Review of Khan’s City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh

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By Sajad Ahmad Dar

City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh
Zeyad Masroor Khan
Harper Collins India
2023 Pages: 297
Price: INR 599/- (Hardcover)
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9356998248
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9356998247

City on Fire explores the everyday Hindu-Muslim strifes in the U.K (Upar Kot, not to be confused with the United Kingdom), a part of the town of Aligarh (130 kms southeast of Delhi) in Uttar Pradesh, since the 1990s.

The book under review is a memoir of a young Muslim. It explores the everyday Hindu-Muslim strifes in the U.K (Upar Kot, not to be confused with the United Kingdom), a part of the town of Aligarh (130 kms southeast of Delhi) in Uttar Pradesh, since the 1990s. The memoir can partly be compared with Basharat Peer’s (2008), Curfewed Night, as both memoirs are insider’s accounts of victims. Zeyad’s City on Fire is an insider’s account on everyday fear and stigmatisation that Muslims go through in the U.K of Aligarh and ultimately it is a story about the Muslims of the country, at large. This is thus a ‘biography of a community’ of a Muslims of U.K of Aligarh. Zeyad grippingly unveils a society where one’s identity and attire serve as symbols of ‘otherness’. Zeyad records:

At Sabzi Mandi, a few metres away from the border of Upar Kot, Hindus had assembled with weapons in their hands. ‘Look, burqa-wali on a bike,’ they pointed at Uzma and ran towards them…..The mob had dragged his (Azim’s) wife off the moped and had begun to misbehave with her. Azim went back to the mob and pleaded, ‘Please let my wife go. Take me instead.’ …. somebody had broken Azeem’s head with a bat. He died that day, not in the arms of his beloved like Aamir Khan did in Fanaa, but amid a mob of hateful men…… ‘…. Two years after Azim’s death, his father died a heartbroken man…. (p. 79)

This first person account throws a good light on how persons most deeply implicated in the violence are exonerated by the criminal justice system. It is a portrayal of the inactive government, which is typically perceived as being pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim. Zeyad aptly reiterates what Paul R. Brass calls the “Institutionalised Riot System” (IRS) in his book (2002), The Production of Hindu Muslim Violence in Contemporary India. The thrust of Brass’ argument is that violence is politically engineered, rather than spontaneous. Brass, therefore, classifies it into three stages: rehearsal/preparation, activation/enactment and explanation/interpretation. Zeyad’s book particularly helps us to understand the last stage where the diffusion of responsibility is done in such a way so as to displace the blame and allow the main perpetrators to go scot-free. Zeyad narrates:

The police did come but took their time….. The culprits were never caught. Justice was never served. Uzma’s trauma wasn’t resolved. The killers went back to their wives and children…… bragged about their bravado to groups………Later, the police arrested four random people on suspicion, but they were let off after the family did their own investigation. The real culprits ran back into the lanes and were never identified….. this was happening a few feet from the area police station, but there were no cops in sight. They either didn’t care about our lives or were too afraid to take on angry locals. We were completely at the mercy of the mob, who wanted to unleash their anger and hurt the schoolchildren sitting inside. (pp. 75-79, 147-148)

Aligarh, like many other riot-prone cities in India is charcterised by economic competition particularly in trades and industries between Hindus and Muslims. The town has historically been famous for its lock industry, therefore, also known as taala nagri (the city of locks). The industry began its work with the establishment of two prominent firms, the Pioneer Lockworks and the General Metal Foundry, started by Johnson and Company, and the other was the Sparling Lockworks, from the late nineteenth century. It has traditionally been dominated by Muslims. Its manufacturing units have been particularly dominated by its Upar Kot Muslims [the author of the memoir belongs to this part of the Old City (shahr)].

This has, however, changed; Hindus, roughly from the 1970s, have also started participating in the industry, as both workers and owners of the manufacturing establishments. The period also coincides with the change in the economic climate of Aligarh, due to the influx of petro-dollar remittance, mainly coming from the Gulf and the USA too. One of the consequences of this rapid economic growth, argues Ashutosh Varshney (2002), Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, was the emergence of “fair number of Muslim members” on the “business map”. This, as Elizabeth A. Mann in her study (1992) of Aligarh¸ Boundaries and Identities: Muslims, Work and Status in Aligarh, has argued was also the period when urban development in Aligarh took rapid strides and accelerated the housing constructions due to the “growth of urban population” and the subsequent “demand for residential and business premises.” “This demand”, argues Brass (2002), “open(ed) up many kinds of potential conflicts” between the two communities resulting into one community eyeing the property of the other. India, more specifically Aligarh, has a long history where Muslims have been intimidated and forced to sell their property at throwaway prices. For instance, Manik Chowk (in Aligarh’s U.K), had formerly been a Muslim mohalla but due to the ‘concerted efforts’ of the Varshney and Aggarwal Bania communities, to intimidate Muslims and pressure them to sell it at throwaway prices, it is now entirely inhabited by the Varshneys and the Aggarwals. This phenomenon has been termed by Brass (2002) as ‘Rioting for Profiting’. Zeyad’s memoir does help us to understand this phenomenon. It points out the localities which once used to be Muslims but are now free of them. Zeyad writes:

