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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 trade.

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 Bombay.

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.

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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 after him.

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.

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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]

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