‘Firoz uncle, we kept our promise’

In the December 1997 issue of Communalism Combat, we had featured ‘Pathare Prabhus in a Muslim Mohalla’ as the cover story. It was the story of a Hindu family from the Muslim–majority pocket of Mahim in Mumbai recounting how their Muslim neighbours had ensured that the few Hindus living in their midst felt safe and secure throughout the bloody riots in December 1992 and January 1993.

Shortly after the report was published, Firoz Khan, one of our regular readers, called to say that he had liked the story very much. He also added that it was only fair that Communalism Combat published his experience during the riots so that the magazine’s readers got to know the other side of the picture, too. The January riots were virtually a city–wide pogrom against Muslims instigated by Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray. But in the midst of murder and mayhem, a prominent Sena leader and local Shiv sainiks ensured that no harm came to Firoz Khan and his family — the only Muslims determined not to move out of their Hindu predominant locality in central Mumbai.

We are happy to place before our readers the praiseworthy, if isolated, conduct of a group of Shiv Sainiks, while fellow sainiks elsewhere in the city engaged in killing, loot and arson.

I live in a predominantly Hindu area, Fitwala Road right opposite Elphinstone Road station (Mumbai), with my wife, three children and my 87–year–old father. After the second bout of riots started on January 7, 1993, I started receiving a string of threatening phone calls throughout the day and till late at night.

First they spoke in Marathi: "Kai landya? Ajoon ithe ahe ka? Ajoon gela nahi? Jyastee vel ithe rahoo nako (Hey landya — a derogatory word for Muslims — you are still here? You haven’t yet disappeared? For your own good, don’t stay on too long)".

I would listen to all this and hang up, without reacting. They probably thought that being a Muslim I could not follow Marathi well. (In fact, I understand and speak Marathi very well). So, the same people started speaking to me in Hindi, or simple Urdu.

"Kyon? Apne aap ko Tees Maar Khan samajhte ho kya? Abhi tak gaye nahin? Apni jaan, apni biwi, bachhon ki jaan pyari nahin hai kya? (So? Do you think you are a super man or what? Haven’t disappeared yet? Don’t you value your own and your family’s lives?)"

I would ask: "Bhai, aap koun hain? Kahan se bol rahe hain? (Brother, who are you? Where are you calling from?) "

They would answer: "Tumhara baap hoon (I am your dad speaking)". (laughs).

I’d say: "Mera baap to mere paas mere ghar mein baitha hua hai. Tumhara baap kaun hai, mujhe maloom nahin. Baher haal, main yeh jagah khali kar ke nahin jaoonga (I have no idea who your father is but my father is sitting right next to me. In any case, I have no intentions of leaving this place)".

My father had seen the 1948 riots. One day when he was going to work, they stabbed a Muslim — a fellow railway employee — before his very eyes. He picked up the wounded man in his arms and carried him to the railway dispensary, which was about half-a-mile from there. The man survived. I was only about 7–years–old at the time, but I’ve often heard stories about the partition riots and how bad they were from my father and my uncle.

When the calls continued, I told one of them one night: "My father lived through the experience of the 1947 riots. Consider that I want to live through the 1993 riots and that’s why I do not want to leave this place". I also said: "I was born and brought up in this very locality. I was educated here, I work here. As a kid, I learnt to speak Marathi to interact with other kids my age most of whom were Marathi speaking Hindus. My childhood mates became an integral part of my life and I of theirs. Those people are saying nothing to me and I have full faith that they never will. You are youngsters of today. Why are you so interested that I move out with my family?"

"There are two possibilities," I said, "Either you want to loot my house in our absence, or you want to murder us. If you wanted to murder us, you could have done it anyway, there was no need to call. So, obviously, you just want to loot my home".

They said: "Zyaada baatein mat karo. Apne aap ko Mahatma samajhte ho kya? Bahut bada bahadur samajhte ho? Yaad rakho, pachtaoge (Don’t talk too much. You think you are a Mahatma or some kind of a super man. Remember, you’ll regret it) ".

I said: "I’m going to stay right here".

They asked, "Kyon? Tumhara koi watan nahin hai kya? (Why? Don’t you have a native place?)"

I said, "Sara Hindustaan mera watan hai (All of India is my native place) ".

They asked, "No, no, don’t you have some native place?"

I said, "Yes, I’m from Surat".

