At ground zero of one of independent India’s most convulsive events, the Hindu-Muslim relationship is not as vexed as many fear
Jyoti Punwar | 03 Mar, 2011
At ground zero of one of independent India’s most convulsive events, the Hindu-Muslim relationship is not as vexed as many fear
GODHRA AND AHMEDABAD – “Aap theek to hain?” The question as soon as I enter his room is characteristic of the man. Back home after nine years in jail, the 70-plus Maulana’s first instinct is to inquire about his visitor’s health. And what of his own? Maulana Hussain Umarji shakes his head ruefully. His blood pressure has shot up. “I can’t get the jail out of my head. When I was there, I kept thinking of home. And now, scenes of Gitapaath alongside recitations of the Quran that used to take place in jail keep appearing before my eyes when I try to sleep.”
Charged with the Godhra train-burning of 27 February 2002 as its alleged mastermind, Maulana Umarji had been painted as evil incarnate, part of a global ‘jihadi’ network of terrorists, in sections of the media after his arrest a year after the tragic incident. His being a Muslim cleric helped reinforce this image. He’d sworn his flock to secrecy; instigated them over the local mosque’s loudspeakers… these were some of the myths among Hindus in Godhra and Ahmedabad whose relatives had perished in Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express that day.
Furious at his acquittal and immediate release (“What if he flees to Pakistan?”), Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists allege that as soon as he was acquitted, while still in jail, he had thanked the UPA Government at the Centre. This is another lie. The Maulana avoided the press after his release, and says nothing political in the hour spent with me a few days later, preferring to talk about how Baba Ramdev’s yoga sessions in Sabarmati Jail did him some good (“Of course, I couldn’t do the really complex asanas”); how effective his medical care was (“‘Let a hundred prisoners die, but the Maulana must not’—that’s what the hospital authorities would say”); and how the judge had always returned his salaams.
Though the train was set on fire in Godhra, this town witnessed no ‘equal and opposite reaction’ as other parts of Gujarat did. Credit Maulana Umarji at least partly for that. It was he who kept local Ghanchi Muslims from losing their cool as the police combed the town’s Muslim localities, picking up anyone they could find. As nearby villages began being attacked by Hindutva mobs, Muslims from there fled to Godhra, where two relief camps were set up under the Maulana’s supervision. Passions were inflamed by the sight of people badly wounded, raped, widowed and orphaned for no fault except being Muslim, but the Maulana urged restraint.
The Maulana became the Muslim face of Godhra, interacting with Sonia Gandhi, then Prime Minister Vajpayee and other leaders who landed there. To each, he conveyed his anguish over Sabarmati, as he did in other public fora. None of this was reported in the press. On 6 April, he issued an appeal for peace, condemning the train burning, asking that the guilty be punished, and offering condolences to the families of those who had died in the fire. The appeal also asked the Modi administration to adhere to its ‘rajdharma’ as advised by the PM. Again, no local newspaper carried it.
In an interview with this reporter after he met Vajpayee on 4 April 2002, the Maulana had expressed a fear that “we can expect neither protection nor justice from this government”. The PM, he said, had remained silent when he had asked him to help Muslim refugees return to their villages, which they were fearful of. What angered him most, he said, was the constant questioning of Muslims’ patriotism.
“About 14,000 of the ulema had been hanged from the trees of Delhi for fighting for freedom. My own guru is Fakhruddin Saa’b. He was in jail in Malta for six years. The British promised him freedom and a lot more if he’d only give up Gandhiji. He refused. And these people call us traitors!”
His pre-dawn arrest in February 2003 dismayed his community. Already rattled by the indiscriminate arrests of more than 75 Muslims, including the Congress mayor, they were shaken by the sight of their revered leader hobbling without his walking stick to be taken away in a police van. The Congress kept silent, though he had campaigned for it in the 2002 Assembly polls. The Maulana had been named by a criminal in police custody—
one who withdrew his statement at his first chance before a magistrate.
In 2002, the Maulana’s son, Saeed, was a cocky young man, assisting his father at the relief camp. I met him again on this visit, minutes after news of his father’s acquittal. He had given up hope of seeing his father return alive, he revealed: “Every time I visited him, my mother would ask, ‘Zinda laayega (Will you bring him back alive)?’” With TV cameras whirring around his house, he pleaded against any celebration. “There are victims
on that side too, let’s not forget. Please convey our sympathies to them,” he said. In all of Godhra, Saeed Umarji was the only one to talk about the Sabarmati victims.
