By Sheela Reddy
10 May, 2004
Muslims living in Gujarat, this election is different from the last
13. Like everything elsejobs, colleges, hospitals, banks and police
stationselections have become something that happens across the
border. Muner Sayed, a tall man with a gentle humour about his eyes
and mouth that not even the worst Hindu-Muslim riots have quite been
able to wipe off, is showing me one of the scores of borders that have
sprung up in Vadodara in the last two years. As elsewhere, the border
here is a road that separatesimprisons, ratherthe Muslim
population from its Hindu neighbours. On one side of the road, where
we are standing, is a row of shops with the desultory look of a small
railway station where trains no longer stop: shuttered shops, men dozing
in the emptiness of the open market square.
"It's Sunday," Munerbhai reminds me, "otherwise this
market is packed with shoppers. Things here are now selling so much
cheaper than in other bazaars that people don't mind paying the extra
autorickshaw fare to get here." The border is still permeable.
for instance, cross the border every day to attend the Muslim Education
Society High School, where nearly half the children are Hindu.
But the "interior"
is another matter. The narrow alleyways are lined with sturdy iron-grilled
doors, fronting one-roomed tenements that now rise perilously skyward
to cope with the new influx of riot victims. There are people here,
spilling out in the heat of midday from the overcrowded tenements, but
everything about themlistless, limp bodies spread out under the
shade of wallsproclaims that they belong here in the ghetto. In
the interior, they talk of the elections as "theirs". The
last time a Hindu ventured into these lanes, to attend a dinner party
thrown by a college mate during Moharram this year, he got caught between
the police and a mob protesting the gunning down of a resident youth
and was killed.
Few women and children
venture out of the ghetto. For instance, when Ghulam Badshahbhai, well-known
in these parts as a contractor and second-hand car salesman (and now
for the number of times he's been hauled off to the police station),
had to send his daughter for her board exam last year, the whole family
quaked. "Her exam centre was in an area where even a grown man
would not have survived had there been a toofan." Toofanthe
word used here for the communal riots that stir up here as unpredictably
and devastatingly as a typhoon. She failed the exam, but the family
doesn't blame her; venturing out of the border was trauma enough. People
do go across the border everyday for various reasons, but elections
is not one of themthe whole business of rallies, assessing candidates,
chasing up election cards that usually happens in this season. "This
time," says Badshahbhai, casting a defiant look at his mentor,
Munerbhai, "we are thinking of boycotting the election." It
was perhaps the first time someone in the ghetto had ever said it aloud,
but no one demurred.
Most of Vadodara's
new borders have a police checkpoint to mark them out. But this one
with its two flags at either end, sooty white on our side, blazing red
with a gold border on the other, has a whole police station, its trademark
pwd-yellow wall gazing in windowless menace from the other side of the
border. A man with a pushcart loaded with bananas is trying to get across
from our end. "He'll get it if he's caught by a policeman,"
Munerbhai says in a detached, humorous way. Munerbhai is a railway "loco
inspector" but for the last two years he has spent most of his
day and much of the night trying to keep a fragile peace in the ghettos
and scotching rumours that spread there like forest fires. As part of
a voluntary group, Qaumi Ekta Samiti, he is in charge of the ghettos
in the eastern part of Vadodara.
According to him,
the pushcart vendor has no option but to brave the border and the policemen
lying in wait at the other end. Because that's where his customers are.
There are others
who venture beyond the borders. Nasir Ahmedbhai, owner of a modest bakery
employing 15 people, is one of those who decided to reopen his shop
in the same place where it was burnt down two years ago in the post-Godhra
riots. His rebuilt-from-scratch National Bakery supplies fresh bread
and buns to the people who razed it down. Four months after his family
fled from the Hindu-dominated locality of Baranpur, where his family
has lived for generations, Ahmedbhai returned. All he found was rubble
and a sooty gap between the wall-to-wall Hindu homes. When he tried
to fix an iron grid around his devastated bakery, his Hindu neighbours
turned again into an angry mob. In less than half an hour, he found
himself in police custody. But with the famous Gujarati mettleand
a few judicious bribes to the policeAhmedbhai wore down his neighbours'
resistance. His bakery is now humming with workers and customers, but
facing it is his former three-storeyed home: a gaping hole in the fortress
line of Hindu apartments. "I would like to sell the plot and buy
a house in a safer locality," says Ahmedbhai. But like most Muslim
property on sale now in Vadodara, there are simply no takers.
On the other hand,
Hindu house-owners who found themselves on the wrong side of the new
borders had little problem disposing of their property and moving to
other, less uncomfortable parts of the city. In Tandalja, for instance.
