Ahmedabad Riot


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The Rediff Special/ V Gangadhar

'Perhaps I would be safer in a Muslim locality'

The first of a three-part series on the Ahmedabad riots.

The artificial division of Berlin is over. Beirut is more or less peaceful. But the division of Ahmedabad city into 'Hindu Ahmedabad' and 'Muslim Ahmedabad' has begun.

Ahmedabad Because of frequent communal clashes and tension, a gradual exchange of population is taking place in the city. Ahmedabad's departure from convention is like the famous Lata Mangeshkar song of the 50s, Mein tho chalu paschim, purab tho chali duniya.

Ashraff Sayed, former chief reporter of the Times of India, was pensive as he talked to me in his rented flat at Gandhinagar, the Gujarat capital. A high-quality political journalist and an easy-to-get-along individual, Sayed and family lived at the Vijaynagar Patrakar colony for 19 years. They were the only Muslim family in the neighbourhood. During the 1985 and 1992 communal riots, his car was attacked and family threatened by Hindu fanatics. The government offered him protection, but as the tension rose, he had to make a decision.

"I was often away from home on work," recalled Sayed. "And I had to consider the safety of my family."

During the 1992 riots that claimed nearly 400 lives, even his neighbours, all journalists, advised him to move to a 'safe' area. The distress sale of his flat fetched only Rs 150,000 against the going rate of Rs 350,000. For sometime, Sayed stayed with his brother at Juanpura, a Muslim majority area and then shifted to another Hindu-dominated locality.

"When I retired from The Times of India, I began to feel more unsafe," explained Sayed. "Perhaps I would be safer in a Muslim locality."

Sayed, a reputed journalist for nearly four decades, first with the Press Trust of India and then the Times had his application for a government flat turned down by Bharatiya Janata Party Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel.

"I was entitled to government accommodation, my documents were in order and all the bureaucrats had okayed the papers," lamented Sayed. He also pointed out that the state was quite liberal in allotting flats to several bogus journalists.

Ahmedabad When he looked around for plots in mixed localities to build a house, Sayed met with hostility from the neighbours. In one case, 15 people, who had purchased plots next to the one he was planning to buy, threatened him.

"Finally, I was compelled to buy land in a totally Muslim area," Sayed said. "If this could happen to a person like me, can you imagine the plight of other Muslims? Yes, the process of dividing the city into Hindu Ahmedabad and Muslim Ahmedabad is in full swing."

There are many cases of the same kind. Professor Nizamiya, a retired principal of a local college and a long time resident of Azad Society, had to move to a Muslim locality after his house was ransacked by vandals in 1994. Professor Shaikh, formerly of the H K Arts College, faced a similar experience.

In another instance, a Muslim resident of a posh locality died after he was thrown down from his fourth floor flat. As Hindu fanatics roamed the city with lists of Muslim residents in Hindu localities, two Muslims of Akhbar Bhavan, a journalist colony, were woken up by their neighbours at 0200 hours and told to move out immediately because their homes were targeted by goondas.

Doctors, lawyers, professors and other professionals from the Muslim community are no longer welcome in mixed localities. A senior executive of the Housing Development Finance Corporation, uneasy at the hostility directed towards him, is planning to leave.

Of course, the same is true for Hindus. But very few of the upper-class had opted to live in Muslim areas. Inside the Walled City, criss-crossed by 'poles' (narrow lanes), Hindus and Muslims do live cheek by jowl. There is generally peace in areas where both communities have equal strength.

But trouble broke out in areas where one community outnumbered the other, leading to large-scale migration. The average Ahmedabad citizen does not seem to mind what was going on. This is the effect of aggressive, communal propaganda from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. The BJP government has failed to control these extreme elements. A large majority of Hindus have been brainwashed to believe that their lives would be better off without the presence of Muslims, and that it is their duty to make them second-class citizens.

A small number of secularists, independent thinkers and other minorities are, however, unhappy at these developments.

