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Gujarat diary

In Modi’s Gujarat
By Raju Rajagopal

Those who rule Gujarat would very much like the world to believe that everything is normal here. As they try to shore up investor confidence in the State, anyone who dares to challenge their rosy rendition--by exposing their sectarian agenda--is quickly accused of defaming the State. True, Gujarat has been relatively peaceful in recent months, and the tragic events of 2002 has been fading from our memories, but does the mere absence of everyday violence mean that normalcy has returned to its citizens? If Gujarat's image has been tarnished internationally, who is actually responsible for it?
I am seeking my own answers to these questions as I travel here nearly two years after the state-condoned pogroms...

May We Go Home…Please?
My first stop is Kalol, about 50 km from Vadodara, where I get a chance to speak to some of the Muslim villagers whose lives were devastated by the 2002 violence. The second anniversary of their nightmare has come and gone, but these families still can't return to their own homes! Instead, they live in this recently completed housing project funded by several local organizations and NRI groups...

Why can't they go home? The answer, unfortunately, is the same as it was last year…and the year before: their erstwhile Hindu neighbors continue to threaten them with dire consequences should they dare. "Any time outsiders accost them, they say that we're welcome to go back," explains Yasminben (name changed), "but when we ask, the answer is always no." Two women have just returned from a day trip to the village of Dailol, trailed by a TV crew filming their plight. "Did your neighbors invite you back?" I ask curiously. "No, they only offered us water," they respond, as they nervously relate how they were shaking with fear whilst in the village. (Our NRI Sadbhavna Mission had to beat a hasty retreat from Dailol in September 2002 after being physically threatened and chased out by an angry mob--the Sarpanch, who has been accused of participating in the violence, hadn't taken kindly to our intervention on behalf of his neighbors who were then languishing in a relief camp.)

Mohammedbhai (name changed) and his family used to live in their own three-bedroom home in Dailol, where they also own a piece of land. He lost a close relative among the 38 people burnt alive by their own neighbors and `people from the outside' on March 1, 2002. Now they live in a one-room house in this new colony, in 300 square feet of living space. They aren't complaining though...The credit goes in large measure to Muktharsaab, a community leader from Kalol, who was operating the relief camps here months after the State had ‘shut them down,' and who seems to have since invested considerable personal resources to care for this beleaguered community.
What about Mohammedbhai's land? Their newly acquired Hindu ‘partner' is supposed to be tending to it on their behalf. But they haven't seen any produce or income from it yet... and I suspect they don't really expect to see any. What about their burnt-out home? "It's being used as a latrine," laments Yasminben...

A man from Pavagadh, who now lives in another newly-built housing project in Halol...used to drive a jeep up and down this popular hill station, one of the top 100 endangered heritage sites in the world. He explains how the tourist business, which used to be shared by Hindus and Muslims alike, is now entirely in Hindu hands. "Why would they want us back," he rationalizes. "It's true that the poojari at the Kalika Mata temple saved the mazar... from destruction," he continues, "but today I can only go there during the day as just another tourist." 

Rakesh Sharma's documentary, Final Solution, reportedly features a VHP man from Pavagadh boasting that the town had been made completely free of Muslims. Even the Archeological Survey of India... had suddenly ‘discovered' that many poor Muslim families had been encroaching on its properties here, and it had decided to dust off its rules book to fence them out--even as other communities continue to encroach. This experiment in ‘ethnic cleansing' was apparently of no concern to the organizers of last September's ‘Vibrant Gujarat-Global Investment Summit,' designed to woo NRI investments to the State. They had showcased the development of Champaner-Pavagadh area as one of their ambitious tourism projects, soliciting NRI funds to the tune of $24 million to create an upscale vacation destination and to preserve the many Indo-Islamic monuments here. The U.S. State Department seems to have obliged, with a visit to the area as well as a $20,619 grant. It is ironic that a state that would like us to believe that it cares for its Islamic heritage should condone the continuing exclusion of its Muslim citizens from their own hometown. It's even more ironic that the US Ambassador's Fund, designed to ‘demonstrate U.S. respect for other cultures,' should have unwittingly become complicit in Gujarat's sectarian experiment.

