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‘Almost all of those who stood with me were Hindus’

Even in the midst of an ugly cycle of violence in Gujarat, there have been voices of sanity that are helping to bring people together. A Muslim professor was saved by his Hindu neighbours when his house was destroyed by mobs. Professor JS Bandukwala, who is a teacher of nuclear physics at the University of Baroda and his daughter, Umaima recounted to NDTV’s Barkha Dutt how their house was ransacked during the violence in Gujarat.

You've always spoken up for the need for harmony between Hindus and Muslims, what happened?
Bandukwala: The mob first came to my place. They targeted both my cars. One car was completely burned down. They tried to open the gates but could not so they went away, but the cars were destroyed.
They came again. On the second day, I could see the hatred in their eyes. I realized they were coming so I just moved away to my neighbour's house. My daughter was inside, but they completely vandalised my whole house. I'm very fond of old vases and marbles. Everything was just completely smashed.

Is there anything left in your house?
Umaima: Only the four walls, nothing else, everything is destroyed. The whole house was ransacked, there is only wood and glasses and marbles everywhere.

How many people came?
Umaima: A mob of around 200-300 people came.

How does it make you feel, is it heart breaking?
Umaima: Yes definitely. I lived in this house for as long as I can remember. A house is meant to shelter and protect us and a mob of 200 people come in and just throw us out. The worst part is, there were neighbours who were trying to help us, the mob targetted their houses as well. A maddening thing seems to be going on.
Professor Bandukwala, you actually made a statement that your Hindu neighbors, you're Muslim, actually came to your protection, is that what happened?
Bandukwala: That is what happened on the very first day when they were destroying my car, my neighbours had stepped in. I was feeling very proud that here was a very fine illustration of communal harmony. To my horror they became absolute targets, their houses were being targeted, they were even physically assaulted just for helping me out. I don’t know where this is going to end? At one stage, I was even thinking of coming forward to them and telling them, "Friends, if you just want my life then take it but don’t harass others, this is not proper. We are after all human beings; we have to live in this country together." The population of Muslims in India is 125 million, this number is so huge that it is even improper to call Muslims a minority; the number is larger than the number of Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Muslims of India are playing a very vital role worldwide in changing the contours of Islam and we are very happy about it.

As somebody who is known as a moderate Muslim leader in the community here, you would say that what happened at Godhra was as wrong as the revenge and retaliation that is taking place now, wouldn’t you?
Bandukwala: There is little doubt about it. What happened in Godhra was condemnable. We immediately came out saying that we have to condemn this. It is absolutely barbaric to attack people travelling in trains. The main point is that we may disagree with people but why should we attack them? We should attack ideas and thoughts. Why should we attack individuals physically? That vicious thing really frightens me, on both sides.

You think the leadership of both communities in some ways has let it down?
Bandukwala: Well, in a way, yes. Muslim extremists also have to be condemned just as we condemn Hindu extremists. The general mass has to realize that the path of the extremists is the path of destruction.

Can we ask you, as someone who has devoted your entire life to bridging the gulf between this very polarized Hindu community and Muslim community, in this picture of despair and gloom, do you see any ray of hope?
Bandukwala: Yes I do see a lot of hope in the sense that average people are very good, very decent, both Hindus and Muslims. This time I saw very clearly almost all of those who stood with me were Hindus because Muslims were far away. I'm staying in a Hindu-dominated area and they were the ones who stayed next to me. There is no doubt that average people are very decent. The only problem is that the sense of terror in them. I saw that the mob was making a target of those Hindus who were trying to inculcate this concept of harmony. There was special viciousness for those who were trying to help me. This is what frightens me.

And your daughter was going to marry a Gujarati Hindu.
Bandukwala: My daughter is due to marry a Hindu boy. They were both in love with each other for a number of years, and we consented. My wife who died recently wished them well just before she died. We were very happy. The boy is wonderful. Unfortunately to our horror, instead of becoming a point of bringing the two communities closer, it appears to be a point of dividing the two communities. Again, I must point out that this is the line of extremists. It is not the line of the average people of India. And the people we see out on the streets are the mobs, they are not the silent majority.
Bandukwala: They are the mobs. I saw there were people who were calling my name and saying maar dalo. But they are all lumpen elements, barely in their late teens or twenties. They were also dressed quite shabbily. They almost look like the lumpen elements produced by urbanization, very poor education and no jobs. These are the people who are very easy targets of extremists on both sides. However, once we steer towards economic progress, then automatically we'll cut off the very roots of extremism.

Let me ask you finally, when will you be able to go back home again, do you think you'll ever be able to go back home again?
Umaima I saw the house after it was ransacked, there is nothing left. I don’t think we can ever go back there and I don’t think we even feel safe. We'll try and get another house and make a new home all together.

Bandukwala: What worries me is what my daughter mentioned. Ultimately one of the aspects of cultivating a national mainstream is that all people should live together. The tragedy of our urban landscape, particularly in cities like Baroda and Ahmedabad, is it is completely ghettoized. 
I was one of the first to move into this locality, I could easily have bought a very good house in a Muslim locality but I moved over here because I wanted to inculcate a sense of integration at the societal level, at the grassroot level -- that Hindus and Muslims must learn to live together. Unfortunately, the extremists seem to be attacking that very theme that there should be no Muslims in Hindu localities and vice versa. We are facing a very tough task. In this, I wish the role of the government were more active. I'm not at all happy.
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