By Dr. Rositta Joseph Valiyamattam
BMMA Office, Kherwadi slums, Bandra East, Mumbai
Imagine living in the midst of one of the world’s most populated slum areas. Struggling for the essentials of life. Fighting numerous everyday battles against exploitation, poverty, gender discrimination and ignorance in order to survive. If this is not challenging enough, visualize, in addition to all this, being pitted against violent religious extremism. Being attacked by rioters and fundamentalist goons, by policemen and state agents – all in the name of religion. Losing your home, your job, your belongings, your near and dear ones, your dignity and security – overnight. What would be your immediate response?
Hundreds of women especially from the minority community faced these situations during the 1992-1993 riots in Bombay (now Mumbai). They not only suffered but also struggled for change; they not only coped with the trauma but also worked to rebuild and to reconcile homes and communities. They overcame personal tragedy to emerge as community leaders who silently transformed the world around them.
These were ordinary homemakers, most of them in purdah, their lives confined to the four walls, their existence spent in running the home and the hearth. Until those fateful days in December 1992 when their world came crashing down. Until they had witnessed and experienced everything horrible from arson to murder, looting to molestation, mob fury to terror unleashed by right-wing organisations and the police forces loyal to or dominated by them.
As news of the Babri Mosque demolition in Ayodhya filtered into Bombay on the evening of December 6, 1992, riots broke out between the two communities. While Muslim leaders and gangsters came out with angry protest marches which turned ugly, almost all the large-scale riots in the slums were well orchestrated by right-wing Hindu militant organisations led by the Shiv Sena, the dominant political party in the region. Even as extremists unleashed their fury, policemen openly pledged loyalty to their community and targeted the minorities from the other end. Scores of poor and middle-class Muslim families were trapped between the torches and knives of the extremist goons and the bullets of the policemen. The physical and material damage was immense. But the trauma and terror were indelible. The already backward community was forced into even more backward ghettoes and refugee camps.
This is perhaps the story of many riots that have and continue to plague various parts of the country. But in this story of the slums of Bombay something turned out to be very different. The women fought back. They fought back fiercely. They threw off the mantle of helplessness and fought to save their men and children, their families and neighbours. As rioting continued unabated, women decided to take things into their hands. They would form human shields and chains to confront rioters and policemen and prevent their menfolk from venturing outside. Often these strategies helped to disperse both rioters and policemen but sometimes things turned ugly and they had to face bullets as well. They were the ones who went out during curfews and into burning streets to gather essential supplies for their families. Women organized round the clock vigils to alert their neighbours and localities about the arrival of rioting goons. They kept watch the whole night, comforting and encouraging each other, stopping rumour mongering and inflammatory comments. preventing any harm to their neighbourhoods. They were many instances of women from both communities supporting and protecting each other’s families from riotous mobs using a host of tactics.
Apart from all this, perhaps the greatest contribution was in the area of relief work. Women gathered together to pool supplies, to gather supplies from their own meagre resources, from generous patrons, NGOs, government agencies and to distribute these to those in need. Almost every relief camp in Bombay was led by women across classes and communities and minority community women from the slums and chawls played a remarkable role. When it was time to rebuild damaged houses and neighbourhoods, to fight with state agents for compensation for various kinds of losses, to testify against perpetrators, again it was the women who came forward.
Above all, women knew the value of negotiation, of conflict resolution, of reconciliation and forgiveness. They took the lead in organizing various neighbourhood committees that met regularly and allowed people from both communities, victims and attackers to air their grievances, to seek and to offer forgiveness, to resolve issues amicably, to admit that, in the struggle for a good life, unity mattered most for them not political manipulations. They took care that their children were brought up to mingle with children from other communities and not in an atmosphere of fear and hatred. Special trips and activities were arranged for children. All this was done using the resources put together by women.
However, what strikes one as most remarkable is that these ordinary women emerged as extraordinary family and community leaders. They have continued the fight against everyday communalism, narrow-mindedness, bigotry and patriarchy to this day. They have formed themselves into leading NGOs, one of the most prominent being the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA).