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Mumbai after Yakub’s Hanging

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The disquiet among Muslims in Mumbai

It is a good day to be a florist. Around 4 pm, Zuber Shaikh, the youngest of his family, takes over the responsibilities of his shop from his mother. Dressed in a salmon shirt, the college-goer sits cross-legged on a ledge, fiddling with his mobile phone until customers rouse him out of inertia. He doesn’t need to hard-sell his wares—mainly rose petals and sabza, stacked in neat clumps on a granite table before him. Since morning, there had been a steady stream of customers lining up to offer homage to the deceased.

It has been nearly 24 hours since the most spectacular funeral he has seen at the cemetery. On the evening of 30 July, by media estimates, Bada Kabristan and the vicinity was swarming with nearly 5,000 people, most of them members of Mumbai’s Muslim community. “It took nearly 25 minutes for them to proceed from the gates to the burial land,” he says. “Try crossing the same distance now. It won’t take any more than two minutes.”
“Where is he buried?” I ask him.

Shaikh points at the east end. One of the largest in the country, the cemetery has served as the resting place for the likes of film actors as well as criminals: be it stars like Mehboob Khan and Nargis; or Allahaj Sheikh Mohammad Kaskar and Shabir Ibrahim Kaskar, family members of gangster Dawood Ibrahim. The passage he is pointing at ends in a fork. “Keep walking till you see a banyan tree,” he says. “You can’t miss it. It’s the grave decked with the most flowers.”

A bearded customer, dressed in a black pathani suit, interrupts us. “Where is Yakub Memon buried?” he asks. Shaikh repeats the directions. The customer parts with Rs 20 and walks away with a bag of rose petals. I follow him. We pass the entrance gates where there is a posse of armed police personnel lounging on chairs. I see a police van looming ahead of us, parked at the side of the most fragrant of graves. A handful of men, young as well as old, their heads bowed respectfully before the resting place of the deceased, are praying under their breath. They are mostly dressed in traditional Islamic attire: white kurta-pyjama, some with skull-caps or turbans. The doors of the van are shut. The driver and gravediggers are engrossed in a quiet conversation.
A couple of minutes after I join the motley gathering, a group of five disengages and starts making their way towards the exit. I go up to them to introduce myself. Many of them are forthcoming about how they feel.

Early morning on 30 July, Yakub Memon had been hanged for his role in the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993. Mohammad Hanif Shaikh, a teacher of Arabic, and four others recall how several residents of their Muslim-dominated colony at Dargah Pankhesha in the suburban Ghatkopar stayed awake the entire night, glued at the news on TV. They are at pains to explain that they do not mean any disrespect for the Supreme Court verdict. They don’t wish to give Memon a clean chit, but believe that the sentencing was politically motivated. Then come the truisms that have been a hallmark of many panel debates and editorials: why aren’t Hindu terrorists dealt with with the same urgency? What about Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi—both accused of murders in the Gujarat riots of 2002? What about the killers of Rajiv Gandhi, sentenced to death but languishing in jail for more than two decades? It’s an argument I hear from almost everyone I interview for this report.

They recall the riots that took place in the city in late 1992 and early 1993, resulting in the death of at least 900 people. The financial losses suffered by Tiger Memon, the prime accused and conspirator of the serial blasts, and his anger at Muslims having borne the brunt of the post-Babri communal carnage, are what most believe motivated the serial blasts of 1993. “I was only 10 years old when the riots took place after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. I remember how nearly 300 to 400 people had set up a refugee camp in our locality. They had lost everything and had sought shelter in the mosque,” says Shaikh, before charging Hindu political leaders with inflaming communal sentiments.

While we are engaged in conversation, three more people have managed to sneak within earshot. They lurk around, sitting on the periphery of the sidewalk. The one sitting closest to us is taking a keen interest in a twig.

Insaaf kahin na kahin ghut gaya, ye samajh mein aa raha hai (Somewhere, justice has been strangled, we now understand),” Shaikh concludes passionately.

Back at the grave, the van drivers and gravediggers seem to have reached an understanding. They are now unloading a body covered in white sheets. The stench of a corpse fills the air, though the mourners stay put. One of them has been clicking photographs. Not knowing that the cemetery is a no-photograph zone, I decide to attempt taking one myself. Within seconds, a man under a canopy a few steps away summons me. Along with him are the three men I had seen overhearing the conversation I was having minutes ago.

“Mohammad Ansari Shaikh. I am a part of the trust that manages this cemetery,” says the man in his early forties. He is clean-shaven and wearing a chequered shirt and trousers. Asked to furnish my identity proof and purpose of visit, I immediately delete the photographs I might have taken. Nearly a dozen questions are belted out in the next few minutes before the police constable in plainclothes—no surprise there—lets his guard down and tells me of his Hindu origins. “You can never be too sure,” he says. I take a look at the mourners. The person taking the pictures is now being accosted by cops in plainclothes. The cop, it turns out, is a garrulous man. At one point, as we are discussing the current rift between the city’s two communities that the hanging appears to have created, he asks me about my marital status and doles out nuggets on family planning: make sure you have more than one kid; otherwise, Muslims will outnumber “us” one day. He, for one, has done his duty.

In the days leading up to the execution, there were meetings conducted between the Mumbai Police and Muslim community leaders in several parts of the city to ensure that no untoward incident takes place. A senior IPS officer, on the condition of anonymity, recalls that at the meeting he had conducted a week before the hanging, the community members seemed mostly indifferent.

