It’s half past seven in the evening in the Tamba Kanta area of > Malegaon, a marketplace located on the bank of the river Mausam that bisects the town. The Jama Masjid and Mahadeo Mandir, located next to each other on the opposite bank, cast a twinned shadow as the rhythmic click-clack of a thousand power looms slowly draws to a close. A large group of men, some dressed all in white with skull caps, others in crisp-looking shirts and trousers, make their way past winding lanes of shops to a small square in the centre of the market.
By half past eight, the square is packed to capacity, so much so that even two-wheelers struggle to pass through. Here, in a space not more than 50 metres in length, the financial life of this power loom-dominated town kicks into gear. Conversations appear informal but a host of characters mill through the scene; the Hindu yarn broker who fixes prices to supply raw material to the Hindu trader who will then fix a price for the Muslim weaver, the Muslim cloth broker who advises manufacturers on setting a price and connects them to clients in the market, and the Hindu trader again who will buy finished products to sell to markets outside. Some conversations involve transactions worth crores of rupees, others are more trifling.
The vibrant scene in Tamba Kanta seems immediately at odds with the outside perception of Malegaon — a town frequently referred to as a “communal tinderbox” and which pops up in the headlines only when there is a riot or a blast. A tehsil in the Nashik district of Maharashtra, it made the news again this week, when nine Muslim men, seven of them from Malegaon, were finally discharged by a Mumbai court for being wrongfully accused in a series of blasts that shook the town in 2006.
There is brief talk of the return of the discharged in Tamba Kanta but it is intermittent. Of more particular worry is their struggling economy and the fact that there are not enough buyers for the enormous produce churned out by over 2,00,000 power looms in Malegaon. An animated group of Muslim mill owners and Hindu traders gather around Mahesh Patodia, a senior figure in the yarn trade, who explains that what is needed is for the Central government to evolve a more favourable export policy so that the textile industry can sell its surplus.
Memories of another day Muhib Ansari, whose family owns one of the larger mill complexes, reacts with incredulity when asked if there are still problems between Hindus and Muslims in Malegaon. To him, like many others in the square, it’s business that is most important. “The destinies of both Hindus and Muslims are tied to the success of the power-loom industry. Look around you, there can be no greater example of communal harmony,” he says, pointing around the square. “Since 2001,” he continues, “There has been no communal incident and no one is going to let it happen.”
The events of 2001 form a constant subliminal narrative in the life of Malegaon. On a Friday afternoon in October that year, some Muslims were distributing an Urdu pamphlet titled ‘Be Indian, Buy Indian’ outside Malegaon’s Jama Masjid after prayers. It listed the names of a few American and British companies and called for a boycott of their products. A constable snatched some copies and tore them up, triggering a fight with the police. When a stone thrown accidentally hit someone involved in Dussehra preparations nearby, the clash took on a communal colour. What followed was 20 days of madness that spread also to the nearby villages. In all, 14 lives were claimed.
Understanding 2001 requires some perspective on the social fabric of Malegaon and some history about how the town came into being. Nearly three-fourths of the 7,00,000-strong population of the town is Muslim. A document called the ‘Concerned Citizen’s Inquiry Report into Malegaon Riots’, authored in November 2001, provides some insight into how this came to be. Once a small junction known as Maliwadi, the town gained a reputation for being a source of employment when labourers moved from Hyderabad to help build a fort in the 18th century. The pattern kept repeating, from those fleeing hotspots such as Meerut and Awadh in 1857 to mill workers from famine-hit Varanasi in 1862. When the town became one of the new centres for power looms in the 1930s, there was a further influx of labour from Uttar Pradesh and the Deccan. According to the 2001 report, the influx through the 1990s was so large that three new municipal wards had to be created.
In the years that followed the setting up of power looms Malegaon seemed to encapsulate the early struggles of an industrial revolution — an economy that was serviced by a teeming force of workers living in crude unorganised settlements, overseen by wealthy loom owners and traders. The town was also split into two halves along the Mausam, with the more prosperous Hindu side on the west and the Muslims on the east. The extreme income inequality played its part in a series of communal flashpoints — in 1963, 1992 and then most notably in 2001.
The looming crisis Things seemed to change in the mid-2000s. “When the loom industry really picked up, even the fruit seller on the road would say ‘aaj-kal dhanda achcha chal raha hai’ (business is good these days),” says Mushtaqe Ahmed, another prominent weaver. “The blasts of 2006, and the subsequent arrest of nine men suspected of links to the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) is seen largely as an aberration in this narrative. A carry-over from the taint of 2001.
What also happened in those years was a dramatic inversion of the labour situation. In Mr. Ahmed’s loom complex in the dusty expanse of Bismillah Bagh, he says there is now actually a shortage of labour. Part of this, he says, is because the number of looms has gone up drastically over the last ten years and the number of labourers has largely remained the same. “Because this is the only industry over here for anybody to invest in,” he explains. Mr. Ahmed says most of the power looms in use are 18th-century models that still require manning by individual labourers.
Larger loom owners like Mr. Ansari and Mr. Ahmed are now working on setting up units in the new textile park being set up by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) not far from the town centre which employs modern production techniques such as rapier looms. But the pace of progress has been excruciatingly slow. There is still no power plant to run the textile park yet. Plus it’s far from a sure-fire investment. What is needed urgently, says Mr. Ansari, is a connection to bigger markets, a more friendly export policy and perhaps a diversification of industry so that there are opportunities outside the loom sector.
A convenient blind spot? The words ‘communal’ and ‘tinderbox’ are a potent combination in the Indian context, suggestive of a dull place where poverty and a lack of employment drive people towards a kind of desperate violence. The reality of Malegaon today, a town that has business at its soul, is that it finds itself at an economic crossroads.
It is said of Malegaon that it always had a strong anti-establishment streak. According to local historian Ilyas Siddiqui, an Indian flag was flown in the town in defiance of British rule as far back as 1921. It is one of the major reasons, he analyses, why the town was ignored and never connected to the rail network. It’s worth wondering if Malegaon’s continuing image as a “communal tinderbox” contributes to another kind of blind spot. Successive Chief Ministers since 1981 have promised that the town will be converted into a district (it has long had a population that would allow it to qualify) but there has never been any movement on this. Instead, the only major administrative change came ten years ago when the Hindu and Muslim halves of the town were split into two separate electoral constituencies.
And so Malegaon waits; a town strangely out of its time economically, where a series of communal flashpoints became an extended and unwanted chapter in its history. Fifteen years on from the riots of 2001, turning the page on perception is still the hardest task.