The ones who actually despised Yaseen down to his very bones were his Hindu neighbours. ‘Most of them didn’t like us living in their midst and kept trying to force us to sell our home for peanuts. We didn’t take this seriously until they killed our uncle and cousin,’ ………. The brothers eventually sold the home…….Gudiya Bagh is now free of Muslims. Yaseen Bhai’s video game parlour and his home have been demolished. In their place stands a new building with a wholesale market. (pp. 81-83)

Another aspect that Zeyad’s book has articulated is how the individuals one may have once considered friends, acquaintances readily turn violent. Zeyad, eloquently and with consistency, delves into the depths of this poignant aspect. These excerpts of the book succinctly capture it:

…being nice to your Hindu neighbours doesn’t really help when the eventual attack comes.….Uzma tried to save her husband and saw among them an ice-cream seller from whom they had bought ice cream a few days ago. He was leading the mob… From the crowd, I saw a finger pointing at me, scaring the shit out of me.….That finger belonged to the grandson of the neighbourhood shopkeeper, the man our family had been buying groceries from for three generations. (pp. 32-33, 79, 148).

Another significant aspect of the memoir is taking into account the numerous ghettos falling in the Old City area, such as Nuner Gate, Babri Mandi, Mian Ki Sarai, Thakurwali Gali, Haddi Godam, Sarai Sultani and the Bhujpura:

Bhujpura was somehow, impossibly, poorer than Upar Kot. ‘For them, Upar Kot is like Civil Lines,’ Saad had once told me…it was a realm of intense deprivation, where lower-caste Hindus lived alongside lower-class Muslims. In this desolate landscape where it was common for many to go to bed hungry, roads turned into a dirty muddy path and deaths in riots evoked no ripples upon the ink-stained pages of newspapers. (p. 274)

Zeyad very lucidly helps his readers to understand not only the physical but also the socio-economic and cultural divides that exist in Aligarh between the Civil Lines and the Old City (shahr). Aligarh really consists of two distinct towns both connected and separated by the flyover called kathpula (wooden bridge) on the railway line: the Civil Lines and the Old City. Howard Spodek’s essay, (2013), ‘City Planning in under British Rule’, has talked about the racial division of urban spaces in India. Spodek has argued that in the Civil Lines, the British, besides setting up the commercial and administrative headquarters, would setup their homes, shops, kutcheris and churches as well, which are quite visible even today. In a nearby area, known as “cantonment” or “camp” the armed forces were accommodated. The much larger Indian settlement that grew up around the British core was commonly referred to as the “native” or “black town”. The British and the Indian areas of the towns frequently gave the impression that they were entirely separable. The racial segregation became more marked with the coming of the Railways in the country, in later half of the 19th century.

Juliette Galonnier’s essay (2012), in Gayer & Jaffrelot’s anthology, Muslims in Indian Cities, has argued that the very establishment of the MAO College (1877) which became AMU in 1920 (Varshney and Aggarwal banias in a response to this setup Varshney College and Dharma Samaj College, both setup in 1947) and other important educational institutions and structures, in the Civil Lines, reinforces the direct legacy of the colonial urban planning, aimed at segregating the various urban functions of the city. It is no wonder that educated Muslims, largely drawn from the Ashraf castes, are agglomerated around the University while the labour and trading classes reside in the Old City. Nandini Gooptu’s study (2001) of the ‘urban poor’ [1] of four cities of UP viz., Allahabad, Banaras, Kanpur and Lucknow has shown how from the 1920s a new era of town planning, dominated by prejudices against the poor, was initiated in the UP towns which not only segregated but also evicted the poor from the better provisioned residential spaces. They were also policed more closely for they were thought to be “habitually prone to violence, disorderly behaviour, immorality and crime.” The residents of the Civil Lines in Aligarh even today look with certain degree of contempt at those living in the shahr. For them the shahr symbolizes filth, lack of education, backwardness, and poverty. Muslims (Ashrafiya), whom David Lelyveld calls ‘kacahri milieu’ in his book (1978), Aligarh’s First Generation, living in the Civil Lines insist on their social etiquette, adab. Margit Pernau in her study (2013), Ashraf into Middle Classes, has argued it was only towards the end of the 19th century that the religious identity became central for Muslims which was closely linked with the creation of a middle class whose members described themselves as Ashraf or men from a descent family. Pernau further argues that this new concept of respectability or Sharafat on which the middle class rested not only allowed it to draw a distance from the old nobility but also allowed it to bring the learned section of the community closer to the businessmen and demarcate it sharply from the ‘subalterns’. For Muslim Ashrafiya who mostly live in the Civil Lines part of Aligarh, the social etiquette remains a crucial element of their daily lives. They are proud of this distinction and perpetuate it. Zeyad reiterates:

When I verbally abused my elder brother, she (Zeyad’s mother)’d say, ‘Why are you behaving like a karkhaane-wala’s kid?’ I would resist using invectives for a couple of days. (p. 11)

City on Fire despite being a deeply interesting insider’s account misses out on telling some of the significant stories such as these:

Shah Jamal is a socially and economically neglected periphery for which Galonnier (2012), has used the term “truly disadvantaged”, borrowing from W. J. Wilson (1987), to describe its Muslim residents. Despite the fact that its residents suffered the brunt of communal strifes and the locality itself began to be inhabited after the communal riots of 1990-91, yet this doesn’t interest Zeyad. The state here is present only in the form of a police chowki and its oppressive intrusions into everyday lives such as it did in 2019-2020 during the Muslim protests against the laws pertaining to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Population Register NRC-NPR. There are no government schools or hospitals here. The ration card system barely works. These residents have been abandoned by the state, by the Opposition and by the city’s elite Muslims. Many residents don’t possess the necessary ID cards and comprise mostly of the working class and daily-wage-earning Muslims of Aligarh, not its elites [2]. It’s probably for this reason, Galonnier (2012), described Aligarh as a ‘town representing the several Muslim towns within a single city’. ‘Aligarh’s Muslim population’, argues Galonnier, ‘features at once instances of peripheralisation (in Shah Jamal) as in Ahmedabad; instances of great accomplishment within the AMU in the Civil Lines; and instances of residence in the historical core of the city (Upar Kot) as in Hyderabad or Bhopal.’

In Aligarh, too, violence is the preserve of the ‘town’, not the gown (a metaphor used by Mushirul Hasan in his essay, 2003, ‘Aligarh Muslim University: Recalling Radical Days’), to describe those living in the AMU part of the Civil Lines of Aligarh. The people of the town are the ones who sacrifice themselves for the AMU but they never benefit from AMU. On the contrary, as far as the educated middle-class Muslims living in the Civil Lines are concerned, it is highly unlikely they would ever join their co-religionists of the periphery if ever a riot was to occur there. If at all they have done anything is ‘classroom contretemps’, as put by Pratinav Anil in his book (2023), Another India. Even in terms of education, AMU has done very little for the Aligarh Muslims. As a result, they remain largely uneducated. The fact is that AMU teachers and students alike have steered clear of the town and localities such as Shah Jamal, Bhujpura etc. Though, the professors of AMU as also its alumni have written numerous memoirs in Urdu, but they hardly throw any light on the everyday living of the poor and disadvantaged co-religionists living on the other side of the kathpulla. Both of them never bothered to capture the everyday living of the town. The writings from the ‘gown’, mostly from civil lines, have been generally written from the point of praising AMU, being confined to flattery and portraying a rosy picture of AMU, its campus life. Their writings clearly suffer from lack of critical study. Therefore, a calculated lack of self-criticism is a major problem that needs to be emphasized. This reveals and testifies the huge hiatus and disjunction between the community and its educated elite. This hiatus is barely pointed out by Zeyad.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), the founder of AMU, may have held elite notions, but he had supported mass education. On February 13, 1886, writing in his reformist periodical, Aligarh Institute Gazette, he insisted on creating a huge fund to run schools for the disadvantaged in every village, mohalla and town and a committee to monitor progress. He had also conducted a detailed educational and socio-economic census of Aligarh. Omar Khalidi [3], writing on the disjunction between the community and its elite, argued that universities other than AMU have done better researches as far as the issues of Muslims are concerned. He exposes that some of the seminal works on the AMU as also on the town of Aligarh, have not come from the AMU academics but from the academicians having no connection with the AMU. For instance, some of the important researches are by E.A. Mann (1989, 1992 & 1994), Paul. R. Brass (1965 & 2002), Ashutosh Varshney (2002), Juliette Galonnier (2012), and Laurence Gautier (2019). In the same way the researches on AMU itself are by David Lelyveld (1978), Violette Graff (1989 & 1990), etc. Likewise, Shanti S. Gupta an alumnus of the varsity, in his book (1992), AMU and Muslim Politics, has raised serious questions over the contribution of AMU in the field of science, and the overall development of Muslims. He has also questioned the recruitment & enrolment processes of AMU which, he alleges, suffer from acute nepotism, favoritism and communal prejudices. Despite its limitations stemming from its rightwing perspective Gupta’s questions need some serious attention.