Similar stories, albeit with some variations, are playing out in many parts of Gujarat. Many villagers have indeed welcomed their Muslim neighbors back, while in other places they are ‘welcome' to come during the day to tend to their businesses or land, but they may not stay overnight-—reminiscent of the Bantustans of South Africa... many Hindus and Muslims living in mixed neighborhoods in the larger cities were moving out of their long-time homes to the ‘safety' of their own communities. Such ghettoization, I am told, is now near total (like Beirut of the 80's?). "No one will sell or rent me a home in a Hindu neighborhood anymore," bemoans a Muslim professional from Vadodara. McCarthyism, Deshi style?

Some of the professors at a local university are distraught over the state of affairs here. Targeting members of the faculty who have had the courage to speak out against the Gujarat pogroms seems to be fair game on this campus. I am told that any classroom discussion by some of the faculty, even if within the prescribed syllabus, requires prior permission-—presumably, a way to censor and control discussion about human rights, communal harmony, or even gender issues. One faculty member tells me that he/she had recently received a note from the Dean seeking an explanation on why a certain topic had been discussed in the class ‘without permission.' Classes are apparently regularly monitored and reported on by ABVP [RSS’ national student organization] students who hold sway here... Legitimate seminars on contemporary issues, organized with grants from reputable institutions, are being turned out of the campus, forcing the organizers to rent venues elsewhere. Even so, they say that disruptions by ABVP and other Sangh Parivar outfits are to be expected, if either the topic or the speakers aren't to their liking. To me, this smacks of an Indian reincarnation of McCarthyism, but a majority of the faculty here either doesn't care or is too intimidated to protest.
This reminds me of my own encounter with the Sangh Parivar in Vadodara last year, during an Asghar Ali Engineer talk titled, ‘History of Communalism.' RSS, VHP and ABVP folks had gate-crashed the seminar in full force, determined to stop it even though it was being held under private auspices, after being forced out of a campus locale by ABVP. Among this rowdy gang was a senior RSS pracharak who was on the university syndicate, as well as the campus leader of ABVP. I saw them ordering the organizers around on what they may or may not distribute at the seminar, constantly interrupting the speaker and filibustering the proceedings with long speeches, and frequently hinting that violence could ensue if they didn't get their way. They had also confronted me in a threatening manner, questioning my presence there and wanting to know why I was taking pictures. Subsequent to this unpleasant encounter, I happened to read a booklet issued by the fledgling Nazi party's propaganda machinery in 1927, which provided step-by-step instructions on how to disrupt an opponent's meeting(1)...

Targeting Faces of Moderation
As she joins me after her dance classes, Mallika Sarabhai's face betrays none of the recent turmoil in her life, and the months of harassment and humiliation that this prominent citizen of Gujarat has had to endure at the hands of a spiteful State, which has instigated lawsuits against her accusing her of defrauding her students and of illegally trafficking in human beings!...Where is the outcry from Gujarat's civil society? At a very personal level, it's hard for me to accept that this is the same society that I had come to admire so much and wrote so much about during my travels here..

I'm speaking to Dr. Bandukwala, Professor of Physics at M.S. University and an intellectual, who had barely escaped being burnt alive in the 2002 pogroms. Personal safety is no more on his mind, as he continues to write and speak out strongly against the communalization of his state. He says that he is flooded with hate mail these days and there is a systematic attack on him by the Gujarati press. "They're trying to shut me up," he says, "but my miraculous escape from the throes of death has given me a second lease on life, and I intend to use it to the fullest to promote peace and harmony." He relates how he is being bombarded by letters from a certain Sangh Parivar ‘historian' who claims that the Taj Mahal, the Humayun's Tomb, and even the Kaaba in Mecca, are of Hindu origin. (In one book, this aging author claims that all the West Asian monuments were designed and built by Indian--read Hindu--architects ‘driven across Indian borders at sword-point'! Hindutva organizations in the U.S. eagerly publicize his works...) What exactly is this man's purpose in targeting a moderate Muslim leader of Gujarat with his inane theories is hard for me to fathom. I can only surmise that fanatics often feel more secure in attacking voices of moderation than in directly confronting their comrades-in-arms from the ‘other' side. The brutal killing of former Congress MP, Ehsan Jafri, during the 2002 pogroms--a crime for which no one has yet been punished--is a poignant reminder of such cowardice.

