May 30, 2020
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Hell Holes

Gujarat’s Muslim riot victims can’t even dream of closure

Hell Holes
Jitender Gupta
Hell Holes

Saira Salim Sandhi walks around amidst the charred ruins and wild outgrowth of what used to be a vibrant Muslim housing society on the outer ridges of Ahmedabad. Draped in a yellow printed sari, worn Gujarati style, pallu drawn over her head, she makes her way into the shell of a burnt bungalow, and proceeds to an inner room instinctively when someone asks for a dhurrie to sit on. Then it hits home again. Everything she had was gone in that one barbaric afternoon, February 28, 2002. Her family, yes, and also all the little objects of home, the signs of placid domesticity, that she could remember from that life, things like a dhurrie in that inner room. Unable to stop herself, she touches a blackened wall and breaks into uncontrollable sobs.

It’s a surreal moment—this was her home, it’s still hers, but it’s not home anymore. She wants closure; it will happen when she has been delivered justice, she says. Tears stream down her face. Words tumble out, words of old anguish and new insults. “This sadbhavana fast is the cruellest joke Modi has played on us,” she says. “He must first show us, we who lost everything, some bhavana (emotion)...of remorse, ask for forgiveness. Sitting in air-conditioned hall with top leaders of the country, giving grand speeches, and listening to songs about Gujarat’s pride is not remorse. It’s just insult to our injury.”

Photograph by Jitender Gupta

Imtiaz Khan Pathan With son Ajaz Khan at their home in Gulberg Society. This is the complex where Congress MP Ehsan Jafri was killed, with all who’d sought refuge at his house.

Here, in Gulberg Society, where Congress MP Ehsan Jafri lived and was killed that day, Modi’s three-day fast was a grim reminder of the chasm that remains between the poster boy of Hindutva and the Muslims who suffered for its ideology. It’s a mere 25-minute drive from the Gujarat University Convention Centre where Modi occupied centrestage during the fast. That distance, though, seem too big for him to cover.

Here, victims occasionally gather, light candles, weep, sit in silence, feel the soot-covered walls, allow themselves some painful nostalgia before they return to their new dwellings elsewhere in the city. They need to share and bond. As in riot cases all over India, justice is hard to come by. “Upvas (fasting) and insaaf (justice) are two different things; we want insaaf, is it too much to ask for?” thunders Shakila Bano Ansari, who lost eight of her immediate family, and a total of 19 of her extended family, in the carnage. Adds Rupa Dara Mody, a mother who lost her nine-year-old son and whose story was narrated in the film Parzania, “Nothing, not even Modi asking for forgiveness, will bring back my son. But that’s the least he could have done, he should have come to us with those who hunted us down.”

Imtiaz Khan Pathan, who lost his parents in Jafri’s house, too sees through the charade, “Like Advani remembered Jinnah, Modi remembers us because he wants to become prime minister. The Muslims who showed their support during the fast are traitors to the community. Let them buy homes and shops in Hindu areas, then we will believe there’s sadbhavana.” In Dariapur, a Muslim locality on the margins, Salim N. Shaikh, who owns a construction business, lashes out: “We can never ever be with Modi, whatever he does or says. At a pinch, Muslims may even support the BJP as a party. But Modi? Never ever!”

Photograph by Jitender Gupta

Goriben Masadbhai She was a witness to the carnage in Naroda Patiya and wonders whether Narendra Modi knows “the pain of seeing your children being roasted alive”.

These sentiments echo in Naroda Patiya, the low-income basti located on the city’s outskirts, too. The official death toll in the carnage was 120 here. “I lost six members of my family—either hacked to death with talwars or burnt alive. We were surrounded from all sides by the Hindu mobs that day. Modi now says he understands the pain of a Gujarati; does he really know the pain of seeing your own children being roasted alive?” asks a bitter, 50-year-old Goriben Masadbhai. She is a witness in the case, unafraid to point the finger at Modi, “I want him punished. The cops told us ‘Upar se order aaya hain, miyanbhai ko maarne ka.’ Who else was sitting upar (in control) at that time?”

“The cops said, ‘Upar se order aaya hain, miyan ko maarne ka’. Who was upar then?”

