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A life dedicated to social service and bridging divides

This is an interesting profile of an intrepid ‘common man’ who braved extreme communal antipathy during troubled times in India and emerged as a powerful symbol of inter-faith unity and progressive forces. He is no longer alive, but his spirit will continue to inspire and uplift many

It was a long journey through the winding lanes of the slums of Jogeshwari, in the heart of Mumbai, India’s largest metropolis. But what we discovered at the end of our journey was a truly rare diamond – Lal Mohammad Shaikh Saab.

The 80-year-old activist, who subsequently passed away in June 2022, was charisma personified when we met him. His calm demeanour hid a lot of passion and energy, which had sustained him during his over 50 years of social service in Mumbai and across the country. A charismatic leader of the local mohalla (area) peace committee for over 30 years, Lal Mohammad emerged as a powerful symbol of inter-faith unity and progressive forces seeking all-round social welfare.

Lal Mohammad lived in a humble abode with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren, after making a modest life in Jogeshwari, setting up a shop selling industrial magnets almost five decades ago. A life marked by poverty and struggle did not stop him from being sensitive to the needs of others around him. Always involved in social welfare activities in Jogeshwari, he enjoyed the trust and confidence of the locals. He came to be known as a dedicated, non-political peace activist for the extensive peace-building, relief and rehabilitation work he did during the 1984 and 1988 communal conflicts in Jogeshwari.

The massive Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992-1993, which shattered Mumbai, proved to be a turning point in Lal Mohammad’s life. “The scale of violence was unimaginable. The riots had turned from being Hindus versus Muslims to police versus Muslims. Curfew was imposed everywhere. Jogeshwari was divided into Hindu and Muslim areas; those who crossed the barriers would be killed instantly. The violence made Jogeshwari so infamous that neither public transport nor marriage proposals would come to the inhabitants of Jogeshwari for a long, long time,” he recalled.

Lal Mohammad and his associates took up the challenge of bridging the divide between the Hindus and Muslims and also between the police and the local population. The first step was to remove the physical barriers and put an end to the ‘ghettoisation’ of Muslims and Hindus. Once people of different communities started living in each other’s vicinity as before, Lal Mohammad and his team arranged for dialogues and meetings among them, focusing on removal of misunderstandings, rebuilding trust, opposing extremist tendencies, amicable resolution of disputes, democratic decision-making and reconciliation.

This was not easy and, often, Mohammad had to risk his life while trying to diffuse violent situations. His own home and family were under threat. “I never stayed indoors even in the worst of times, be it shooting or arson or massacre. I was always out on the streets, trying to douse the fires of hatred. I was never scared of anyone or anything, because my intentions were pure. I had no selfish motives,” he told us.

Following the 1992-1993 riots and serial bomb blasts in Mumbai, the police-public joint peace initiative took the form of mohalla committees, spread across every police station zone in Mumbai. Lal Mohammad started working with these peace committees in 1994, under the guidance of Mumbai’s then Police Commissioner Satish Sahney, IPS.

Lal Mohammad recalled, “Our work for peace-building, resolving religious tensions, stopping religion-based violence and focusing on all-round development of the community got a tremendous response from the residents of Jogeshwari. In the Muslim-dominated areas, we told the people that if even single Hindu was harmed in any way, it would be a great shame for the entire Muslim community. Similarly, when we went to the Hindu-dominated areas for peace work, though I was the only Muslim, I was protected, accepted and honoured by all.”

Years of hard work, of building trust have today resulted in the once feared Jogeshwari slums becoming one of the most peaceful and progressive areas in Mumbai. As he proudly put it, “In Jogeshwari, Christians observe Ramzan fasts and Muslims celebrate Diwali.”

The mohalla committees’ work continues to this day, and Lal Mohammad guided them till his last days, apart from being involved with various other social welfare initiatives.“The mohalla committees have an excellent track record. We struggled against all kinds of political pressures and did not allow members to have any political affiliations. We depended on the cooperation between police officers and civil society leaders to maintain peace and work for progress. However, today things have changed. Most officers, especially those in the lower ranks, do not know how to deal with conflicts or win public confidence. Their violent reactions only breed more violence. Often, they ill-treat victims and honour criminals,” Lal Mohammad pointed out.

Combatting drug addiction among the youth was a major area of concern. Communal harmony was a cause close to lal Mohammad’s heart. He cited numerous examples of the efforts made by mohalla committees to resolve communal tensions in Jogeshwari. “Such community-based networks can be replicated throughout India. This is crucial for the country’s progress. Religion-based violence is one of the worst forms of invisible warfare. We must never forget the martyrs of the riots, especially the women and children, the worst sufferers and chief victims of such conflicts. We can avoid a horrifying future if we create public awareness about the need for unity and all-inclusive progress,” he asserted.

It was both heartening and inspiring to interact with the next-generation social activists Lal Mohammad has trained and moulded. S.N., in her fifties, has been into social work with the mohalla committee for nearly a decade now. As the young wife of an ambulance driver during the 1992-93 riots, she faced a lot of trauma. Lal Mohammad encouraged her to lead other women towards becoming community leaders. She affirmed, “I used to be scared to talk with Hindus. But today I happily interact with all communities and do lots of volunteering work.”

Shaukat Rasool Palapure has been a mohalla committee member for close to a decade. In his fifties, he runs a tailoring and designing shop. A teenager during the 1992-1993 riots, he was inspired by Lal Mohammad’s work and believes that humanity and education should supersede all other considerations, including religion and caste.

Shahnawaz Shaikh, in his thirties, is the proud son of Lal Mohammad. Inspired by his father’s life and work, Shahnawaz is committed to the cause of communal harmony and social service. A promising fashion designer, he had often experienced professional discrimination on account of his religion and was once denied a job for creating a ‘Muslim design’. This led him to take up a sales job. He was very conscious of the fact that politicians misuse religion to delude and pressure the police and the public. “If people do not realise the great damage caused by communal violence, poverty, crime and drugs will destroy India…let us support the cause of communal harmony and save India,” he pleaded.

Age was no deterrent for Lal Mohammad. His heart and mind were always full of youthful zeal for social service, for a better tomorrow. Several prominent regional organisations awarded him for his accomplishments. Having dedicated his entire life to the people of Jogeshwari, even a serious heart ailment could not stop his onward march. His son recalls that after his angioplasty, his family pleaded with him to take a break but he continued to help those in need.

“India’s future depends on communal harmony. There is nothing more important for India’s future than harmonious ties between Hindus and Muslims. Educated citizens need to come forward to counter the fundamentalists, and grassroots work is crucial for this,” were Lal Mohammad’s parting words to us.

Indeed, the slums of Jogeshwari are an inspiration. While posh localities are often communally divided, here, in Jogeshwari, humanity reigns supreme. I could clearly sense the pain of the bias and prejudice that the minority community here had been subjected to outside of Jogeshwari. All the same, they had shown incredible maturity and patriotism by returning love instead of hatred. Of course, the influence of Lal Mohammad, the ‘Kohinoor of Jogeshwari’ was apparent.

December 2022