"I find Ahmedabad stifling," complained Esther David, novelist, art critic and columnist. "In fact, I no longer meet so many of my friends because of their attitude towards the minorities. I am a Jew and not welcome in many Hindu areas. The Hindus, by and large, seem to be unaffected and unmoved by communal killings, arson and looting."

But why was there such a transformation in this once-peaceful city?

'We try to rebuild mutual faith and then another riot starts destroying our work'

I think it all began with the telecast of the Ramayan and other Hindu religious serials. They were hugely popular and the religious sentiments were exploited by the politicians."

College lecturer Suman Desai and his wife Pratima, who works at the Indian Institute of Management, were speaking about the division of Ahmedabad into 'Hindu Ahmedabad' and 'Muslim Ahmedabad' -- communal violence was forcing people to cluster together on religious basis.

"This segregation is undesirable and does not reflect well on the city," Pratima said.

Unfortunately, the issue is seldom discussed. Most of the citizens have come to accept the separation as inevitable. This is due to the frequent recurrence of communal riots. After every riot, the city's development and progressive thinking goes back by five years.

"We tried to rebuild mutual faith and confidence and then another riot starts destroying all our work," complained a social worker.

During the last 10 years, more than 1,000 people have been killed in communal riots and several thousands injured. The people no longer have any confidence in the government, any government. To them, the best way to avoid trouble is to move to safer areas and live with the members of their own community.

Any cause is enough to ignite communal riots. In the past, the anti-reservation struggle turned communal and took a heavy toll. L K Advani's rath yatra, the Ayodhya issue and the demolition of the Babri Masjid created major riots. After the BJP came to power, both at the Centre and the state, Christians were targeted. Churches were burnt and property damaged. Every single Hindu or Muslim festival created tension.

When Ahmedabad celebrated the rath yatra in July, the crowds numbering over 60,000 were controlled by a police force of 7,000, as well as units of the Central Reserve Police and the Rapid Action Force. Fortunately, there were no incidents, but considerable tension was caused when Hindu mobs shouted obscene anti-Muslim slogans as the procession passed through Muslim areas.

The most recent riots, which began on July 20, puzzled even the police and the people. There was no obvious provocation. What about the Kargil factor?

As India went on winning the Kargil war, Hindu extremist elements identified local Muslims with Pakistan and showered abuses on them, despite the fact that the Muslims had enthusiastically participated in Kargil fund collections, shouting anti-Pak slogans and expressing solidarity with the Indian cause. Yet, at every place where the effigy of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief was burnt, Hindu mobs heckled local Muslims. There was considerable resentment among the Muslims, but whether anyone of them started the riots needs to be discovered.

The BJP government in the state is led by Keshubhai Patel, a hardcore Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man. His home minister, Haren Pandya, is also from the RSS. Despite claiming to have taken remedial steps at all levels, the government has done nothing to check the communal divide.

Alleges Ashraff Sayed, "There is not one Muslim, Christian or Dalit among the bureaucrats holding major decision-making jobs. The government effected 27,000 transfers during its tenure. Officials from the minorities are now holding insignificant posts."

Top-ranking bureaucrats in the Sachivalaya did not want to be quoted, but it was clear that they were unhappy with the way the government functioned.

"There is interference at every level," explained one senior officer. "Politicians controlled the police and the administration. It reflects badly on the bureaucracy."

Was there an intelligence failure during the current riots?

The Intelligence Bureau did warn the government about trouble during the rath yatra, but nothing happened. But it was clear that the IB was in bad shape. It was manned by 'rejects' from other sections because the Bureau was viewed as a 'punishment posting' with no scope for baksheesh. Yet, the IB appeared to have done its work.

It is now investigating the identity of persons who were behind the dozens of stabbing incidents. Home Minister Pandya's claim that strict instructions were issued to the police not to bow down to political interference is not taken seriously. At least during the early days of the riots, politicians of different hues bullied low-ranking policemen to release their friends who had been arrested. Later on, the government order did have some impact. Perhaps, it was this action which prompted VHP leaders to accuse the state government of protecting 'pro-Pakistan elements', a preposterous charge.