Till two years ago, the sprawling locality near Basil school was popular
among those who wanted to build homes away from the congestion of the
old city but couldn't afford the prices in neighbouring Alkapuri. The
post-Godhra riots and the influx of Muslims fleeing the terror of the
inner city changed all that. An invisible borderand a communal
crossoversprung up here too.
Not all borders, though, are invisible. In Godhra, with its long history
of communal riots, the borders have had time to grow into something
resembling the one at Wagah: a gigantic 12-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide iron
gate guards the boundary near the Jahurpura wholesale fruit and vegetable
market. On the gateposts, aggressively facing the Muslim quarter, are
tiles with colourful images of Siva and Ganesha. The gates themselves,
with their black paint still fresh, are unadorned, except for a board
advertising a medical store near the border.
But since the gate
closes at 5 pm, people on the other side of the border, Muslims, have
to wait till morning for their medicines. Beyond the gates, a mere 50
metres across the border is also Nutan High School, a five-storeyed
lego-block building where most of the children on both sides of the
border go for their schooling. Four months after the torching of Sabarmati
Express, when children were writing their final exams, a riot erupted,
leaving the Muslim children stranded on the wrong side of the border.
The principal, Amin Khatura, had to call the police to rescue them.
But the children have learnt their lesson now: at the first hint of
an imminent 'toofan', the children leave their benches and bolt, a 50
metre-dash into the arms of their anxious parents on the other side
of the border.
bank, Kewal Cooperative Bank, is also just beyond the border gates.
Pre-2002, nearly all wholesale dealers on both sides of Jahurpura came
here. But after the watershed riots of February 2002, even this has
changed. Muslim traders have withdrawn their money from Kewal bank and
put it into the new 'Muslim' banks that have opened on their side.
Gaffer Memon, whose
Naaz Footwear store sits on the main intersection of the Jahurpura market,
explains just how different the 2002 riots were."In 1998, when
there was a toofan, the windshield of my Maruti was shattered."
In 2002, his shop, famed all over Godhra and its outskirts for its reasonable
prices and variety, was looted and burnt down. So was his brother-in-law's
shoe shop facing his. His brother-in-law fled to Bombay but Memon, who
himself came to Godhra from Bombay six years ago, decided to rebuild
and run both the shops. His reasons are practical: "No one's willing
to buy the property, even if we sell it for Rs 50,000 less than what
we bought it at." Besides, he says, "what guarantee is there
that we'll be safer in Bombay?" The only precaution Memon has now
taken is something many Muslim shopkeepers and traders in Gujarat are
learning to do: insurance cover. "The payments are very hefty,"
Memon says, "but what can we do other than that?" Voting,
according to Memon, won't help. "Sab seat mein baith ke apni roti
sekte hain (everyone seeks power for their own ends)," he says.
Memon's cynicism is shared by everyone in the ghettoeven the young
boys for whom words like 'combing', 'incident', 'boundary' and 'control
room' are no longer foreign.
Across the road
from what is now derisively called Mini Karachi, the border is expandingshops
belonging to Hindus sprinkled with a few "Muslim shops" spilling
over from the congestion on the other side.The shoe shop owned by Memon's
brother-in-law is one of them. When the Memons bought this property
several years ago, they did not mind paying more. A "mixed border"
is safer because of the practical difficulties of targeting a Muslim
shop without damaging the adjoining Hindu shops. But less than 24 hours
after his own shop was razed to the ground, the rioters burnt down his
brother-in-law's as well. The mixed bazaar is now in mortal decline,
with those who can afford it moving out. "This road is the starting
point of all incidents in Godhra," explains Memon, "so even
the rickshaw wallahs scare away customers by saying there will be trouble
there." But for the Memons, as for other Muslim traders and shopkeepers,
there is nowhere left to go.
In Mora, 46 km from
Godhra, where Iqbal Gurgi's family has been running the largest store
in the village, there is no border. Only a mosque, behind whose high
walls Gurgi and 300 other Muslims hid when their Hindu neighbours came
to get them. The walls kept the mob at bay but not the flaming tyres
that came flying at them from outside. Gurgi, rescued by the army, assumed
their shop would escape the mob fury because it was next to a bank.
In fact, when his Hindu neighbours burnt down his shop, others came
and helped to put out the fire. The next day he realised why: they wanted
to ensure the bank was safe. Gurgi's parents never returned to Mora,
preferring to set up shop in their one-roomed home in Godhra's outskirts.
But catering to a few dozen impoverished Muslim refugee families was
not Gurgi's idea of business. He went back to rebuild and run their
shop in Mora, overcoming his parents'and his ownfear. "Ab
himmat badh gayi hai (now I have more courage)". It's this desperate
courage, the kind that comes from knowing there's nothing more to lose,
that's forcing thousands of Gujarati Muslims to cross the new borders.
(India) Private Limited 2004