Home Page

  Communalism Combat

  India Rights & Wrongs







  Action Alerts




  Resources for



  About us


  Contact Us


  Sabrang Team













September 11, 2007

An experiment yet to take off

By Amit Bhelari

Politicians and individuals need to wind back to the earth-shattering events over the year to see how much mohalla committees have had to work with society to keep peace in the city. There have been many aggravations, enough reason for communal sentiment to assume repulsive forms, rumours of the Quran burning in Delhi, communal violence in nearby Malegaon, the destruction of the WTC in the United States by terrorists and most recently, the fallout of the Gujarat carnage, 2002. On none of these occasions, however, was peace breached in Mumbai.

The concept of the Mohalla Committee was initially given a push by F.T.Khorakiwala, former sheriff of Mumbai, as a project to establish citizens-police committees in the 72 police station areas after the Bombay post-Babri Masjid demolition violence in 1992-1993. The genesis lies with then DCP (Deputy Commissioner of Police) Bhiwandi. Suresh Khopde’s experiment way back in 1988. One Central Peace Committee with 75 local committees in each of Bhiwandi’s muncipal wards. He took charge in this powerloom township after the bloodshed of 1984 commonly knows as Bhiwandi Danga. In April 1994 with the help of erstwhile DGP of Punjab Julio Ribeiro and social worker Sushobha Barve  and extensive support of the then police commissioner of Mumbai,  Satish Sahney, 24 active mohalla committees were set up in communally sensitive areas of Mumbai. Members were responsible citizens of an area without any political affiliation or communal or controversial background.

The mohalla committees in Mumbai began, providing a site for an interface of civil society with state actors especially from law enforcement. Local initiative made all the difference. Concerted efforts were initiated by citizens and various organizations to provide a space for exchanges. To heal the wounds of those displaced and devastated by brute violence. The government, especially its police, too realized that it had suffered loss of credibility vis-à-vis people, and decided to channelise its resources and efforts through the non-government organisations. The mohalla committee played a significant role in building bridges between Hindus and Muslims. The most important and essential aspect of the work was to create an ambience and open a channel of communication between the police and citizen and particularly the minority Muslims community to re-establish trust and confidence in the system.

To quote Satish Sahney, “The two communities were never so divided as they were in 1993.Police credibility was at its lowest, particularly among the Muslims. They were not willing to even take a complaint to the police, which is a very dangerous situation.” .There was urgent need to bring a change in the attitude of the police,

City of Mumbai faced one of the worst outbreaks of violence towards the end of 1992 and the beginning of 1993. The animosity between Hindus and Muslims and the inability of the state to respond effectively were demonstrated on a scale never before witnessed in the city. Thousands of men were butchered and some women even victim of sexual violence; there was the targeting of minorities on a large scale. This has been established in the Justice B.N. ShriKrishna Commission Report. The Inquiry was set up to inquire into the riots at Mumbai during December 1992-January 1993. Minorities were affected most in the riots. The horrendous devastation tore apart the both communities, concerned citizens and some sections of the police came forward to extinguish the fires caused by hatred, and one of the outcomes of these efforts was the establishment of mohalla committees.

A mohalla committee was set up at each of the Police stations with a view to maintain peace and communal harmony amongst the citizens belonging to different castes, creed and religions. Maria Ishwaran the Coordinator of Women’s Grievances Redressal Cell and facilitator in Mohalla Committee at Andheri, MIDC states that noble ideals apart, today, the agenda has changed; there is hardly any co-operation from the police. The dream of a vibrant network of citizen-police interfaces within Mumbai has been shattered and is today on the brink of collapse. The reason, she says, possibly because there is not enough and consistent grass root level work. Out of 83 police stations only 33 today have the mohalla committee that is not even 50% of the total. The figures speak. Committee workers have failed to expand this concept out of their own respective areas.

So, sixteen years down the road, where do these attempts at community policing and peace building, stand? Do they exist in letter and spirit? To quote Julio Ribeiro, former supercop and one of the key movers behind this concept, “There is not much support from the police and a stereotypical perception has forced cops not to entertain any complaint particularly from the Muslims. At times the police are biased in their approach, at other times incoherent during interactions with the minority community. When it comes to handling of cases, or interrogations, a downright bias shows up. There is a also a lack of transparency towards this section of our people. There has been an enormous loss of credibility for our city police”.

When did the deterioration of this attempt at peace-building start?  Says Ribeiro, regretfully the erosion began under the tenure of R.D. Tyagi, a former Joint Commissioner of Police Mumbai who later became Commissioner in 1995. Tyagi actively worked to destroy the working of the mohalla committees; he launched his own organisations having the same name but this attempt did not succeed. Tyagi is also one of those 31 policemen indicted by Justice BN Srikrishna in his report; he is accused of ordering the killing of 9 bakery workers at the Suleiman Usman Bakery in the Report. The report also recommends that he should be prosecuted, after retirement as police commissioner,  he joined hands with the Shiv Sena.

Citizens like Waqar Khan and Ramchandra Korde also known as Bhau Korde are working on the ground level in Dharavi; the Dharavi mohalla committee is the best example of amity. They have been associated with the mohalla committee trust since it is established. Khan and Korde are one of the oldest residents in Dharavi, and therefore, when Bombay burned in 92-93 and the city was scarred beyond recognition, they both decided to create an environment of communal harmony. Khan used local children to pose for a picture of religious clerics--one a Muslim, a Hindu, a Sikh and a Christian, the picture bearing the slogan “Hum Sab Ek Hai” which is ubiquitous at most of the police stations in Mumbai. This poster was put up on Juhu Chowpatty as a hoarding for many years to convey the message of secularism and brotherhood.

