Modi: The opium for Gujarat’s masses

As expected, the Gujarat elections could hardly have escaped national attention. Narendra Modi will have probably won the polls even before the last votes are counted. This nation is at the crossroads: a demagogic leader, conceited in thoughts and uncompromising in actions, is wiping clean his past with the present. He could soon push India into a phase of unilateral politics, ascending to the very top. This could also mean less legroom for India’s much-vaunted democracy.

In Gujarat, the meek has had little chance of inheriting the earth. It’s for those who can marshal industry, movie stars and pricey international lobbying firms to create a hallucination-inducing hallo around their heads to hold nation spellbound.

What will Gujarat be remembered for? What should it be remembered for? As a vibrant economy or as India’s Auschwitz?

I still remember my 2008 summertime trip to Gujarat – Ahmedabad first, Vadodara and then to Surat. It was an early morning flight. At the airport, Mahmood Madni, the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind leader, rolls out his Persian-style prayer rug at the VIP lounge of Indira Gandhi International Airport. Its time for the fazr namaz, the first of the five daily prayers. Soon, a prominent BJP leader, Ravi Shankar Prasad, strolls in. The men exchange warm greetings.

Yet, they are headed in different directions: Madni was going to extend a hand of support for Gujarati Muslims and Prasad was flying to Patna to shore up some more support for his Hindutva-based party, whose leader Modi is often accused of letting deadly mobs butcher Muslims in 2002, although he denies this.

An aisle seat separated Madni’s seat from mine. On an empty stomach, the frugal Air India breakfast seemed like a hearty meal, which gave way to a wink of sleep.

On arrival at Ahmedabad, swarms of Muslims greeted the maulana with passionate hugs. Soon, we were joined by Mahesh Bhatt, the Bollywood film-maker whose support for Muslims is now famous. From there, we proceeded to a venue where Bhatt and Madni addressed a huge crowd, denouncing terror yet accusing authorities of picking up innocent Muslims merely on suspicion.

During the course of the next two days, I got glimpses of a changing Gujarat. A tarmac-like highway to Surat via Vadodara, half-finished residential high-rises, glass-fronted office buildings and brisk business, with the state’s own version of Davos, called “Vibrant Gujarat”.

Duty waivers for developers of IT parks, concessions for investors lapping up special economic zones, cheap real estate, cheaper power, labour laws loaded in the favour of employers and AAPCO Worldwide, an influential PR machinery – all of this and more, so that you can take in the change. It is Modi’s temerity that he frequently criticizes Indian prime minister Manmonhan Singh for his single-minded worship of economic growth, while being unmindful of ordinary folks, although that’s exactly all Modi has been singularly gunning for.

India’s Auschwitz
These days, they say a lot is changing in Gujarat. But is this changing the lot of its millions? Rather than what’s changing in Gujarat, I am interested in what’s not.

So, the next morning, after breaking bread with a family, I headed to India’s Auschwitz, a walled residential complex called Gulbarg Society In Ahmedabad that burned with sectarian rage under Modi’s watch.

An iron gate opened to a narrow path, lined on either side by empty houses with windows shut tight.

At the first instant, these homes seemed to house happy families behind its walls, basking in the privacy of shut doors and windows. It’s only when 42-year-old Maulana Hakimuddin, my guide, opens one of the windows of that horror strikes.

It was a window to a lost world from where dead people wailed in my mind’s ears. Empty rooms, house after house. Blackened walls, toppled chairs. Each house had its own a horror story. After all, close to 70 people had died here, waiting for help from police that never came.

Every other day, bakery worker Abdul Hannan takes groups of curious Muslims on a tour of Gulbarg Society as if it were another mausoleum. Hannan hates it, but visitors insist he lead them down memory lane.

Gulbarg Society’s lane is a cul-de-sac. It leads to Ehsan Jafri’s house that stands as a testimony to an unspeakable crime. Nearby, Jafri’s remains lie buried in what is a small mound. On February 28, 2002, a mob hacked its residents, including Jafri, and dumped their bodies into fire. They then danced over the dead.

Muslims transiting the city often come inquiring about Jafri’s house. “People come to just gaze at Jafri’s house in silence,” said Hannan. “They either get in touch with local mosques or with the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind office.”

Almost a week after rioters cleaned Gulbarg Society of all signs of life, Hakimuddin, accompanied by a Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind team, reached the plundered neighbourhood on the morning of March 6.

Hakimuddin was rushed urgently to bury those killed, including Jafri, as required by Islamic religious norms. Hakimuddin, who is now the national general secretary of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, wants a mausoleum built where Jafri’s empty house stands.

In changing Gujarat, little has changed inside Gulbarg Society. Another visit a year later, the same old shrieks ring out from behind the doors and windows. Restless souls in search of peace, whose wails hit a sound barrier called AAPCO Worldwide.

Inside a Delhi safehouse
Yakoob Rasool has haunting eyes. They are cold. The man is cautious, unwilling to lower his guard. He will not tell you where he lives. Or what his future holds for him. But you will understand his discretion once you know who he is: the husband of Gujarat riots survivor Bilkis Yakoob Rasool Bano.

On a windy afternoon of January 2008, I had met him at a safe-house in the sprawling heart of Delhi. He was taking a quiet break from a battle that had entered a turning point. A Mumbai court had convicted 12 people, including a police official, for attacking 14 members of Bilkis’ family, in which eight were killed and six went missing.

The Rasools hate Randhikpur — a small hamlet some 250 km from Ahmedabad — where they lived in a small cluster of 60 households belonging to the local Ghanchi Muslim community. Ghanchis traditionally are members of the Tablighi Jamaat or voluntary Muslim preachers who are often looked upon suspiciously.

Rasool, however, like others of his ilk, was a cattle-rearer and a milkman. “It’s difficult to believe that the people who I supplied milk to each morning had raped my wife in turns and slaughtered my relatives. They knew who Bilkis was their doodhwala’s (milkman’s) gharwali (wife),” he says.

When Bilkis was raped, Rasool decided that there was no point hiding it to avoid social embarrassment. He decided not to rest till justice was done. “Organised sexual violence was used as a tool,” says human rights activist Malini Ghose, who along with colleagues, Lucknow-based Huma Khan and Delhi-based Farha Naqvi persuaded prominent lawyer Harish Salve to take up her case.

Reflect on what happened in Randhikpur on February 28, 2002, a day after unidentified people torched a train bogey carrying kar sevaks (Hindu devotees) in Godhra, killing them in a horrific moving inferno.

It started as a sunny morning, calm and cool. Rasool could soon sense that Randhikpur’s skies had turned black with smoke. When the fires started by mobs reached his doorstep, Rasool knew what was going on — mass murder. He gathered Bilkis and all other women, asking them to flee as a group. The men would take another escape route.

Rasool thought the rioters might opt to leave the women unharmed. The strategy did not work. On a lonely stretch a few km away, one neighbour raped Bilkis and another shoved his foot into her mouth, even as she desperately wanted to tell them she was pregnant. They then tossed her three-year-old girl in the air so that she would smash her head upon landing on the rocky ground on that road to death in Panevala.

It’s the native optimism of Muslims – the Quran forbids cynicism — that makes Rasool say Hindu-Muslim unity in Gujarat is possible. “Log agar chahein to mumkin hai, par Narendra Modi ko jaana hoga (it can happen if people want, but Narendra Modi has to go).” Gujarat doesn’t look prepared to make that change yet, as Muslims and Hindus still live largely separated lives.

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