for Unique
Features, with the help of Sikandar Sayyad, Kanchan Choudhari, Sagar
Jagdhani, local social activists from Agripada, Suresh Jadhav, AWAMI IDARA's
president and secretary, Prof. Jamal Kamil, Legislative Assembly Member
Faiyaz Ahamed and Babu Khan.
[Courtesy of AsiaLink Newsletter, Issue 6, 03/98]