The murder of a young Muslim man in Pune spotlights its communal discord. But to the many outsiders who make it their home, and the students who give it its spirit, it remains an open city
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 Master’s, 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 family’s 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