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RSS 2.0

Mumbai's melting pot gives way to forces of intolerance

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Wednesday, 3 December 2008

On a small islet off the coast of Mumbai lies a whitewashed monument that attracts tourists and locals. Here, the patron saint of Mumbai is believed to be buried. Known to his devotees as Haji Ali, this wealthy 15th century Muslim merchant is said to have renounced his riches and devoted his life to worship and service to the poor.

Ali died in Mecca while performing the Haj pilgrimage which millions of Muslims are about to perform. Local legend has it that his casket drifted and settled at the site of the present tomb and mosque.

A narrow walkway approximately 1km in length and linking the shrine to the rest of Mumbai easily becomes immersed in water. Hence the shrine can be accessed only during low tide. At high tide, this landmark of Mumbai, as sacred to Hindus and Sikhs as it is to Muslims, appears to be floating on water.


Bollywood tragedies frequently show distraught characters drowning sorrows in the rhythmic devotion of traditional Indian Sufi qawwali music at the tomb of a Muslim saint. Across India, people of all faiths and castes and creeds visit the shrines of saints who taught the message of divine love made available to all.

And it's likely that, following the past few days of terror for the people of Mumbai, the crowd of distressed devotees seeking solace at Piya Haji Ali's shrine will be much larger.

People from across the Indian faith and cultural spectrum - Hindus of all castes, Muslim of various ethnic groups and denominations, Parsees, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, indigenous Beni Israel and Baghdadi Indian Jews and other combinations of belief or lack thereof - have made Mumbai their home for centuries. However, dark forces of intolerance have haunted this city where in previous centuries people used the universal language of trade to overlook if not overcome their differences.

Hemant Karkare, the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) chief in Mumbai's Maharashtra state, was gunned down with two of his colleagues by Muslim extremists on Day 1 of the terror attack. Ironically, Karkare had earlier received death threats from extremist followers of Hindutva theocratic politics similar to that which inspired the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi.

Karkare, himself a Hindu, had recently launched an investigation into a Hindutva cell, uncovering evidence that implicated senior supporters of the pro-Hindutva BJP Opposition as well as senior members of India's military.

The Times of India on November 27 quoted one ATS official saying this cell "wanted to make India like what it was when it was ruled by the Aryans". Evidence of this wider plan was found on one detainee's laptop.


For pursuing this line of inquiry, Karkare was accused by BJP leader L.K. Advani of "acting in a politically motivated and unprofessional manner". On the first day of the Mumbai terrorist strike, the Indian Express reported BJP President Rajnath Singh accusing Karkare's anti-terrorist squad of "harassment and humiliation" of Hindutva terror suspects.

Yet many BJP leaders have watched silently while their members orchestrated atrocities against religious minorities. Those perpetrating the 2002 Gujarat pogrom of Muslims, which led to at least 2,000 deaths, have not been brought to justice.

Among them is Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who was refused a visa to enter the United States for his role in the slaughter. Activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), part of the BJP opposition, have in recent months terrorised Indian Catholic communities and institutions.

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First published in the New Zealand Herald on December 2, 2008.

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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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