Iraq War


India Elections

US Imperialism

Climate Change

Peak Oil


WSF In India







Gujarat Pogrom






Join Mailing List

Submit Articles

Contact Us


Two-Nation Theory...

By Sheela Reddy

10 May, 2004

For Muslims living in Gujarat, this election is different from the last 13. Like everything else—jobs, colleges, hospitals, banks and police stations—elections 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 separates—imprisons, rather—the 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.

Schoolchildren, 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 them—listless, limp bodies spread out under the shade of walls—proclaims 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." Toofan—the 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 them—the 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 mettle—and a few judicious bribes to the police—Ahmedbhai 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 border—and a communal crossover—sprung 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.

Godhra's busiest 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 ghetto—even 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 expanding—shops 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 own—fear. "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.


©Outlook Publishing (India) Private Limited 2004