Brothers Mehbla Husain Shaikh and Mohammed Husain Shaikh, who lost their family and home and spent a year in relief camps, scoff at the irony of the previous day, when a posse of 100-odd cops swarmed the area to detain those on their way to the Convention Centre to present a memorandum to Modi while he fasted. “If that riot day, even half this number was present, we may not have suffered,” says Mohammed who lost his wife and young child. He has since remarried. Similar stories abound in other affected areas like Juhapura, which well-heeled Amdavadi Hindus often call “mini-Pakistan”. Government and civic officials shudder at an assignment here, policemen resist postings, the very name has pejorative connotations. “All talk of development is fine, what’s development-progress without justice?” asks Firoz Gulzar, yet another riot victim. “Modi speaks of one, never of the other.”

Photograph by Jitender Gupta

The husain Shaikhs Brothers Mohammed and Mehbla who returned after a year in relief camps to home in Naroda Patiya. The official death toll here was 120 deaths.

The cry for justice—as a prerequisite to closure—is just as urgent among Hindu victims of that carnage. They too want perpetrators of the violence, “messengers of death screaming Allah-o-Akbar”, as an ageing Hareshbhai called the frenzied Muslim mob in Bapunagar, brought to justice. But the crucial difference here is they believe the system will deliver justice; that those who killed in rage will be made to pay, if they haven’t already. This stable sense of assurance/belief is missing among the Muslim victims.

If the sadbhavana fast was a symbolic gesture, the event’s ultimate symbolism was Modi refusing a skullcap offered by Maulana Imam Sayeed Mehendi Husain; if there was a Muslim left who was in doubt that the fast was a charade, it vanished then. BJP leaders explained later that the maulana offered but took back the cap, but video footage shows Modi’s firm restraining hand on the cap.

The strident anti-Modi strand is the one dominant theme in the larger Muslim chronicle of this city. But to confuse it with the entire narrative would be a mistake, for it is much larger, complex, multi-layered and full of disturbing echoes. There are Muslims who did not lose family members in 2002 but were driven out of their homes and lost their livelihoods; conservative estimates put this figure at around 2,50,000. There are Muslims who did not suffer greatly in 2002 but have faced similar devastating situations in the series of communal riots since the 1960s, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s. There are Muslims, largely lower-class labourers, who can afford to take on Modi with openly polemical views, and there’s that section which owns businesses that cannot adopt a confrontationist attitude.

“We are 1/6th of six crore Gujaratis, he’s the CM. If we don’t talk to him, do we talk to Musharraf?”

Industrialist Zafar Sareshwala, who lives in his ancient family bungalow in the city’s upmarket Paldi, remembers how the family suffered in the 1969 riots when he was barely six, in 1985-87, again in 1990-92 when their factory and offices were burnt down, and also in 2002 when he was financially ruined. As he puts it, “Riots were not the only hell for Muslims, we suffered harassment too. My area MLA started all his election meetings by asking Muslims to leave; the BJP flaunted the fact that they didn’t want Muslim votes. From that, to now see the beards, topis and burkhas welcomed on Modi’s stage is a pleasing sight. It signifies that the BJP realises it cannot rule without taking us along.” But Afzal Memon, businessman and social worker, who also lives in Paldi, points out that Muslims need to understand the intent behind the “let’s move on” line. “If there was a mistake, then that person has to apologise and pay for it. Otherwise it’s all talk,” says Memon.

The business class believes Muslims must seize this opportunity to turn things in their favour. “We are one-sixth of the six crore Gujaratis, he is the elected CM. If we don’t talk to him, who do we talk to? Pervez Musharraf?” asks Sareshwala. Muslims can either hang on to what happened, or engage with Modi while allowing democratic institutions to deliver justice, he says. Modi’s development plank is what Muslims must capitalise on, says this section. For example, when Modi sped up the development of Ahmedabad airport, increasing flights by three times, it benefited the taxi owners and drivers who are predominantly Muslim.

Sareshwala and Shaikh are a reality; so are Irfan Khan Pathan and Rupa Dara Mody. One set cannot understand why justice must be a prerequisite for everything else; the other is driven by the need for justice. “We need to remove this victim-centric mentality,” says Sareshwala. For parents who watched their children die, for children whose parents were killed in cold blood, for families who still live in depressing relief camps, justice is a primal, elemental need. The sentiment was best captured by London-based Dr Nadeem Zafar Jilani in his quartet:

Shayad woh galtiyon ka ehsaas kar raha hai
Peeta nahi lahu ab, ‘upvaas’ kar raha hai
Nafrat ke jism par hai ‘sadbhavana’ ka chola
Hum jaante hain zalim bakwaas kar rah hai.

(Perhaps he is realising his mistake now
He no longer drinks blood; indeed, he is on a ‘fast’
Draped on the body of hate is the cloak of ‘harmony’
We know that the oppressor is talking nonsense.)

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