‘Hum Saab Ek Hain’ are post–card size, fourcolour stickers conceived of by Waqar Khan, a resident of Dharavi, a large hutment area (also referred to as the largest slum community in Asia) in central Mumbai. Having printed them at his own cost, he has distributed them in thousands among Mumbaikars who cynically forgot this simple homily and for ten days in December 1992 and a few weeks in January 1993 allowed the threads of a shared and cosmopolitan life to be torn to shreds.
This first appeared in September 2001
"Das din ke andar hamne hamare mohalle ki ek galli ke aath naujawanon ki jaan gawayee. Uske baad andar se kuch hua aur hame laga ki jootkar hame kuch karna chahiye" ("In the space of ten days our neighbourhood lost eight young lives. Something stirred within me then and I felt I had to seriously do something".)
That is how, in post– 1992–1993 Bombay, Waqar Khan’s active involvement in Dharavi’s local community began. It was the sheer brutality of the violence that shook him and he felt that he had to devote some time, on a sustained basis to improve relations, increase communications between different communities.
"Gaon kee Ramlila mein hamne Ram ka roop ek adarshputra, praja ka poojya raja mein dekha tha, magar Ram ke naam par loot maar, khoon-kharaba? Kya Ramlila ka Ram aur Ayodhya ka Ram alag alag hai kya?" ("In my village, I imbibed the ideal of Lord Ram through the Ramlila where he is depicted as an ideal son, an revered king of the people. But loot, murder and bloodshed in his name? Is the Ram of the Ramlila different from the Ram of Ayodhya?")
Dharavi was the worst affected locality in the December 1992 round of violence. The schisms ran deep. And one of the legacies of the time was a deewar, a wall, erected between the Hindu and Muslim communities to prevent further interaction and also, violence.
When some semblance of peace was restored, the mohalla ekta (neighbourhood) committees were formed to aid interaction between communities and also with the police. Waqar Khan, began to take an active part. It was here that he met with Bhau Korde, another resident of Dharavi.
Khan and Korde were drawn to each other from the first meeting itself and over the years this has matured into a deep and effective partnership between a local, self–made businessman turned peacemaker and a schoolteacher turned social activist.
Their mutual closeness and their persistence, born out of the belief in and thirst for peace and humanity have today became a living symbol of communal amity in Dharavi.
When they started, people had lost faith in each other; communities that shared spaces and experiences were erecting walls to keep their own side safe! This duo, working tirelessly at opening doors of communication, forcing people to sit together to discuss and dialogue on issues that caused misunderstandings, in a bid to work out local level solutions, explored novel possibilities.
"Our joint presence, coming as we do from two communities, works subtly and well, providing useful entry points and many advantages," says Bhau Korde, while talking to Communalism Combat. "We are seen as representing our respective community and they appreciate this because we are the sane, sensitive and humane voice from the ‘other’ side."
One of their first initiatives was to bring down the wall newly–erected between the communities. It took a whole month of confidential parleys, joint dialogues, insistence on communication. Through it all, Khan’s small shop, the local masjid, the church, the mandir served as the meeting points for the residents to bring their problems to; and, often, to take their solutions from.
Come 1998 and, once more, there was renewed tension. "It was a small matter," says Korde, "that, as is usual, got blown out of all proportion". The dispute was over the erection of a Ganapati mandap for installing the idol during Ganeshutsav, close to a part of Dharavi that has a significant Muslim population. The mandap was meant to be temporary, but Muslims felt that the mandap would lead to a permanent mandir that would then be a perpetual source of tension.
"Once both sides had sat face to face, the apprehensions were dealt with and the matter was cleared," explains Korde. "Once reassured that the mandaps was to be temporary, Muslims even helped in its construction!"
Then, there are the recurrent tensions caused by the playing of music outside mosques at the time of the Ganapati procession, something that creates tensions in Dharavi as also anywhere else. "This practice has entered Dharavi since 1962 and is a potential source of tension," recalls Korde. In 1996, Khan and Korde put their heads together to find some solution to this recurring conflict.
Months before the Ganesh festival, they requested a joint meeting of both communities and began discussions. "Our point was simple. Haan, aapko adhikar zaroor hai, magar ham sab saath rahte ha (Yes, you have a right to play the music. But is this not our shared space?) And look here, namaaz is for Muslims what pooja is for Hindus. So where is the harm, if out of sensitivity and respect for co–existence, we defer the playing of music during the times of namaaz? Is this not the basis for give and take that shared community living is all about?"
