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Modi, Gujarat riots and beyond

Updated May 13, 2014
Narendra Modi. —  File photo
Narendra Modi. — File photo

THE media is lining up to interview the much anticipated next prime minister of India, the BJP nominee for the post, Narendra Modi. Since the number game will remain uncertain till the election results are announced on the evening of May 16, he has been extra careful in taking positions on crucial issues.

The questions about which Modi has been the most evasive are related to his role in the Gujarat’s Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002. He was the chief minister of the state at that time and has been in the same position since 2001, winning four elections in a row. In his successive interviews during the current election campaign, he has not given in to the calls to apologise over the worse communal killings in India’s recent past.

The courts in India have not been able to pin him down on any count of complicity in the riots. This however does not exonerate him in the popular imagination and this unforgiving position is not exclusive to common Indian Muslims alone.

“I have no doubt about the role he played in inciting violence and then letting the situation worsen to the point that communities took it to the streets. His was not the role of a hapless onlooker, for sure,” says Zahir Janmohamed in an interview with Dawn in Ahmadabad recently.

Zahir is an Indian-American or to be more specific a Gujarati-American. His grandparents had migrated to Tanzania in 1920s and set up a business in the African country. His parents were born there. At the time of Partition the rest of his Kacchi-Khoja family migrated from Gujarat to Karachi. He is the third generation of this migrant family that is raised in US. As a young man, curious about his family roots he flew to India to reconnect with his past at the most unfortunate of the times. He landed in February 2002 just days before the riots broke out.

“Since I have no relatives here, I was staying with a Hindu friend family,” says Zahir adding, “that gave me ample opportunity to see it from both sides.” He believes that Modi’s gestures and actions during and after the incident were catalytic, if not the main igniter, of the majority’s furore.

The communal riots in Gujarat had broken out when a train carrying back Hindu pilgrims from the controversial Ram Mandir - Babri Mosque site in Ayodhya was burnt down by arsonists at Godhra town, killing 59 including 40 children on the morning of Feb 27, 2002. “On the same evening Modi blamed it on ‘terrorists’ and called it a pre-planned act. That was as good as pointing finger towards Muslims,” says Zahir adding that 9/11 had happened just months ago and bracketing Muslims with terrorism was the dominant media trend. “Why were the dead bodies of Godhra victims were flown into Ahmadabad, from a distance of 300 kilometres and put on display,” he raised another grave question.

Gujarat’s capital, Ahmadabad was the worst hit by the riots that spread all over the state in a matter of days. Various estimates put the total death toll between one to two thousands. Muslims of Ahmadabad had to leave their homes and take refuge in camps set up in the city by the community. “Though he went to Godhra, he never visited a camp,” Zahir charged.

“What was even more painful for me was that the society stood sharply divided. There was little empathy on the other side of the divide. Since I have large circle of Hindu friends, I would spend the day volunteering in refugee camps and then would go attend a marriage ceremony with my hosts and friends in the evening,” laments Zahir.

Deeply scarred by the traumatic experience, Zahir went back to US late in 2002. He came back to the city nine years later to study communalism in the perspective of 2002 riots in more detail and is writing a book on the subject. “Ghettoisation of Muslims is one thing that has redrawn the map of this metropolis,” he said briefing me about the trends in residential preferences of Muslims by marking circles and lines on the map of Ahmadabad.

“This has turned Juhapura into a Muslim majority area. The minority is the majority here. That’s the only way they could feel riot-safe now,” he says. “A whole generation is being brought up in here, interacting mainly internally. They cower when they go out. They have become more conservative in their approach towards faith and society,” he says.

Zahir has been intermittently living in Juhapura since his return in 2011. The Muslim ghetto has an estimated population of 200,000. “The ghetto and the community are stereotyped and demonised at large scale,” says Zahir quoting anecdotes of the rickshaw drivers advising him to not to go to the ‘dangerous dungeon’ of a place, Juahapura. “They are aghast when I tell them in my American accent that I live there.”

The spectre of communalism has been instrumental in making the majority internalise a perceived threat of dominance by a minority. Zahir compared the situation with one in the West where white majorities are apprehensive of a ‘takeover’ by its coloured minorities. “The point of grudge here is however not Muslims’ economic condition or educational qualification but the misplaced concept that they ‘run child making factories’ and will ultimately outnumber them,” he laughed elaborating that Muslims in Gujarat are around 9 per cent while the over 80 per cent majority is of Hindus.

Zahir refused many publishers who wanted to market his upcoming book before the current elections that are marked by the so-called ‘Modi wave’. “Modi did not invent communalism. There is no doubt that he has been able to put it to personal political use but they were there in Gujarat, and in India, since at least decades,” says Zahir explaining further, “it is not right to see the whole phenomenon in the shadow of one personality and reduce it to whether he was responsible or not or to the question that whether he qualifies to be prime minister or not on this count. They won’t go away if he does not become the prime minister.”

Zahir may be right in his refusal to see communalism in India and the 2002 Gujarat riots from the eyeholes in the Modi mask, the most popular of his election campaign gimmicks. But days before the announcement of election results in one of the most important developing countries, the bigger question remains unanswered - is the world ready to see Modi without his communal past?