The VHP was irked because more Hindus were stabbed than Muslims. This time, the 'outsider' theory was discounted. The eight people who were killed were presumed to have died at the hands of local goondas. In most cases, the victims were innocent outsiders who had strayed into tense areas.

On July 22, Nageswar Rao was killed. The discovery of the body of a Muslim youth with stab wounds led to retaliatory acts of violence on Hindus. But an innocent Muslim tailor was doused with kerosene and set on fire. He is now struggling for life in the hospital. So is a Hindu chanawala, who was dragged out of an autorickshaw and stabbed. In Jaunpura area, a bangle-seller who argued with some Muslim women over payment for his wares was set upon by local thugs and had his tongue chopped off.

But such incidents remained localised and did not spread outside the city. There were no bomb blasts either, though a mill godown when raided yielded dozens of bottles of kerosene and other inflammatory materials.

Suddenly many Hindus saw Muslims as foreign aggressors

I guess I was lucky.

During my 20 years in Ahmedabad from 1958 to 1978, I met with nothing but love, affection and friendliness. Unlike the Shiv Sena in Bombay, the Gujaratis did not mind when people from outside cornered most of the jobs in the private and public sector. They were keener to do business and were ready to hire clerks, typists, stenos and office assistants from other states. Those years I was focussed on getting a good education and making a career. Politics did not interest me then.

But long-time residents of the city now point out that Ahmedabad had always been 'communal'. They are not surprised at the growing gulf between Hindus and Muslims, and the ultimate division of the city on communal lines.

Lawyer and human rights activist Girish Patel said communal feelings were always strong in Ahmedabad. The Muslim League was a powerful factor before Partition and many of the future leaders of Pakistan, like its former foreign minister Chundirgar, lived here.

The city had two strong political camps, led by the Congress and the Muslim League respectively. The Muslim League often bagged most of the seats in the municipal election.

During the 1941 communal riots, the Hindus took a terrible beating and never forgot it. Khadia, within the walled city, became a stronghold of Hindus, but there was no militancy in the area. The 1945 communal riots were milder, but when India became free, it was hoped that Hindus and Muslims could live together in peace. This happened for some time. Unfortunately, the average Hindu citizen of Ahmedabad was highly communal, anti-progressive and anti-dalit. He did not like Gandhi for being soft on Muslims, idolised Sardar Patel and tolerated Nehru. Yet Hindus and Muslims fought together in the Mahagujarat Movement which established a separate Gujarat state in 1960.

The Congress has always been the major force in the city. The socialists and communists could never get a foothold. The Congress split of 1968-69 had a major impact on the political, economic and communal future of Gujarat, which was the bastion of the traditional Congress-O led by Morarji Desai.

Prior to this, the Swatantra Party had made an impact in the state, but so long as senior leader Bhailalbhai Patel -- Bhai kaka, as he was known -- was its leader, it remained secular. But it brought together two communities that were bitterly opposed to Muslims and the lower castes, the Patels and the Rajputs.

The year 1969 was a watershed in communal relations. The Hindu-Muslim riots killed more than 5,000 people and Ahmedabad became a vast burial ground. The riots were aggravated because of the conflict between the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi at the Centre, and the state government led by Hitendra Desai of the Congress-O. Muslims suffered horribly because the state government presumed they had supported Gandhi during the Congress split and was keen to punish them. They faced the hostility of the police, the army and the caste Hindus.

Congress-O leader Morarji Desai was not personally communal, but he hardly did anything to control the situation. For the first time in the city's history, the labour areas were affected. The killings here were most brutal. Since then, Gujarat has never been the same.

The Nav Nirman agitation of the early 1970s was directed by students against the corrupt government of Chimanbhai Patel, the Congress chief minister. But in certain areas, it took a communal tinge and was taken over by reactionaries who opposed the Indira Congress, Muslims, land reforms and other progressive reforms. During and immediately after the Emergency, the state became a bastion of anti-Congress forces and united all the communities. But this was only a temporary lull in the communal situation.

