On the outskirt of Mumbai lives a small community of Indian-Iranis. Their name has recently figured in a string of chain-snatching incidents, bike-thefts, house-breakins, and more. The police has termed the entire community as thieves. But is that really true? We find out.
Sixty kilometers from the city of Mumbai lies the town of Ambivali in Kalyan Taluka of Maharashtra. This town with a population of 7000 is home to a nomadic tribe called Indian Iranis. The Iranis, who migrated to India in the 16th century and hail from the Baloch region of Iran- Pakistan, have recently been in the news for the involvement of the community’s men in various incidents of chain-snatching, bike-thefts and duping the elderly of their jewelry and funds in and around Mumbai.
A visit to the town during noon-time shows a colorful and relatively peaceful sight with women sitting on their verandas and children playing. The women, especially the older ones are dressed in ghagras with a scarf over their head and their facial features are proof of their middle-eastern heritage. The Iranis are Shias and most have this term attached to their names. But, this name is not looked upon kindly by the police or the state administration.
According to the local police – the Mahatma Phule police station which has Kalyan as its zone, the quiet in the afternoon and the people’s colorful attire is a facade – a facade that hides the profession of almost every single family of that of a thief. Dinesh Katke, Senior Police Inspector categorically states, “The maximum number of chain-snatching incidents and vehicle-thefts are recorded in this zone. Out of the 250-odd Irani families that reside here, I would estimate that there might be just one or two that do not indulge in unscrupulous activities. In 2015, within five months this station recorded 97 cases of chain-snatching.”
But, a talk with the elderly and women of the village throws up an almost opposite version. Tasleem, a septuagenarian, who was born in Hyderabad and married into a family in Ambivali, says, “Only our attire is different but we are Indian. We are being targeted by the police here. Our women have been attacked, our children picked up and even old men have not been spared. Men have been kept in the lock-up for two years without any case.”
Reshma a mother of two, is virulent in her attack on the police force. She describes the incident which saw a 20-year old die in the combing operation that the police carried out in March this year. “They came in hundreds and started chasing every boy or man that they could lay their hands on. Many ran into the river but they gave chase and nobody helped even when the boy was drowning. We were not even provided help to fish his dead-body out of the water. They threaten to impose the MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act) on our men and boys and demand gold as bribes – from Rs. 20,000 to 2 lakh before they agree to release them. Women have not been spared – a young, unmarried girl was picked up, kept in the lockup for four months and then released for lack of evidence. Who will hold the police accountable?”
The village head, Taizib Hussein, says bribing the local police to stay out of the lock-up has become a way of life. “Due to a couple of incidents, they call the entire village full of thieves. Punish or arrest who are guilty but how can you pick up and target people who live simple lives, who are trying to make-do with very little resources. Till date we have received no help from society. In fact, due to our small number we have been targeted.”
The story of the Iranis of Ambivali is a mass of contradictions. Dashrath Tare, Corporator of Ambivali and someone who has seen the tribe grow into its current size hesitantly opens up about them. He says, “From a few families in the sixties to almost 2000 people now, the Iranis have came and settled here from different parts of Maharashtra. They have settled near the station as the location allows them quick and easy access to transport. They claim to sell goggles and eye wear in Mumbai but no one really knows what they do. They stay to themselves, marry within the community and are not interested in being part of the mainstream. We have tried to get the children in school but there have been problems there and the schools then refused to take any more.”
This claim too is refuted by the Iranis. Taizib Hussein says, “As we are Shias, we have to marry within the community. We have built our own graveyard, our mosque and run a madrassa. Traditionally we used to travel across India but today the times have changed. We can no longer live like nomads so we chose to settle here after buying land.”
They say that political parties only pay lip service to their needs and that they have had to take up the various cases of police brutality themselves. Mariam, who acts as the community’s go-between the villagers and the police says that she has taken the case of the Iranis to the Commissionerate but to no avail. “The orders are not given any heed and after our complaints we have been harassed even more. Boys who go to college too have been picked up and released only after teachers came to testify.”
However, the police say that just two or three youngsters from the 2000-odd strong community pursue education full-time. The rest they emphasise are ‘thieves.’