Building bridges

    Building bridges

    A report on the ‘Connecting Communities Project’ initiated by the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation to bridge communal divides through dialogue and jointly tackle other community issues, which has had encouraging results in Mumbai’s Mahim area


    The riots of 1992-93 and the bomb blasts that followed in Mumbai unleashed a trail of alienation between religious communities. Subsequent events have simply encouraged pessimism about being able to build broken down bridges. The near total ghettoisation of the Muslim population and a deepening of the feeling of separateness between Hindus and Muslims only worsened after Godhra and the Gujarat riots of 2002. Of course, Mumbai did not erupt despite the six bomb blasts that followed the Gujarat riots and the all-round demonisation of Muslims that came after the 9/11 attack. However, the absence of a full-scale riot cannot be seen as an indication that all is well. More than ever, the insidious campaign to foster suspicions and strengthen communal prejudices has gained sophistication.

    As it is, even for peace activists it has been a time of questioning and bewilderment. What is more important, justice or reconciliation? How does one deal with the ghettoisation (even schools have been impacted by this)? How does one handle people’s cynicism about the near lack of accountability shown by politicians?

    In such an atmosphere the foremost need is for daily interaction between different religious communities. How to encourage this is one of the most important tasks that face peace activists. The Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR) initiated the Connecting Communities project by beginning work on its Dialogue Model in Mahim in Mumbai.


    The objectives were:

    1) Bringing communities together and initiating dialogues of understanding and trust between them.
    2) Understanding the grievances of the communities in the neighbourhood through wider community dialogues.
    3) Providing a platform through dialogue groups to air grievances, decommunalise them and find ways to redress them.

    4) Connecting communities and those in the city and state administration.

    5) Exploring and setting up redressal mechanisms at various levels to reduce the risk of violence that can be activated at critical times to defuse tensions.

    Putting these objectives into practice was a long and continuous process. In the course of this process, the project succeeded in building up, in the ordinary citizen, the skills to:

    • See possibilities for action where there was hopelessness before;
    • Respond to hostile reactions with restraint;
    • Methods of dispute resolution;
    • Deal with bureaucratic red tape and delays;
    • Call forth ideas and suggestions from the neighbourhood community; and most importantly,
    • Create confidence in the youth there that they can tackle community issues.

    Looking at the objectives and the skills that it has built up in the group, it would be obvious that the path was not a smooth, even one. But we shall look at the highs and lows in detail a little later.


    The location and its history

    With four major hospitals, the Mahim fort and three famous religious places belonging to the three major religions – Hindu, Muslim and Christian, Mahim hosts an incredible amount of vehicular and human traffic (nearly 400,000 people cross over from east to west in the area daily).  The three places of worship, which attract a large number of people from different faiths, are Sitla Devi temple, the Mahim Dargah and St. Michael’s Church. Connecting the northern and southern parts of Mumbai, it is the last ‘city’ point before the suburbs begin and the earliest human habitation here is traced to 400 years ago. Then packed with mangroves, coconut ‘wadis’ and hardly any development, it has now turned into a bustling, even congested, area. The rapid ‘development’ of the area has led to a number of civic problems and tensions that cry out for solutions.

    CDR decided upon the area around the Dargah to work on the Dialogue Model. CDR’s chief project coordinator Sushobha Barve’s intimate knowledge of the area and communities living there from her work through the 1990s (she was among the original band of social activists and concerned citizens who formed the Mohalla Committees in the aftermath of the ’92-’93 riots),  helped in finding the right people for the dialogue and nearly 15 residents representing the three religious communities were invited to a meeting. She held several preparatory meetings before the project began. A few of them had been members of Mohalla Committees while some others had been active in the Mahim Citizens Forum. These members thus had already had some experience with working in a group on civic issues – an aspect that influenced group dynamics greatly.

    The sessions saw the members grappling with ignorance about communities other than one’s own, getting to know their neighbourhood, sharing painful memories and most importantly, dealing with emotionally charged differences which do not have immediate solutions. What followed also showed clearly how the process of building communal amity requires to be cemented by larger civic and environmental issues that touch the daily lives of citizens. Theorising about communal issues in a vacuum, even if those issues are uppermost in the minds of group members, is a fruitless attempt.