Ramdas Pillai of Kisanwadi, Vadodara, a construction contractor, has just returned from a court hearing for his brother, Krishnamurthy Swaminathan, who has been charged with murder. Swaminathan's fault: responding to a desperate call from a Muslim family who were under attack by Bajrang Dal goons during the 2002 violence. The local police had booked him for murder, even though the complainant (the slain man's relative) had identified the real killers, and had told them that Swaminathan was a friend who had actually come to their aid and may have saved lives. Pillai had told me last year that the entire episode was in apparent retaliation for his well-publicized effort to prevent the massacre of his Muslim neighbors in this slum area. Pillai and his wife, Lakshmiben, had always looked out for the underprivileged, whatever their faith or caste. Knowing their reputation for opening up their doors and hearts, over 500 Muslim neighbors had knocked at their gates on the night of February 28, 2002, as rioters marauded through their neighborhood. The Pillais had protected them throughout the night as angry mobs lay siege to their home--and the police refused to help--and had whisked them all to the safety of relief camps in the wee hours of the following morning, at great risk to themselves. As Pillai's notoriety as the ‘man who had helped those Muslims' spread, his Hindu friends and business colleagues gradually started to abandon him, pushing his family to the edge of financial ruin. Had anything changed since last year? Pillai smiles wryly as he admits that his first effort to get back on his feet --a housing project--had to be shelved, ironically, as his Muslim contractor had fled upon hearing about what had occurred in this neighborhood...

I leave Gujarat with a heavy heart, but I am encouraged by the selfless work by a small number of determined individuals and organizations here, supported by others from outside Gujarat, who have put their lives and livelihood at risk to stand up for justice-- recent assaults by VHP and Bajrang Dal on activists like Teesta Setalvad and Shabnam Hashmi underscore the continuing danger faced by those who refuse to be silenced in the face of injustice. It seems puerile to hold this ‘busload of secularists' responsible for sullying Gujarat's gaurav. As far as I can see, they are far too busy doing what the State and the broader civil society ought to be doing: rehabilitating the victims, providing legal assistance, and doing grassroots work to promote inter-communal harmony—-e.g., a recent cricket tournament among mixed Hindu-Muslim youth teams, organized by Jagruti Trust and other NGOs, had brought Kapil Dev and 30,000 spectators to Halol, demonstrating the power of sports as a healer... Many of the so-called secular NGOs have also been looking at themselves in the mirror to see how they could bring more diversity among their own rank and file, and how they could build bridges with faith-based organizations--e.g., some of the secular groups are exploring the possibility of sponsoring science and math teachers to help improve teaching quality at maktabs; and Muslim groups are looking for ways to engage the adivasis, who had been used against them during the 2002 violence, in the field of education. If Gujarat's gaurav has been tarnished, it seems to me that the rulers of Gujarat and their supporters overseas know exactly what it takes to restore the sheen: Instead of issuing vague expressions of contrition from UK and elsewhere, national leaders could appear at Naroda Patia, or Gulbarg Society, or any other site of the 2002 violence, and apologize to the victims for the unpardonable excesses committed by their supporters; or the State could ensure, with police protection if necessary, that every citizen of Gujarat, including the people of Dailol and Pavagadh, are able to return safely to their own homes; or the State's judiciary could stop its cruel charade by bringing to book all the perpetrators of the violence, without any further delay or prodding by the Supreme Court; or the powerful NRI Gujarati community could stop acquiescing in the State's unconscionable behavior by sending a powerful signal to its leaders that they have had enough of their sectarian agenda and to end it before their bigotry and hate infects the rest of our great nation. Hurling more invectives at the secularists, I am afraid, will simply not do at this late hour.

Yes, peace does prevail here in Gujarat. But the question is, at whose expense and at what cost to our future generations?

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