The book under review claims to be written on religious strifes of Aligarh. However, there have been no major riots since 1991 in Aligarh. This in itself demands an academic probing as to how and why a city, otherwise prone to communal violence during 1961-1991, has remained peaceful for more than 30 years, since 1991. The town has witnessed not less than nine communal violences since 1961 alone (1961, 1971, 1972, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1988, 1989 and the great Aligarh riots of 1990-1991). From 1991 onwards, there have been no major riots in Aligarh. This significant point, however, doesn’t occur to Zeyad.

Another inadequacy the memoir suffers from is the author’s failure to point out those localities which were once inhabited by Hindus but are now free of them. For instance, Tantanpara, prior to 1978, used to be a Hindu mohalla, which was called Tandonpara in keeping with the then dominant Hindu community bearing the surname of Tandons. After the riots of 1978, it turned into an exclusively Muslim locality.

In the Cities of Muslim power, such as Lucknow (till 1857), Hyderabad (till 1948) and Aligarh (especially the Muslim University elites), an essential ‘Hindu’ perception refuses to count ‘Muslims’ as a marginalised community. They are rather perceived as descendants of aristocracy and therefore privileged ones. As a result, the accounts of Muslim victimhood from such Cities become less convincing stories for many ‘Hindus’.

Zeyad’s account also misses out on the aspect of the economic rivalry between the Jatavs and the Qureshis. The journalist-memoirist, Zeyad, could have benefitted from E.A Mann’s study of Aligarh (1992), who has comprehensively captured the economic rivalry between the two communities of Hindus and Muslims respectively. Mann argues that the economic and political mobility of Qureshis in Aligarh has primarily been because of their ‘occupational specialisation’ which according to E.A Mann serves threefold purpose in Aligarh. They, E.A Mann further argues, face minimal competition in the trading in animal products (such as leather goods, horns for creating decorative items) primarily because the job carries with it a social stigma. Their only competitors in this regard are their Hindu counterparts coming from the Jatavs, a caste associated with leather works who have been denting the Qureshi the monopoly of ‘occupational specialisation’.

Another limitation of the book is: the author’s tendency to confuse Aligarh Muslims as constituting almost a homogenous whole. Muslims in Aligarh and elsewhere in the sub-continent are just as segmented as the Hindus. E.A Mann (1992), comprehensively captures the heterogeneity within the Muslim communities (baradaries) in Aligarh, which she terms “boundaries within identities”, calling in question the permanent religious solidarity among Muslims of Aligarh. She has identified as many as 24 Muslim baradaries in the city, among which the most ’prominent’, socially, economically and politically, in her view are, the Qureshis (the meat-sellers), the Ansaris (the weavers), the Saifis (the ironsmiths) and the Pathans. The first three would fall in what is now termed as the Pasmanda category, whereas the last would fall in the Ashraf category. Qureshis, the upwardly mobile community of Muslims are supposed to be organised and assertive in Aligarh. They have been historically found in competition (in electoral politics) with the Saifis. Besides these two castes/baradaries are the Shamsis (Muslim landed elites of Aligarh) and Ansaris. They have also been seen in competition for the control over the Shah Jamal shrine, which, Mann in her essay (1989), ‘Religion, Money and Status’ has called as the ‘Muslim microcosm of status and power’ in Aligarh. Politically too, the two communities have essentially been found mutually on opposite sides, with former supporting the Muslim League and its idea of Pakistan, while the latter supporting the Indian National Congress and its idea of secular India.

Yet another important aspect missed out by Zeyad is that there is no account of an influential mufti of the Aligarh City, Abdul Qayoom (1913-2010), as to how he came to exert such a huge influence on the City’s Muslims.

The author, despite the debilitating odds of life, chooses to conclude the book on an optimistic note. He tells his readers that enduring hardships will eventually be overcome.

“Like a phoenix, Aligarh would rise up again from the ashes.” (p. 292)

Overall, the memoir is written with great clarity and lucidity. The use of similes, metaphors and the self-deprecating humour and sarcasm is what makes the memoir even more interesting. The prose is outstandingly good.

(Review Author: Sajad Ahmad Dar is a Research Student at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India with a research interest in urban history)


[1https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/politics-of-the-urban-poor-in-early-twentiethcentury-india/4D54E6B38B2D07CE6200450C9AE7E0B3

[2] M. Sajjad & Sajad Dar, Newsclick, 24 Feb 2020 https://www.newsclick.in/why-crackdown-shah-jamal-protesters-injust

[3] TwoCircles.net, 24 May 2010 https://twocircles.net/2010may23/auditing_aligarh_muslim_university_faculty_lock_over_research_talagarh.html

(First published on Mainstream Weekly)

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