    These sessions were conducted based on the Dialogue Model devised by the CDR and are illustrative of how the model works.


    Mixing, comparing, observing

    Session 1 encouraged the participants to undertake a vision exercise for the area. And ask themselves: Is this vision achievable?

    A two-day workshop at the Nehru Centre in June 2004 served to test the waters and was then followed by a one-day workshop in Mahim itself.
    There were three-four Muslim members in this group of 15. The group was asked to prepare a Vision Mission for Mahim following a vision exercise. The overall insights that emerged were interesting and can be summarised in this dialogue the group went through:

    "The Mahim of the pre-riots period and even 50 years ago was marked by peaceful coexistence."

    "So what went wrong?"

    "Outsiders have been sowing the poison of differences and discord."

    "So, why are we fighting?"

    "We want a Clean and Green Mahim."

    "I want my Mahim to be…"

    The topics for Vision Mahim were: Garbage to Gold, Beautiful Seashore, Mahim beats to the Rhythm of Youth Music, Teamwork and Communal Harmony. Of course, the common issue that emerged was that of wanting a Clean and Green Mahim.

    The group also enumerated the host of ills that plagued their area – hotels paid by devotees to feed beggars causing severe traffic nuisance, drug addicts taking up open spaces, suspicions that a local banana seller was trying to induce the drug habit into school children by first enticing them with free bananas. Incidentally, school children from five institutions pass through the area.

    From here the group moved to slightly more individual and emotive subjects: How the participants experienced the Mumbai riots, what is needed for a dialogue, what is listening. Expectedly, a lot of hurt and bitterness came to the surface when talking about the riots. Hindu and Muslim members each had harboured the opinion that the police somehow favoured the ‘other’ community and this too was aired.

    Session 2 consisted of the members going on a sort of ‘study tour’ of the area. How much did they know of the area they had lived in for decades and called home?

    What a lot of insights and observations the visits unleashed! Members went to each of the three places of worship that bring thousands upon thousands of devotees to their area daily as well as on ‘special’ days. Tuesday was the turn of the Sitla Devi temple, Wednesday the St. Michael’s Church and on a Thursday they visited the Mahim Dargah. A special visit was to the fishing community’s residential area. The ‘Kolis’, as they are called, are known to be the original inhabitants of the seven islands (Mahim was one of them) that constituted Mumbai. Land reclamation and now a wall between their homes and the sea has literally hemmed in the Kolis, depriving them of space and light from their beloved sea. Since many from the group were first time visitors, the condition of these families came as an eye-opener.

    Session 3 was time for sharing insights acquired during the visits to places of worship. Was it their first visit and what were their expectations before and perceptions after the visit?
    The sharing that followed was not an easy-going affair throughout. When the discussion led to Muslim members talking about the differences between those who wanted the Dargah worship stopped and others who wanted it, a Muslim woman member was distressed enough to want to stop the talk. She wanted the agenda to focus on communal harmony and not points of dispute. Sadly, the group lost her participation after this meeting.

    The issue of ‘azaan’ or the call to prayer over loudspeakers from Muslim mosques, and the unhappiness of non-Muslim residents in the vicinity over this, is a bone of contention in many areas in Mumbai. It was inevitable that it would crop up at this meeting especially as one of the members admitted that she had been spearheading the demand for a stop on use of loudspeakers. The Muslim members became defensive and pointed to the early morning rituals of other religions. The Hindu member tried to explain that since the Supreme Court had forbidden use of loudspeakers between 11 p.m. – 7 a.m. and this was being enforced for Hindu celebrations, the early morning azaan should not use loudspeakers.  Since emotions ran rather high on this issue, the facilitator (Ms. Barve) suggested taking it up at another time and concluded the session.

    Session 4: Group members discussed three questions:

    1) What have you heard from your parents, teachers while growing up about other communities?

    2) Did you have an opportunity to meet and interact with members of other communities?

    3) Which ones? Can you relate experiences about these interactions?