"So, then, why don’t you go to Surat? Bambai mein kya rakha hai tumhare liye? (What’s there for you in Mumbai?) "

I said, "Bambai mein mera sab kuch rakha hai (Everything dear to me is in Mumbai)". My grandfather is buried here in a cemetery. And if I have to be buried in Bombay, I’ll be proud to lie right next to my grandfather. Do what you like but I am not going to leave this house. I was born here, lived here and I’ll die here. And, let me tell you one thing more. Birth and death is in the hands of God. If he has decreed me to die at your hands, I can change nothing and neither can you." But the calls kept coming, even till two, three in the morning.

On a few occasions, the caller was a woman! She’d ask for my wife and tell her: "Your husband doesn’t understand, but you’re a sensible woman. Why don’t you explain to him, take all you have and leave for your village. There’s no use your staying here. Aapka zindagi bhar ka ghaata ho jayega (You’ll lose your entire life’s possession)."

My wife and father would get scared. They’d keep telling me: "There’s no point staying on here. Why don’t we just leave for the village? We have a house there".

But I would try to give them courage. I told my father: "Don’t worry. You were here in 1948, what happened to you? Now, in 1993, I’m here. If nothing happened then, nothing will happen now. I am convinced of that".

My father asked, "What makes you so confident? Don’t you read the newspapers?"

I said, "I have nothing to say about Bombay as such but I can speak with confidence about my own friends, my own neighbours, all the people I’ve grown up with. After all, I’ve spent full 57 years of my life with them here.

He said, "Nahin, ab inke aankhon mein khoon utar aaya hai (No, there’s blood in their eyes now). Anything can happen any time. The very people you have eaten and rejoiced together with could attack you".

I said, "No. Something inside me says nothing will happen, I have faith in God. No, we’re not going anywhere. Neither me, nor you, nor the family".

By January 9 the tension had mounted to a pitch. The pressure became too much. The phone calls increased, the riots escalated. The funniest part was that the Shiv Sainiks in our area started receiving parcels containing bangles and bits of women’s plaited hair along with a message: ‘Here, put on these bangles since you are incapable of throwing out a single Muslim family from your area’.

They would bring those to me and say, "Look Uncle, this is what we got today".

You see, the Shiv Sainiks in my area today are sons of my childhood friends. That’s why I am Uncle to them. Besides, I have given free tuition to many of them in their student days, as their parents, being poor railway workers, couldn’t afford much for their education. I’ve always tried to do whatever I could to solve any problem if it came up. For example, when some of the kids were taken in by the police, I’d go to the police station, vouch for the boys’ character, and get them released without any case being registered. It meant a lot to me that in the midst of the madness in January 1993, these boys remembered what I had done for them and supported me fully during the riots. Outsiders constantly tried to instigate them, but they kept their cool.

On the night of January 9, I received a phone call around 11:30 p.m. As I mentioned above, by then the tension was becoming too much. The doors and windows of our house were bolted. Inside, my family members were full of apprehension. This is because a masjid in our locality and a few shops belonging to Muslims had been attacked and broken into. The shops were looted and then set on fire. By then, even I was beginning to feel quite scared. When the phone rang, I somehow controlled my fear and picked up the receiver.

"Firoz, do you recognise my voice?" the caller asked. Though the voice seemed familiar, I couldn’t recognise it because of my state of fear.

"Sorry, I don’t," I replied.

"Arrey, main Datta Nalawade bol raha hoon". (Datta Nalawade is a prominent Sena leader).

Dattaji and I were good friends in our youth. The tone of his voice made me feel better.

"Bol Datta," I ventured.

"Kya kar raha tha? (What were you doing?)," he asked.

"Jaag raha tha, apni family ke saath, (Staying awake, me and my family)," I said.

"That’s why I called," he responded. "I knew Bhabhi and Babuji must be worried. Have you been receiving threatening phone calls?"

"Yes", I said, "I have been getting lots of them, full of threats.

"Phir, tumne kya socha hai? (So, what have you decided?)," he asked.

"Datta, chahe mar jayen, par yahan se nahin jayenge (Datta, even if we are killed, we are not moving from here," I said.

"I am really, really happy to hear your reply. Despite all that is happening, one man is determined not to go away from us," said Datta.

Moments later, he added, "OK, now open up your windows and your door. Look outside". He promised that absolutely nothing would happen to my family or me.

I said, "Dattaji, you’re in Worli, I’m in Elphinstone. Still, if you say so, I’ll believe you".

He said, "Just open the door and windows and take a look outside."

I didn’t have the courage to open the door. When I peeped out of the window, a saw a group of 15–20 well built youth standing outside our building, talking amongst themselves. Minutes later, our door bell rang. My family thought — this is it, they’ve come finally. I told my family members to go into the inside room while I went to open the door.