Bhau Korde, says, ‘‘The method we use to build confidence or bhaichara depends on the area and the mood that day. Some days we have had to do some tough-talking, on other days we sit around with as many people as possible and just chat. The idea is: let the leaders create a bad situation, we won’t react to it’’.

Mohalla Committee members also intervene in small local disputes or even to intermediate in domestic quarrels and organize meetings if necessary. Yasmin Shaikh commonly know as “Yashmin Appa” is one of the coordinators of the mohalla committee and is also looking after the Mahila Takrar Nivaran Kendra at Nagpada police station. This centre has established a network among Muslim women and youth in the area. By profession she is an advocate but involved herself with the local mohalla committee since 1994. Her colleagues and she make every possible effort to maintain peace. She is always surrounded by people from the local community, visiting her office with their grievances and she tries to ensure that these are solved at the community level without taking recourse to lengthy legal procedures. Active and dynamic, she also opines that an absence of purpose on the part of the police combined with an ignorance of the culture and traditions of the Muslim minority, have widened the gap between the police and the minorities.

Cricket is a national passion and the mohalla committee trust has used cricket competitions as one of the core activities of the organization, several times a year. How can cricket matches and painting competitions diffuse tensions and help resolve conflict? A resident of Behrampada, one of the worst affected areas of 1992-1993,  says “If youngsters from both communities play together, cricket can be a uniting factor in place of conflict between the two communities”. The idea was born after a match between India and Pakistan gave rise to some tension, years back.  Other trivial, civic issues often degenerate into violence when Communities are already divided and suspicious of each other.

Recalls a resident of Imamwada in central Mumbai, this area was brought to the brink of a riot, when an old man in a balcony carelessly blew his nose at some youngsters standing below. In another case, the communal divide in Madanpura’s Afzal chawl came to the fore when water dripped from linen left to dry on a second-floor clothesline, onto some persons below. Local living conditions play a role in exacerbating a conflict The Versova mohalla committee, has established ‘Agaz’, a street theatre group to perform street plays on the theme of communal harmony. “It does spread message of amity in our society”, said by of the resident of Versova.

It is a moment of profound test for all our institutions. The shame of the mass victim survivors of the Gujarat carnage of 2002 a living reality is matched by the brutality of farmers being shot dead in Nandigram by the police. In Maharashtra, the brutal humiliation and massacre of a Dalit family at Khairlanji is overshadowed by the cold callousness of the police against Dalit protestors—in Nagpur, the police pulled out a 55 year old women and other protestors from their homes and thrashed them while in Amravati a protesting rickshaw driver was shot point blank in the head by the police.

Why have the mohalla committees not addressed these issues in a bid to expand their expanse and depth?  In Dharavi itself, the issue of religious processions and their passages through local communities remains unresolved. The issue included the passage of the Ganapathi procession in front of the main Mosque of the area. The pandals of Ganesha are so big that it becomes difficult for others to cross the road, apparently it arises tension between the communities. Several years after its formation, despite the intervention of the mohalla Committee, a solution has not been found.

According to stalwarts, while initially, people show enthusiasm for the work of the mohalla committee, this interest is difficult to sustain. The involvement of the members from the middle class is peripheral to say the least. Very often people join these committees, because of their desire to increase their sphere of influence and power or in furtherance of a personal agenda. At times the use of political influence tries to shape and influence the spirit and functioning of the mohalla committees, losing them their independence. If anti-social elements seek and get membership, it becomes difficult to find even ten committed workers in the locality to join, says Mr.Virochan Raote a coordinator of the mohalla committee trust.

Recently the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice K.G.Balakrishnan asked the petitioners seeking the implementation of the Srikrishna Commission report on the 1992-93 Mumbai riots to file an affidavit detailing the state government’s alleged lapses in taking action against those involved. Suddenly the Shiv Sainiks went berserk and criticized the campaign Justice for All,  for the reopening of the Srikrishna report. There exists institutionalised prejudice against the Muslim minority within government and even the police establishment. This is evident in the manner in which they treated the two cases of unjustified firing by policemen at Suleman Bakery and Hari Masjid against innocents have progressed. With obvious attempts by fanatical elements set to communalise a constitutional demand for justice, the possibility of ground level conflict cannot be ruled out. Are Mumbai’s mohalla committees taking any measures to stabilize the situation?

The idea was born from an experiment made by Pune Railways Commissioner of Police and former DCP of Bhiwandi, Suresh Khopde in 1984. To quote from his book, Bhiwandi Danga, “We need to understand the socio-economic conditions of our society and has to work with the masses”. He examines that factor in a communal riot that makes enemies out of neighbours, even friends. He has accepted that the functioning of our police system is also somewhere responsible in creating alienation among Muslims.

A truly unfortunate reason for the failure of this experiment in Mumbai, after the fires of 1992-1993 is the fact that persons in high positions including police commissioners, were not willing to extend their support to the mohalla committee. An experiment o this unique kind, needs hands down involvement among the committee members, an ability to dialogue and debate serious issues. Local issues will war with the national often one impinging on the other. The tact and commitment will lie in unraveling the layers and dealing with the questions and resentments below.

The mohalla committee experiment is a scientifically proven scheme of intervention, accepted by social scientists but it also requires changes and modifications in different areas and situations so that the message of communal harmony can reach to the maximum number. The path ahead for the mohalla committees is not easy. There are some obstacles within the system that denies self-correction and introspection especially if it involves questioning the mindset of the people. To ensure revival of this experiment and success, a dogged commitment by hands down team is necessary. Those that will today work to activate and revive this much needed experiment will have to draw from our neighbourhoods their plurality and diversity and learn, painfully, how to make this our greatest investment and strength.