It took many weeks but as discussions continued genuine dialogue began. Finally, both sides were agreeable. Since 1996, this locally worked out axiom for mutual co-existence is being followed, more-or-less consistently, in Dharavi.
"With small but effective interventions like these, the entire mindset changes. When genuine dialogue of both communities is facilitated, none of the representatives are talking from a standpoint of ‘ours’ verses ‘theirs’, an unfortunate approach that dictates inter-community relations these days. Suddenly, we are looking collectively at solutions, keeping in mind the sensitivities and concerns of the ‘other’ side."
Through these initiatives, the presence and persistence of Khan was pivotal. His reasoning with his own community, his insistence on listening to both sides finally broke the ice. "Our friendship was born out of the violence," explains Korde. "I was utterly and deeply impressed by Khan’s outlook, his thoughts on tolerance and co-existence. He is a small businessman who has given so much. And he has so much more to contribute than many educated persons".
"Mussalman hone ke naate unki soch ne mujhe hila diya, mujhe bahut prabhavit kiya. Ek saache Mussalman jinko apne dharam par shraddha hein, hamare samaj ko itna de sakte hein." ("His views on various issues as a Muslim deeply impressed me. I realized how much a devout Muslim could contribute to our society").
Khan was born in Bareli, UP to a small, working class family in 1965. At the age of 13, after passing his class VII examinations he came, in 1978, to Mumbai, the mecca of opportunities. His engagement with the city began as a pheriwala doing small business, roaming the city’s streets.
By 1991, he had risen, through sheer dint of hard work and enterprise, to the status of a successful small businessman/trader, which is how he is known in Dharavi today. He got himself married, sent his parents for the Haj pilgrimage. Even before 1992-1993, he used to engage in "chhota-mota social work".
Korde, on the other hand, was born and brought up in Dharavi. Associated with the local school as a teacher, he had a wide acquaintance in the local community. He was deeply interested in the roots and ethnic origins of the communities that made up the huge melting pot that was Dharavi. "But after the riots everything changed and I realised that as someone who lived in Dharavi I have to concentrate on this issue of breakdown of relations between communities," Korde reminisces.
"The critical issue is dialogue," says Korde. "Hindus and Muslims are reacting to each other but not interacting enough with each other. That is how the same, small issues are becoming huge law and order problems. What we need is charcha (discussion) between the affected people and communities, not seminars and workshops! The Dharavi experience tells me that persons seeking solutions just do not speak enough with the people affected."
Post-1992, Khan came up with a novel idea. He summoned the help of a like-minded photographer and captured an ideal image that symbolised his personal yearnings, in a still shot. He chose four young boys of similar age. One was a Hindu, the other Muslim, the third a Sikh and the fourth a Christian.
Dressed up like priests of their respective faiths, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, conveying a simple message: "Ham Sab Ek Hain!" Khan converted this image into tens of thousands of stickers that caught the image of the Mumbai police, too, at the time.
When the image became hugely popular, Khan made laminated posters of them. These posters find a pride of place in many of Mumbai’s police stations today. Adorning the walls behind the inspector-in-charge’s chair at police stations, they are a constant reminder to visitors of the need for unity among us.
Always looking ahead, Khan is today poised to take the ‘Ham Sab Ek Hain’ message to the silver screen. With guidance from his good friend Korde, he penned a script for a brief film on amity and harmony and, as testimony to his quiet audacity, has actually gone ahead and filmed it!
Shot on June 4, 2001, the film is now edited and ready for telecast but now the battle to get it aired on a channel for national viewing is on. The National Foundation for Communal Harmony is seriously considering using the short film as a spot to spread the message of communal harmony.
The funds for the stickers and the film? Profits earned from the small business of large-hearted Khan have gone into printing 50,000 ‘Ham sab ek hai’ stickers (in four-colour) and producing a three-minute film with the same message.
Some might think Khan is foolish, or even possessed. That he is. Possessed by his commitment to promote peace and toleration in Dharavi, and the rest of India. And no one ever told him to put his money where his mouth is.
This article was first published on Communalism Combat.