In Ahmedabad, there’s a group of VHP supporters among the families of those who were burnt in Coach S-6. They proclaim their readiness to give up their lives for Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir, blame the UPA for the acquittal of 63 accused in the case, especially Maulana Umarji, and monitor those among the bereaved who may say the ‘wrong’ thing.
“Bhagwan hai (there is God),” replies Prafullaben Soni, as I ask who looks after her after the death of both her husband and son in the Sabarmati Express carnage. But the VHP activists who’d taken me to meet her prompt her to say “Ram hai” instead. Quickly, the old woman corrects
herself: “Parmeshwar, padosi, Parishad (God, neighbours, the VHP), these three look after me.”
The VHP had helped her divorced daughter remarry a VHP worker. But despite their overbearing presence, the soft-spoken widow asserts that her husband, a municipal employee, had had Muslim friends. “All five fingers aren’t the same,” she adds, to illustrate her point.
Prafullaben is not in touch with those friends. But Prakash Choundagar and Bharat Panchal, both of whose wives perished in the fire, have retained their earlier close ties with Muslims. Rickshaw drivers both, they are back to ferrying Muslim kids to school, and have hired Muslim drivers for the new rickshaws they’ve bought. Prakash recalls that when their relatives had descended on his home for his wife’s last rites, it was the neighbourhood Muslims who had kept up a steady supply of rations. “The VHP gave us rations for a few days,” he says, “after that, we began to be treated like strangers.”
It was a Muslim driver whose rickshaw I hailed, purely by chance, who guided me to their homes; VHP activists had told me that both these bereaved husbands had left Ahmedabad. Of the 59 who died in S-6, 18 were from this city, but it’s just half-a-dozen families to whom the VHP takes journalists. Of the rest, four bereaved families have asked Teesta Setalvad to help uncover the truth of what happened with S-6, and many others
feel abandoned by the VHP, which had lured their relatives to Ayodhya and later promised jobs and education that never surfaced.
“We had nothing to do with what happened in Gujarat after Godhra, even though it was done in our name,” says Harishbhai Dabhi, who lost his 69-year-old mother Jeeviben. The youngest of eight siblings, he’d taken ill after his mother’s burnt body was brought home, and VHP leader Praveen Togadia had arranged for his hospitalisation at his own hospital. But that was the end of the VHP’s concern for them. “My father has always voted Congress,” says Harishbhai, “but the party forgot that we Dalits had also gone to Ayodhya. Both sides played politics with the Godhra incident, while we victims were left clueless about the investigation.
We left everything to the court, but look at the judgment—it’s our mother who died, not the BJP’s or Congress’. Yet, we were not called once [to testify] in the entire case.”
Kirit Kumar Shukla, a retired municipal employee, turns emotional while talking about his Ba, 72-year-old Arvindaben. He wants her killers burnt like she was, but his tears dry up fast when I ask about the VHP. After his mother died, he’d developed high blood pressure, which hurt his earnings. It was his neighbours who’d helped, not the VHP. Nor had they arranged a job for his son.
On 27 February every year, the VHP offers a public shraddhaanjali to the deceased, but none of these families attend it. They’re not invited. They have also foresworn any further participation in the Ayodhya campaign. They largely welcome the judgment of the special court, though. Prakash Choundagar, whose sons are still struggling with their disrupted lives, wants justice done. So too Bharat Panchal, but, he says, “The 31 [held guilty] should get the minimum punishment. Those who did it were just a handful; the rest got swayed into joining them. Not everyone was guilty. I have seen in the riots here how innocent bystanders were picked up. The same thing must have happened there.”
Post-2002 stereotypes of the Gujarati Hindu and Muslim hold them both as fanatics, the former brainwashed and Islamophobic, the latter illiterate
and paranoid. Like all stereotypes, some of it is true, but there are any number of Hindus and Muslims who break the mould. And these are ordinary guys, like the Bohra photocopy shop owner in Ahmedabad who relates how a Hindu lawyer apologised for boycotting his services after the 2002 violence.