“But in the second meeting that we conducted a day ago, I could sense some unrest,” he says. The officer attributes it to the sweeping coverage devoted by almost all sections of the media to the execution and the accompanying “dramatic minute by minute updates, as if it were a part of a movie”. The officer was one of those in charge of Mahim, a Muslim stronghold and the place where Yakub’s family resides. The executed convict’s body was to be flown to Mumbai on the same day of the execution, and the cops had anticipated a huge turnout. “I was out on the streets, taking stock of the arrangements till 4 am. Hardly any of the residents there had slept the entire night,” he adds.

Towards the morning, as they had expected, the crowd of 200 snowballed into nearly 2,000 people. Shops located on an otherwise boisterous Cadell Road and Dargah Street, the lanes leading up the Memon residence, were shut throughout the day. In another part of the city, Quresh Electricwala, who runs a maintenance shop for electrical appliances in the Muslim dominated Chor Bazaar area of Byculla, tells me that local goons in his area were going around warning people against opening shops. “When I reached my shop around 11.30 am, I opened it anyway. Mine is not a showroom that they usually like to destroy,” he says.

While shop shutters were pulled open the next day and the city resumed its course, several sensitive areas in Kurla, Mahim and Byculla saw armed personnel being deployed at sensitive points—outside mosques, near traffic junctions and the roads leading to the cemetery. There were no protests or processions that took place on the day of the execution, nor were the ones following it marred by any communal occurrence. But, as the officer tells me, with over a hundred cops deployed outside the Mahim dargah even four days after the incident, the police are taking no chances.

There was a media gag against the live broadcast of the funeral. At the same time, the police were helpless against the camera-phone toting crowd. As a result, two sets of images instantly went viral over social networking platforms. One of them was a clip from a Bollywood movie that purportedly were of Yakub’s last moments at the gallows, and the second, a picture of his bare face wrapped in a plastic sheet.

“We blocked around 10-15 inflammatory posts doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. While there have been no cases registered, we are trying to track down the people circulating rumours on WhatsApp,” said DCP Dhananjay Kulkarni, spokesperson for Mumbai Police. He added that no arrests had been made.

A couple of days later, I meet Azim Nishamuddin Kirkire, a businessman who lives in the same neighbourhood as the Memon family in Mahim. “The blasts were an emotional reaction to the riots that took place a few months before that. Those responsible tainted the name of his family and his religion. But had Yakub Memon been responsible, he would not have returned to the country,” says Kirkire.

Though flawed, it’s this conventional wisdom that is vocalised every time I speak to people. His guilt aside, the Yakub Memon case has become symbolic of the marginalisation felt by the community. All this comes in the context of several moves made by the ruling BJP government at the state and the Centre, largely viewed as anti-minority.

In March, the Maharashtra government refused to renew an ordinance passed by the previous government providing 5 per cent reservation to Muslims in jobs and education. The same month, the state passed an anti cow-slaughter law, thus endangering livelihood of thousands of butchers who mostly hail from the community. The previous year, a shrill campaign against ‘love jihad’ was mounted by Sangh Parivar affiliates of the BJP like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), where raucous accusations were levelled against Muslims of conspiring to marry Hindu girls and converting them to Islam. The most recent salvo came when Tathagata Roy, a former BJP President of West Bengal and now the Governor of Tripura, tweeted that those who attended the funeral of Yakub Memon were ‘potential terrorists’. The discord was articulated by the AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi when in a public rally, he suggested that the Government was using religion as a factor while pursuing death penalties.

I am told all this and more in interactions I have with locals. One says rather lyrically, “Hum aah bhi karein toh ho jaate hai badnaam, woh qatal bhi karein toh charcha nahi hoti (We are badmouthed even if we sigh, they aren’t talked about even if they slaughter).”
Over time, what started out as a plea for clemency has almost transformed Yakub into a martyr, the victim of political forces and circumstances far larger than he could take on. A day after his execution, several mosques across the city held ‘Quran khani’ or prayers for the deceased. It’s a tradition that is held in honour of the departed.

“On the day of his execution, there were many who had gathered here till midnight,” says Raees Ahmed, general secretary of Sunni Badi Masjid in Madanpura. “They wanted to organise processions, unfurl black flags. We knew this could create trouble. Instead, we decided to get them together inside the mosque. This ensured that they had an opportunity to vent their emotions but in a controlled environment, through prayers.”

I was initiated into this gathering by a text message informing me of prayers to be held in the memory of ‘Shaheed’ Yaqub Memon, an Urdu term for ‘martyr’. A couple of hours before the scheduled time, cops started trooping in and posted themselves around the venue. Around 9.30 pm, after the final namaaz for the day, booklets were distributed to a gathering of around 250 people. For the better part of the hour, the opulent halls of the mosque hummed with people praying for the departed. Finally, it was time for the final address by the imam.

“Lord, let all his sins be forgiven,” says the preacher, in a calm but resolute voice. “Let all his mistakes be forgiven... For every moment of suffering, please shower him with your blessings... Lord, open the windows of heaven for his grave... Let his grave be made fragrant with the breeze from the heaven... Lord, nobody can escape your court... The greed in this life due to which a Muslim is falling prey to other Muslims, please help us get to the right path...”
After every line, one hears the refrain of the day’s mourners: “Ameen (Amen).”