Mumbai calm after Ayodhya verdict

Editor's update: India's Allahabad High Court ruled on Thursday that the disputed holy site including the now-demolished Babri Mosque will be divided between Hindu and Muslim communities. The court also confirmed the mosque was the birthplace of Lord Rama and gave the locale of the mosque itself to the Hindus. So far, things in Mumbai are calm and while lawyers on both sides have vowed to appeal the verdict, it seems unlikely the decision will set off another round of violence like the one in the early 90s.

MUMBAI, India — Mehtab Sudhan stands by the welding shop, at a small, dusty crossroads in Jogeshwari East, a suburb of northern Mumbai.

He points to a mosque where men kneel on rugs and pray to Allah. A man in a white skullcap sits on a nearby stoop, reading an Urdu-language newspaper.

“This is the border road between Muslims and Hindus," he said. "This side Muslim,” he nodded to the right, and then to the left over where a stage was set up for the Ganesh festival. “This side Hindu."

When Sudhan was a child Jogeshwari East first was integrated, and Hindus and Muslims came together peacefully. Then the riots in 1992 and 1993 changed everything.

Sudhan walked down the road to a dirt clearing where a cat ate out of a dumpster and a baby goat stood nursing its mother. This was the spot where Sudhan's brother, a Muslim, was shot dead on Dec. 7, 1992, the day after Hindu fanatics demolished the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in northern India.

The destruction of the mosque, which many Hindus believe to have stood at the birthplace of their god, Lord Rama, triggered riots between Hindus and Muslims across India — most notably in Mumbai, where large sections of the city burned. About 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died and the violence, some of the worst since partition, helped usher India's main Hindu nationalist party, BJP, into power.

On Sept. 28, nearly two decades later, the Allahabad High Court is set to issue a long-awaited verdict to determine land ownership rights of the Ayodhya site. Much of Mumbai — though, notably, not all of Mumbai — is on edge.

People living in the areas most affected by the riots still feel invested in the verdict, but people elsewhere, especially middle- and upper-class Indians, have moved on.

Mumbai is a very different place than it was in 1992. Back then, extremists were active and when fanatics demolished the mosque, leaders had no trouble mobilizing people to fight in the streets, according to Javed Anand of Muslims for Secular Democracy. People now have an awareness that politicians stir up tensions for their own gain at the expense of the poor.

Eighteen years on, Hindus and Muslims alike are focused on putting food on the table, educating their children and reaping their own benefits from the nation’s rapid economic growth.

People speak of how Mumbai has moved on. “They don’t want to go to the past, they want to move ahead,” said Sajid Shaikh, a social activist who serves poor communities in Jogeshwari East.

With the exception of some Hindu fundamentalist groups, leading political parties and religious leaders talk about respecting the decision of the court. While both sides appear ready to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, they speak of following the legal process.

Still, it is a different story in the slums, where people remember all too well the mobs that terrorized their communities. One victim tells of the police officer who kicked her in the stomach while she was pregnant with her third child. Many speak of neighbors who turned their heads and closed their doors.

Sudhan and his family and neighbors are watching the case closely. They read about it in the paper daily, and they pray the city never again sees such violence.

“We are waiting for the results, of course,” Sudhan said. His third brother, Altaf Sudhan, added: “My brother was killed because of that matter. I want results.”

Discussions of the court case in other parts of the city turn into a discussion of what happened 18 years ago.

In Ghatkopar, another Mumbai suburb, a group of men gathered in a small alley behind their line of carpentry shops. Mohammad Sami, who was 24 during the riots, recalled the destruction.

Police officers came to this area and told the Muslim carpenters to go into their shops, Sami said. Then a mob came, doused the shops in kerosene and set them on fire. Sami, his family and neighbors escaped through the back to this alley and fled the area. “It was like a final judgment day,” he said.

Maulana Zahiddur Rahman, an imam who wore a white kurta and cap and a long beard, said he remembers seeing his mosque — and its 200 Qurans — burn in the fire.

The neighbors and the imam eventually returned and rebuilt their homes, shops and the mosque. In a cupboard on the second floor of the mosque, the imam keeps old photographs of the gutted mosque, reminders of what happened.

The men say they believe the Babri Mosque should be rebuilt. The land was a mosque, the imam said, and until the end of time, it will be a mosque.

In some ways, the Ayodhya case has even more meaning in Mumbai now than it did in 1992, said Ram Puniyani, a civil rights leader with All India Secular Forum. He said victims of the riots do not feel they have been given justice, and bias and misperceptions about communities have deepened. The economic condition of minorities has worsened as communities have become segregated and ghettoized.

“We have fear in our minds,” Sami, the carpenter, said, clutching his mobile phone. Their Muslim neighborhood is surrounded by Hindus, and they worry the case could ignite violence again.

“If it comes in our favor, [the verdict] is not good for us,” adds Abdul Aziz, another carpenter leaning against a line of clothes hanging out to dry.

These men have an acute awareness that peace is fragile.

The government does as well. It has taken preventive measures in Ayodhya and other sensitive regions to ensure the case doesn't trigger violence. Mumbai will deploy 48,000 police officers as well as four companies of the Rapid Action Force across the city to ensure security, according to local media reports.

Hindu and Muslim community workers have been holding meetings in riot-affected areas around Mumbai with religious leaders, police and residents to encourage a calm and peaceful response to the verdict.

While many worry the verdict will trigger more violence, Puniyani says he is hopeful the city will remain calm.

“Another section of society has realized [riots are] counterproductive and retard economic growth,” he said. “Now they want to focus on economic growth."