Yet, advocate Rajendra Tiwari, senior VHP leader in Godhra, maintains that the VHP’s economic boycott of Muslims is still on—to make them “fall in line”. To him, it’s an achievement that Muslims are wary of displaying their religious symbols overtly. Beards and caps haven’t quite vanished, Tiwari admits. And festivals such as Uttarayan, Navratri and Raksha Bandhan still use handicrafts made by Muslims.
Janakbhai Panchal, who was on the ill-fated train and lost his soon-to-be-wed cousin Sailesh, spouts the usual anti-Muslim rhetoric at first, and then argues that the boycott is against the ‘live and let live’ spirit of Hinduism. As is the notion of collective vendetta. Ties are ties. Sailesh’s father, a village schoolteacher, had turned up to claim his son’s body accompanied by four Muslims, his former students and friends of his son and nephew.
In the midst of the mayhem that began on 28 February, Janakbhai dropped his four friends to the nearest safe point, taking care not to have their identities revealed to the mobs.
Memories of the night before the coach was burnt haunted Janakbhai for weeks. “We youngsters were awake throughout the night, teasing each other, discussing our life’s plans. When Godhra approached, we were overjoyed. We Gujaratis hate any other food, so I bought a kg of bhujiya from Godhra station for everyone.” Four of his group died, among them Rajesh, whose father Sardarji Waghela has filed a petition against the train burning case being taken out of the purview of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Sardarji is a staunch VHP supporter, but the Waghelas’ home often has visitors in the form of their former Muslim neighbours who are still grateful to Sardarji for having hidden 19 of them in his house during the anti-Muslim riots of 1969.
Gujarat’s Muslims are largely ghettoised, but not as isolated as popularly assumed. In Juhapura, Ahmedabad’s largest Muslim ghetto, there resides Gazala Parveen, ‘Tiger Lady’, so named by her daughter’s Hindu classmates because she would accompany her to the government technical institute 20 km away, where, as the only Muslim girl in class, she was taunted as a ‘miyabhai ki ladki’ (daughter of a Muslim). It was post-2002 Gujarat, but Gazala was determined to have her children pursue careers off the beaten track. Her own studies had been cut short by her father’s early death. So when, in April 2002, local clerics issued a call for Muslim students to boycott the Class 10 Board exams until provided security to go take their tests, Tiger Lady, whose son was a Board candidate, decided to defy the call. She even picked up arguments with her neighbours. “I told them, ‘Nowhere in the world have students been attacked.’ I asked them, ‘Will you help my son if he misses his exams and his career is ruined?’ So many girls, 80 per cent scorers, refused to go for their exams, and their parents didn’t let them go either. I went from house to house, pleading with them not to ruin their future.
But no one listened. I feel like crying when I see them married off now.”
This passion for studies made Gazala’s children excel, and brought an unusual house guest—her daughter’s Hindu classmate, who spent the exam fortnight studying with her Muslim friend. “Imagine a Hindu girl living in Juhapura alone. I’d not even met her parents. I was so tense those two weeks; after all, I have a young son at home. I cooked only vegetarian food. Even the girl stopped wearing jeans and wore only salwar kameez.”
Today, Juhapura is second home to that Hindu girl.From Ahmedabad’s ghettos to Godhra, where Hindus and Muslims inhabit separate sides of the bridge that runs through town, there are other tales of amity.
“Godhra is unnecessarily maligned,” says the BJP’s Chirag Shah. “My shops have always been in Muslim areas, and have always been perfectly safe.”
Polan Bazaar is one such ‘Muslim area’. This is where Imran Pola, whose father took him to see the famous Ambaji and Mount Abu temples as a child, once used to live. When he went to Ahmedabad for his Masters’ degree, Imran stayed a year at the Swaminarayan Temple. That happened
to be where his four female Hindu classmates were staying, and he had been asked by their parents to look after them in the big bad city. Today, Imran is one of two Muslim teachers chosen by Dr Sujaat Vali, a well-known peace activist in Godhra, to teach poor Hindu kids. Classes are held inside a temple every evening. The other teacher is Harun Rashid, a resident of Signal Falia whose uncle was among the 63 acquitted the week before last. Both Imran and Harun are Ghanchi Muslims, the sub-community whose members are alleged to have burnt the Sabarmati Express.