Under Madhavsinh Solanki, the Congress chief minister during the early 1980s, the state introduced the recommendations of the Bakshi Commission granting additional reservation to the other backward classes. This was nothing new; the recommendations had been made several years ago. But the reservation now applied to seats in professional colleges and promotion in government jobs. The reaction was furious and once again Gujarat was burning.

Very soon, the anti-reservation agitation became communal. In fact, Muslims were sympathetic to the demands of the OBC and this was held against them. They became the targets of mob fury.

The Bharatiya Janata Party that had remained on the sideline for several years now adopted a new strategy of militant Hinduism. For the election to the Ahmedabad corporation during the mid-1980s, it fielded only Hindu candidates and won a comfortable majority of seats. Since then, it has continued in the same vein.

Former RSS and BJP stalwart Shankarsinh Vaghela, who later quit the party and started his own Rashtriya Janata Party, initiated moves to isolate Muslims from all walks of life. This policy is still very much in force. The Congress was slowly becoming a spent force. To counter the extreme Hindu communal forces, the extreme Muslims forces came forward. Gangster Abdul Latif contested the civic polls from five constituencies as an independent and won all five! The fate of Ahmedabad was now in the hands of extremists.

Chimanbhai Patel, whose past sins were forgiven and forgotten, was once again the chief minister. The state touched a nadir. The communal poison continued to grow. There was a bloodbath during Advani's rath yatra which was flagged off from Somnath. Suddenly many Hindus saw the Muslims as 'foreign aggressors' who had burnt, looted and pilloried Hindu temples and culture.

While the BJP played its aggressive Hindu card, the local Congress was made up of leaders like Ghulam Hyder Momin, a former Muslim League stalwart, who had opted for Pakistan at the time of Partition and returned to India only because he was made to be feel unwelcomed by Jinnah.

The Babri Masjid destruction was the last straw. That one act divided the communities on a permanent basis. Hindus did not feel safe in Muslim areas, and the Muslims opted to live with their own people. The VHP and the Bajrang Dal continued with their offensive, militant communal propaganda.

They always focused on issues like Article 370, the Uniform Civil Code and the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits. Then came Kargil, and the fanatics got another stick to beat the Muslims. The VHP, Bajrang Dal and sections of the BJP found nothing wrong in linking Indian Muslims with the Pakistani infiltrators in Kargil.

It is generally admitted that after the 1950s Ahmedabad Muslims were not aggressive and would have welcomed a degree of assimilation. They knew their future lay in India. This, however, was not possible because of the recurring communal riots. The BJP, VHP and the Bajrang Dal realised they could not drive Indian Muslims out of the country. But they saw to it that there was no integration between the two communities and Muslims were reduced to second class citizens.

The BJP-led government in Gujarat felt it could always cause pinpricks to the minorities. One of the ministers in the Chimanbhai government introduced a ruling that puja be performed for the newly-installed machines at government hospitals during Dussera. The order was withdrawn when the issue was taken to court.

The move to change Ahmedabad's name to Karnavati is in limbo. The court again intervened to stop a move to appoint BJP, VHP and BD cadres as invigilators at the SSC examination centres to prevent copying! The proposed 16-day ban on slaughter of animals during certain Jain festivals was finally reduced to nine days.

Riots always followed the occasional Hindu-Muslim wedding. Even the traditionally gentle Jain community, which frowned upon the killing of even insects, turned hostile to Muslims. Some wealthy Jains allegedly financed Hindu extremist organisations and there was no reaction from them at the killings of Muslims. Unfortunately, Gandhians, intellectuals and progressive citizens could not play an effective role in preventing the communalisation of Ahmedabad. There was too much of fence-sitting. Some of the progressives were so blinded by their anti-Congress feelings that they failed to act against the communal poison.

But the Babri Masjid incident made some changes. Today, there is some awareness of the dangers posed by fanatical elements. A huge rally against communalism in 1993 brought some hope. But there was no follow-up action; the so-called Gandhians chose to remain quiet.



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Last updated: January 15, 2001 .