As soon as I opened the door, the youngsters I had seen standing outside trooped in one by one, each one touching my (‘Uncle’s) feet. I couldn’t believe it. When they saw this, my wife and father, too, felt somewhat reassured and came out. I now recognised each of the young men who had come in. I had given free tuition to many of them.

Once inside, Ravindra Savant, the local shakha pramukh who was with the rest, came forward and said, "Uncle, we’ve come to tell you something."

I said, "I apologise, but as I’m elder than you, may I say something before you say anything?"

They said, "Sure". So, I said, "Phone pe phone aa rahe hain. Ghar chod ke chale jaao (We have been receiving an endless stream of phone calls telling us to leave our home and go away)". Have you come to say the same thing? If so, forget it. Do as you like. Now, I’ve even invited you in. Now you can do as you like with my family and me. But, don’t ask me to leave."

Savant, the shakha pramukh, laughed.

Then he said, "Uncle, bas itni hi izzat ki meri? Arrey, koun mai ka laal hai jo hamare Firoz uncle ko yahan se bahar hatayega? (Uncle, is that what you think of us? Who dare get our Firoz uncle out of his home?). We’ll have a Shiv Sainik guarding each of the 50 steps from your flat to the footpath below. They’ll have to get past 50 of us to get to your door. We’ve come to talk of your protection, not to throw you out".

When we heard that, my entire family felt very relieved. Even in such impassioned times, there were people who had not forgotten past relations. I was very moved. Whatever may have happened or was happening elsewhere in the city, at least with me, in my locality, there was no ill–treatment.

While I was speaking with them, my father blurted out, "You say, you will not allow outsiders in and the kids from here will not harm us in any way. People interviewed by newspapers keep saying, ‘We didn’t do anything, people came from the outside’. How would outsiders know exactly which building and which flat a Muslim family resides in? It would have to be someone from the mohalla who informs the outsiders".

On this, a couple of the sainiks spoke up together: "Uncle, don’t ask us about other mohallas and other people. Talk about Fitwala Road, Raja Building and the Firoz Khan who lives here in flat no.35. We will not allow any harm to come to him or his family, and that’s a promise. And if despite our best efforts something were to happen here, then this family alone will not move out from here. Several Hindu families will also leave the area with you. If Firoz Uncle’s family has no right to live here, no Hindu family has any right to live here either".

The entire area was under curfew. They asked my wife what was needed at home. They said they’d arrange for everything and assured us that as long as there was curfew, they would look after everything and there was no need for any of my children to step out of home.

And before 11 the next morning, they brought us everything we needed. I don’t know from where, because all the shops were closed. On January 9, 10, 11 so much happened in the city but we were totally safe in the midst of our Hindu neighbours and under the care of local sainiks.

Even our neighbours came frequently to reassure us that they would not allow anything to happen to us. "If you leave, that will be a great insult to us", they’d say. "We will feel that all the sweets we’ve exchanged on Diwali and Eid, all the goodwill that existed between us all these years, was a sham. Your leaving will mean you no longer trust us. And the heartbreak that that will cause will perhaps be beyond repair. If you wish, our men and women will come and sleep in your house and you can all come and sleep in ours. We are with you, we’ll do whatever you want to make you all feel safe. But, for God’s sake, do not leave".

We stayed on. Slowly, things returned to normal. After peace had returned to the city, the sainik boys who had stood by us came to say, "Uncle, we kept our promise". We gratefully agreed.

I know that a lot of people in Mumbai went through a terrible ordeal during the 1993 riots. Even in our mohalla, there were a few unfortunate incidents. Some shops were looted. Soon after the riots, many Muslims sold off their shops and left the area. We tried to stop them: Think of it as a storm that has blown over. It’s not going to come back. Why are you selling your houses and leaving?"

But they said: "Nahin, ab dil uth gaya hai, ab yahan nahin rahna (No, our heart is no longer in this place, we can no longer live here)." So, they went away. We couldn’t stop them. But, the rest of us live together, celebrate our festivals — Diwali, Eid, Christmas — together now.

Even before the riots we used to celebrate festivals together. Unfortunately, in the build up to the Babri Masjid demolition, young minds were being systematically inflamed. Rath yatras, cassettes with incendiary speeches of Uma Bharati and others in wide circulation, being relayed through loudspeakers in the neighbourhoods until late at night.

Firoz Khan
(As told to Javed Anand)

Archived from Communalism Combat, December  1998. Year 6, No. 49, Ethos



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