    Considering the nature of these questions, not surprisingly they brought forth sharing at an intense level. One participant shared how on each visit to a South Indian Hindu friend she was asked to leave all her belongings, including her handbag, outside before entering the house. Others spoke of how they had heard stories of why the other community should not be trusted although they did not personally have any bad experiences. Another distressing discovery at the meeting was that the Catholic community shared similar prejudices against the Muslims as the Hindus. There was suppressed anger about the way the Muslims had changed Mahim demographically and ousted them from some areas of Mahim.

    The contentious issue of azaan resurfaced. The facilitator could sense that a discordant note had been sounded in the group. It was a difficult moment for the facilitator. To stop the discussion would have sent the message that the group was not prepared to take up any disputed topics. On the other hand, continuing the discussion meant risking the dialogue process. The facilitator wound up the day’s discussion by saying, "If your group can find some amicable solution to this issue of ‘azaan on loud speakers,’ you would have something to offer in way of a solution for the rest of the city." 

    Session 5: This meeting took up some very crucial issues: 

    • Have you or any members of your family suffered from prejudice or discrimination?
    • Is there some aspect of your personal or community experience (past or present) that you feel is not being heard properly or correctly acknowledged?
    • What are the episodes of past and current history that cause feelings of rancour or are irritants that prevent us from approaching any particular community?

    After an initial hesitation, members began to share some disturbing memories. A Muslim member spoke of how some months after the Mumbai riots there was a communal disturbance in Mahim when the police had to open fire to quell the mob. The group member and his son were caught in the crossfire while returning home and suffered bullet injuries. They were taken to the hospital for treatment.  As is the routine in cases of bullet injuries – their cases were registered under riot related sections. Later, as the police did not have names of the rioting mob, 50 fictitious names were added to the FIR along with those of the father and son. The case is still pending before the local court. This has meant deep humiliation for this respected figure in the locality. But it has also caused a lot of inconvenience each month as the group member has to spend long hours with his lawyer in the court waiting for the case to be heard and discharged. It cannot be discharged without all those named in the FIR appearing in court.

    The discussion group members were deeply shocked to hear that charges of attempt to murder, rioting, were levelled against him. They wanted to know if there was anything they could do to help get the case speedily discharged. For most of the Hindus and Christians, who have not seen this face of law enforcement, it had a deep impact. The sharing and the spontaneous offers of help brought psychological healing to the Muslim member and helped others understand his anti-police attitude and ill temper.

    A Hindu member narrated her experience of the Mumbai riots. Her home faces the Muslim locality and overlooks the local mosque. One night the Muslim mobs had started pelting stones that landed in her flat. They had to vacate the flat for several days to a safer place. She confessed that her housing society had an unwritten rule not to allow any Muslim to own a flat despite the fact that the original property belonged to a Muslim woman. She seemed apologetic. The woman was amongst the most forceful in the discussion group. There are scores of other housing societies in Mumbai that have such unwritten rules regarding Muslims and in fact many societies have even turned away prospective Muslim buyers during the past decade. This has forced many educated middle class and upper class Muslims to leave mixed localities and move to Muslim majority pockets of the city. Thus creating ghettoisation, as seen in the pocket of Mahim where our discussion group had been meeting.

    Some of the Muslim members skipped this meeting despite promises to be present. The facilitator found that there was deep unhappiness among them over the morning azaan on loudspeakers issue. The dialogue process was now threatened. A conflict had arisen within the group, which needed to be handled sensitively and also creatively. The chief facilitator decided to have individual meetings with each dialogue group member to find out and understand what was going on. This was time consuming but necessary to get the dialogue unstuck. In the following week these individual meetings took place. Other group members were also enlisted to reassure and help.

    A Muslim member spoke about the example of a locality in Central Mumbai where Muslims are in a minority, surrounded by Hindus. There, similar issues had created a conflict. The local Muslims found an amicable solution. The local television cable service brought the azaan straight from the mosque into the homes of Muslims without disturbing the neighbourhood with the noise of loudspeakers. As she narrated this the woman said, "In these days of high technology it is not impossible to find amicable solutions to this issue." She agreed with the facilitator that what was needed were open minds and not attitudes that made assumptions or were stuck in the old arguments.

