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|October 31, 2001|
The Rediff Special/Yogesh Pawar
Nine years ago, after the powerloom town of Malegaon in Nasik district of Maharashtra witnessed savage communal riots in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, many Hindu residents of Vrindavan Chowk, a predominantly Muslim locality, moved to 'safer' Hindu clusters elsewhere.
Maalgi Pawar, now 65, however, refused to go.
Pawar, who was born and brought up in Vrindavan Chowk area, could not even countenance the thought of living anywhere else.
"Most of my Muslim neighbours are the same boys whom I grew up with," says Maalgirao. "We share good family relations. My five daughters and late son have practically grown up in their homes. So where was the question of living anywhere else?"
But on Friday, October 26, violence broke out once again in the Muslim-majority town classified as 'ultra-sensitive' by the Union home ministry. And the Pawar family's resolve was put to the ultimate test.
The war in distant Afghanistan and the police firing in Malegaon on protestors calling for a boycott of American goods was farthest from the Pawars' mind that day. Their immediate concern was how to get their youngest daughter, Poonam (17), to Chandwad town, 52km away.
Two days earlier, Poonam had received a letter from the Jain College in Chandwad, telling her that she had been selected for admission to the BHMS course and asking her to fill up the application form. The last date: October 30.
Poonam had wanted to leave at the earliest, but her cousin, who was to accompany her, was not free that day. And her mother pointed out that Friday, Dussehra, was a far more auspicious day.
Unfortunately for her and the town, clashes between Muslim protestors and the police began on Friday afternoon, just when Poonam was set to leave for Chandwad. Soon, curfew was imposed on the entire town as the violence spiralled. Naturally, all plans of travel had to be put on hold.
The next two days were almost entirely spent indoors by the Pawars, as by most other law-abiding citizens of the town. But some of the rowdy elements were not so keen to lie low and there was sporadic trouble in the town.
On Sunday, October 28, the troublemakers finally found their way to the Pawar household, one of only two Hindu homes in Vrindavan Chowk.
Close to midnight that night, Maalgirao, his wife Bhimabai and Poonam heard some angry voices outside their home. "Hinduon ko bhagao [chase the Hindus away]," they were saying.
Maalgirao looked out and saw a band of about 15 youths armed with jerrycans, torches and staves, their faces swathed in towels to mask their identity.
"When we smelt kerosene, my mother began howling in alarm," remembers Poonam. Hearing her cries, their neighbours, the Khans and the Sayyeds, came running out of their houses. "Seeing them, the youths tried to run, but one of them was caught and thrashed by Sayyed Chacha."
Since that night, members of the Sayyed family have been sleeping in the Pawars' house to ensure that such an incident cannot recur. "Chachi and her daughters, who are my close friends, now sleep at our place. They have promised to do so till this problem is over," says Poonam.
The Pawars' is not an isolated instance. Most common folk in Malegaon want peace. Prabhavati Sisodiya, whose family constitutes the only Hindu household along the Old Agra Road, recounts the barbarism of October 26 with sadness. "I used to tie a rakhi to one of the garage boys whose shop was burnt down," she says. "He is battling for life, but we have not even been able to visit him. I don't what to tell my children Gaurav and Sadhana when they ask about Maamu."
Clearly, while the media focus has been on the violence, with 'experts' often commenting that 75 per cent of Malegaon's population of nearly 700,000 is Muslim, the underlying communal amity is persevering.
As for Poonam Pawar, she was able to keep her deadline. She and her father pleaded with some constables on duty in Vrindavan Chowk and were escorted during curfew on October 30 in a police jeep to a spot 3km outside the town.
From there, father and daughter tried flagging down the occasional media jeep or police van, because there was no public transport. They didn't come across one that had room for them and was heading for Nasik, until they hailed the vehicle carrying us. That's how Poonam got a lift to Chandwad. And we got our report.
Design: Uttam Ghosh
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