Two years ago, when 25-year-old Akhtar Imam Pathan needed to move out of Indapur, a small town in Baramati district of Maharashtra, for higher studies, the natural choice for the economics graduate was Pune. Life in the University of Pune, from where he has just completed his Masters, has so far been an unhurried one, with books, friends and football taking up his hours. Two years younger, Mohsin Karche made a similar journey from Solapur eight years ago, to study in an engineering college and now works for an automobile company in the city. He begins his day by going to work from the familys upscale Salisbury Park home to his office and ends it with a night out with friends in nearby Koregaon Park.
For both Pathan and Karche, nothing has ostensibly changed in the past two weeks. Yet, on June 2, the news of the murder of Mohsin Shaikh, a 28-year-old techie from Solapur, who was attacked and killed by Hindu right-wing activists, caused them both to pause and grapple with an unfamiliar uneasiness. It had less to do with what had happened to a Muslim boy like me and more to do with what was happening to a city like Pune, which has always managed to accommodate outsiders with such grace and where communal clashes were more an aberration than the rule, says Karche.
Mohsin Shaikh was targeted by a mob protesting derogatory Facebook posts on Shivaji and Bal Thackeray because of the skull cap he wore and the beard he sported. He, too, was an youngster drawn to a rapidly growing cosmopolitan town, and the promise that all cities hold out: of a better life. He came from a middle-class family in Solapur, about 300 km from Pune. He had been working as a network administrator with a private firm in Pune for two years. He lived in a rented room in Hadapsar with his brother Mubeen, who arrived in Pune two months ago in search of work. As the eldest son of the family and its sole earner, Mohsin would call up home twice a day. He sent a part of his salary to his father at the beginning of every month. He did that on the day he died.
Pune, once the city of the Peshwas, is where two rivers Mula and Mutha meet. It is now unmistakably the city of the young, impatient for change and open to it. Like other cities in 21st century India, it is being shaped and reshaped by the surge of outsiders, from students to techies to the working class. From a sleepy retirement home for Army officials, it has expanded briskly in the north and south, and turned into a landscape of malls, multiplexes and concrete. But unlike Delhi, where women and people from the states in the Northeast, or other minorities, run into visible walls of hostility, it is a city where differences do not turn into fault lines, where landlords do not wrinkle their noses at bamboo shoots being cooked and where the woman on the street does not find lewd remarks lobbed at her because of what she is wearing.
Walk into any campus in the city and you will encounter the united colours of globalisation. Colleges here host students from Africa as well as southeast Asia. Students come to Pune to study for various reasons: its reputation as an education hub, the availability of a wide choice of courses, affordability, climate and safety. Many of them tell me that they also find Pune more accepting of outsiders than any other place in India or abroad, says Shirish Sahasrabudhe, director of Symbiosis language schools, who puts the number of international students in Pune at around 15,000, from some 80 countries. The number of students from states other than Maharashtra is close to a lakh.
The top draw for students are iconic institutes like the Fergusson College, College of Engineering and the Film and Television Training Institute, while the newer magnets of talent are Symbiosis and Maharashtra Institute of Technology. Young techies have found both work and home in the sprawling IT campuses in Hinjewadi and Magarapatta, which house the offices of Infosys, Wipro, IBM, TATA Technologies and many others.
Like many other university districts, Senapati Bapat Road, where Symbiosis is located, has evolved its own ecosystem of paying guest facilities, dabba services, fast food joints, and swanky cafes. Nineteen-year-old Zahra Qureshi from Tanzania went to high school in Jaipur before coming down to Pune to study at Symbiosis. Its taken her a while to develop a taste for the spicy vada pav sold on its streets, but it was the lack of unwanted attention that she loved the most. In Jaipur, its common to have men brush past you, dash into you from behind, or whistle at you. But none of this has happened in my six-month stay in Pune, she says. She calls the residents co-operative and kind, making an exception for the officials at the Foreigner Regional Registration Office. Has she ever faced any kind of discrimination No, she says, and adds: But if I can avoid using my surname, I do so.
Qureshis caveat points, however, to a growing cleavage in the city, reflected in the ghettoisation of the Muslim community. Nazir Fatehpuri, 67, an Urdu poet who has been staying in Sanjay Park for the last 50 years, says Pune was once much more cosmopolitan. The Muslim population was scattered throughout the city in Bhavani Peth, Deccan, Yerwada, Khadki and Pashan and not pigeonholed in Kondhwa. But this started to change in the early 1990s. Soon after the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, a large number of Muslim families who stayed in Hindu-majority areas in Mumbai started to move out in fear and came here, he says. The numbers would only grow in the years. After the riots of Gujarat in 2002, many Gujarati Muslim families shifted to Kondhwa and nearby areas. In the last two decades, Muslims who had been staying in other areas of Pune for generations also felt it was safer to move to Kondhwa. The discrimination against a prospective Muslim buyer or tenant is not as blatant as its in Mumbai. In Pune its subtle. But its equally difficult for a Muslim man to buy or rent a flat in a Hindu majority area, says Fatehpuri.
The Hindu Rashtra Sena, whose leader has been arrested for Shaikhs murder, tapped into these disaffections to find its followers. Pune is an open-minded, vibrant and diverse city whose ethos is education and culture, says Meeran Borwankar, a former police commissioner of the city, and currently additional director-general (state) of prisons. Having said that, I have to add that stray streams of extremism and intolerance have always existed , with the right wing being more dominant, she says. History lends some credence to the statement. Nathuram Godse was born and brought up in Pune district. Hindu activists from the city associated with extremist groups like Abhinav Bharat and Sanatan Sanstha were recently arrested and charged with carrying out terror strikes in Malegaon and Goa. Conversely, in 2012, the violence between Bodos and Muslims in Assam spilled over to the city, when local Muslim boys attacked youth from Northeastern states, sparking a panic-filled exodus back east.
Despite Shaikhs murder and the fears of communal polarisation, though, its residents believe that theirs is an open city. I have been teaching at the university for the last 23 years. I have many Muslim and Northeast students and their identity has never been an issue, says Rohini Sahani, head of the department of economics, University of Pune.
Elizabeth Songate has been living in Pune in Kondhwa for the past eight years. The 37-year-old researcher from Manipur came here with her husband, when he was posted to Pune. She teaches at the University of Pune, researching on indigenous identity in a globalising India, with special emphasis on tribal migrants from the Northeast. Pune, as a whole, is the most broadminded city I have seen. No one feels conscious or unsafe wearing clothes they are comfortable in, says Songate. The city makes us feel like we are a part of it and thats what works for us, she says.
Mohsin Shaikhs father spoke in anguish of how he had never thought that a young, hard-working Muslim had reason to fear in Pune. Where that hope met the bitter reality is where Punes challenge begins.