    At the end of the week all those who had stayed away from the dialogue sessions agreed to attend the next session. In consultation with other facilitators the following session was modified. It was decided that at this stage it was far more important to ensure that community relations did not break down, as most of the dialogue group members were influential figures in their respective communities. The meeting decided to take up some practical measures without giving this issue undue importance.

    Session 6 examined possibilities of important decisions to be taken – admitting that this issue had no solution or that at the moment they had not resolved it and could take this up at a later date when they were more prepared to look at it through fresh minds and ideas.

    How important is this conflict? How important is it for me? Does it serve the interests of the widest number of people and create goodwill amongst them? Do I need to embarrass, hurt or humiliate this person publicly?

    At this session on August 13, all the dialogue group members, including the Muslim members who had stayed away during the earlier session, turned up. The facilitator decided to acknowledge the courage of the member who raised the issue in front of the Muslims and the courage of the Muslims to sit through the sessions and listen to what they did not like to hear. The facilitator did not wish to brush aside the point of dispute but to put it aside for the moment.

    The group was led through methods of dealing with conflict and the points that could be remembered while in conflict. One of the points mentioned was POV or Point of View Glasses. The need to wear these or develop an ability to see another’s point of view.

    The group decided to take up some constructive activity that would help the public. The members had put up a chart showing the Vision Mission for Mahim. They decided to tackle the garbage issue that was a great nuisance to the residents regardless of which community they belonged to. The RC Mahim School became the focus of this campaign and a young man, Ashraf, was appointed co-coordinator for the campaign. When the session ended, one of the Muslim members – a woman – told the facilitator, "I find new courage and hope today. Thank you for persuading me to come. Change is possible. I am going to be part of this new campaign and I would work with the Hindu woman. She has so much experience and she has succeeded in making her housing society a zero garbage area. We have so much to learn from her."

    The group members felt that they had triumphed against the odds and retained a sense of unity in the group.


    Finding their voice

    The journey thus begun by the 15 members entered its next phase with the decision to roll back their sleeves and get down to cleaning the streets – almost literally. This phase brought them into contact with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) bureaucracy, the local politicians and the police, and up against some of their own apprehensions. Of course, it helped that many of the older members were not new to working on community issues.

    The youth, especially the Muslim youth, had many lessons to learn. For many of them, the demonisation of their community as violent has meant being painted into a corner. Unemployment and the oft-reinforced feeling that the police and bureaucratic machinery is anti-Muslim has led them to despair of finding solutions to their difficulties, big and small. This feeling of despair was challenged by the activities undertaken – it helped that one of their own (Ashraf) was the coordinator. The older group members, for their part, realised that it takes tact and empathy to deal with youth who are battling their own insecurities.

    For the neighbourhood it meant that they saw the efficacy of unity in the face of adversity and creating hope in the place of hopelessness about improving their surroundings. It also meant learning patience while dealing with the bureaucracy and the cynics among them, over a series of meetings and attempts to convince – No shortcuts.

    The group decided to first tackle the area called Balamiya Lane and focus on the garbage dump right outside the RC Mahim School.

    What follows is almost a blueprint for other citizens and a step-by-step guide to cleaning local areas. Even here, though, there was a slight feeling of injustice and tension. The eateries around the Dargah are paid by devotees to feed beggars and are responsible for the traffic chaos and producing a huge amount of garbage. The Muslim members were at pains to point out that the devotees who came in cars were not necessarily all Muslims but belonged to other faiths too. Another associated problem is that of drug addicts who pretend to be beggars but connive with the hotel owners to take a ‘cut’ of the money given by the devotees. They do not eat the food but use the money to feed their drug habit.

    Conceived and mooted by Ratnakar Gaikwad, deputy municipal commissioner (BMC), attempts are being made to implement Advanced Locality Management Systems (ALM) in each and every by-lane of Mumbai. Herein, residents of a street are encouraged to collectively tackle issues related to garbage segregation and collection. Other issues such as constructing storm water drains, roads, electricity, encroachment and traffic are also addressed by these ALMs.
    The first meeting of around 100 Balamiya Lane residents and the members of the Dialogue Groups took place on Friday, August 21, 2004. Officials of the garbage department of the G-North ward, BMC, and a member of the Stree Mukti Sanghatana were also present at the meeting. The participants were divided into discussion groups with Ashraf talking to the youth group, Simon concentrating on the senior citizens and Bulu addressing the women.

    The meeting took place on the road, opposite the four large garbage bins where the garbage from the locality was dumped. The concept of segregating wet and dry garbage and asking the BMC to send the ‘ghantagadi’ to collect it was explained to them. (These ghantagadis come twice a day to collect garbage from residential areas). The hotels and eateries in the vicinity used to dump most of the garbage in the bins – three-fourths of the garbage was from the hotels and one-fourth from residential buildings.  BMC officials said they would be willing to send the ghantagadi to collect the garbage from residential buildings. About the garbage produced by the hotels, they were told that the BMC garbage vans collected it from these hotels between 10-12 p.m. They also suggested that the residents prepare a list of hotels and eateries that were dumping garbage in that street.
    This list of hotels on LJ Marg, Balamiya Lane and Veer Savarkar Road was submitted.

    On August 27, 2004 another meeting took place at RC Mahim School. Present was the superintendent of garbage, BMC, Mr. Parmar, along with members from Stree Mukti Sanghatana, to explain about segregation, vermiculture and recycling of garbage. At the second meeting most members of the Dialogue Group, Citizens Forum and three officers of the BMC too were present. The residents and Ashraf spoke up about the health hazards faced by the schoolchildren and the residents due to the dump right outside the classrooms and their homes.

    Residents also complained about the kabab hawkers in their lane who simply dumped the meat leavings in the open, forcing them to keep shut all the windows and doors in their building. These hawkers had set up their stalls in the past decade. Despite living in a good residential building the surroundings looked like a slum. Indeed, several families had moved away as a result. Mr. Parmar announced his intention to write to the deputy chief engineer to sanction a van for garbage collection in the area. However, a few residents were sceptical that anything would happen at all and that even if the dump was moved, squatters would promptly move into the cleared space. But others came forward to help, enthused by the visit of the BMC officials. They listed the other problems: Drug addicts, beggars, potholes and open drainage.

    The residents were now firm on forming an ALM or Advanced Locality Management cell. The ward officer, actually pleased with the initiative taken by these residents, even brushed aside the pleas of his subordinates that the BMC did not have enough vans. He directed them to hire these from a private contractor. He also dictated two notices – one for the residents of Balamiya Lane and the other for the hotels in the vicinity of the lane. The notice read: "BMC will send a Ghantagadi to your lane between 9 a.m.-12 noon, to collect garbage. The fine for throwing garbage anywhere except the ghantagadi was Rs. 1,000. Three such violations by the hotels are liable for cancellation of licences."

    At the fourth meeting on September 26 – it was a Sunday and the meeting took place in the big hall of RC Mahim School – everyone including the youth group worked hard. At each building, notices for the meeting were pasted. MESCO helped by providing 150 chairs, stage, mike and sound system, a peon and two watchmen of the school.
    Nearly 103 people attended the meeting. Dialogue group members explained about cleanliness and communal harmony. We also explained the concept of ALM. People had many questions to ask. Fifteen persons showed willingness to join the ALM. The following measures were put into place:

    One member from each building was selected to sit on the governing body, collect a fixed amount of money each month from every household and inform the residents about the activities and meetings of the ALM.

    At each meeting, it was decided that one problem from a specified area would be taken up with the BMC by a core group. This committee would coordinate with the building representatives for contributions to the ALM. The core group would intervene in case of non-payments.

    The governing body would maintain contact with the local police, RTO, BMC, other government departments and NGOs who would help us in our endeavours.
    On November 7, 2004 the dialogue group, residents of Balamiya Lane and the municipal staff staged a ‘prabhat pheri’ (dawn rally) in the area. On November 10, 2004, finally the dialogue group’s initiative on ‘Garbage to Gold’ succeeded when the garbage bins were removed from Balamiya Lane. The ghantagadi system of garbage collection was inaugurated on November 10. On the following day Mr. Johnny Joseph, the municipal commissioner, visited Mahim along with the additional commissioner, the ward officer and the heads of all the concerned departments. Sahara TV interviewed the municipal commissioner, members Bulu and Ashraf. The programme was televised on November 12.

    The feeling of hope and change is contagious. Another dialogue group member, Anwar, who lives in the Dargah Galli directly behind the Dargah, has now initiated a process to clean up his mohalla. Through October the Dialogue Group met three times and held two meetings at the Dargah Galli with the residents.

    On December 10, a gala function for which members had prepared for nearly four months took place – a joint celebration of Id and Diwali where all the citizens of Mahim were invited. Joint commissioner (Law and Order) of police, Ahmed Javed was the chief guest at this function held in the RC School compound.


    Evaluation of the dialogue project

    CDR had designed a Dialogue Module stretching over ten sessions. This was tried for the first time in Mahim. We have had a mixed experience. We had to skip three sessions based on the themes of remorse and forgiveness. We jumped to the last phase of the dialogue to get the group to take up a practical project in their area as part of the outreach that would help towards knitting the communities together.   

    This was necessitated because of the conflict that arose within the dialogue group. We had to make course corrections to ensure the dialogue process was not abandoned and the relationships built amongst the dialogue group members and through them amongst the different communities were not soured. In hindsight we made the right decision as we have found that the outreach programme has not only helped to defuse the tension but has pulled them together into a team. A new bonding is taking place amongst the communities. It is replacing earlier judging attitudes with appreciation of each other’s strengths. 


    The strengths of the dialogue module

    The dialogue module has shown that we can bring a multi-religious group together for a series of dialogues that are facilitated. A focussed dialogue can help to break down barriers of distrust, misunderstandings between communities.

    It can help individual group members to speak about painful personal experiences of communal bias or discrimination and begin a process of healing through the understanding offered by other group members.

    It can help each dialogue group member to begin to assess their earlier actions or attitudes through personal contact and interaction.

    Dialogue can bring out individual or community or area grievances and a possibility of these being redressed.
    From being individuals participating in the dialogue the group can turn into a team with a positive outlook to help the larger community.

    We found a desire in people for a meaningful dialogue with other communities and to find out more about them and understand why certain stereotypes persist.


    Weaknesses or shortcomings in the dialogue module

    People’s reluctance to give commitment for a dialogue process stretching over three months. Most of the dialogue group members were active community workers. Some of them showed impatience towards discussion and wanted to take up practical work e.g. addressing civic issues or going to schools to tell children about the importance of communal harmony. We found most members were willing to discuss the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 in a fairly detached manner and without getting hysterical. But when it came to present issues that were irritants between the communities, the attitudes hardened or people took postures. This was evident when the issue of azaan on loudspeakers came up. On this issue, Muslim members transcended from individual to community identity and were not willing to show reasonableness even in the small group. Their approach to the discussion on the subject was based on the suspicion that the Supreme Court judgement was used to cover up anti-Muslim feeling. They were not prepared to consider that those who were raising it could have had a civic motive rather than anti-Muslim bias. On the other hand, the Hindu member was not able to look at the issue other than through the angle of law and order. When it was pointed out that the issue was more a social issue to be sorted at the community level in the spirit of accommodation that helped all communities to live in harmony rather than getting the police to enforce the law, this point was not really appreciated. Perhaps the attitude was based on a bias that Muslims as a whole are rigid and intolerant.

    The facilitators were to discover that the prospect of disputes surrounding religious issues, and the need for accommodation required to prevent disputes and tensions in a crowded city like Mumbai, is very difficult and time consuming. The dialogue group certainly has not achieved resolution. But the group could take this up on their own at a later date.

    Perhaps the module needs to be modified and include some practical constructive activity as a divergent halfway through. This will ensure that those members who are impatient about just talking are retained and the dialogue is taken up again, which may even be fruitful.

    Although at the start of the dialogue process we had representatives of the Koli community and the group members made visits to Koliwada or the fishing colony, representatives of the Kolis dropped out of the group and we did not follow this up adequately. This was a failure, as the discussions would have added another dimension and the dialogue perhaps would not have been stuck in entrenched Hindu-Muslim attitudes. In the process the group has not come to grips with the injustice done to the Koli community. This had come up in the sharing by group members following their visits to Koliwada and meetings with the Kolis.

    Archived from Communalism Combat, April-May  2005   Year 11    No.107, Breaking Barriers 1