Drive for boycott of Gujarat Muslims

Published March 22, 2002

AHMEDABAD, March 21: Muslims in Gujarat, still reeling from India’s worst communal violence in a decade, must now grapple with an economic boycott campaign they blame on hardline Hindus.

While no Hindu group has made a formal call, an anonymous leaflet campaign urging Hindus to boycott Muslim-owned shops and other establishments has gathered steam.

The pamphlets being distributed hand-to-hand urge Hindus not to frequent Muslim restaurants, work in Muslim offices, hire Muslims or see films starring Muslim actors. Like chain letters, they ask recipients to distribute the pamphlet to 10 more Hindus.

One leaflet contains the chilling warning the boycott will “break the backbone” of Muslims. “A strict boycott will throttle these elements. It will break their backbone. Then it will be difficult for them to live in any corner of this country.”

But many people in the state, including business groups and state officials, said they believed the campaign would fail and hoped religious peace could be quickly restored.

A Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) official said the boycott call would have little impact. “No GCCI member has taken it too seriously. In today’s world of fierce competition, sidelining a particular community for frivolous reasons such as this will not hold,” he said.

Although no group or individual has claimed responsibility for the leaflets, a senior official of the hardline Viswha Hindu Parishad (VHP) said he was “in complete agreement with whatever is propagated through them”.

“They (Muslims) have to respect the wishes of the majority. Hindus can no longer be taken for granted,” Haresh Bhatt, vice-president of the Gujarat wing of the VHP, a sister group of the Bharatiya Janata Party which leads the federal coalition government and the Gujarat state government.

At the same time, he denied that the VHP, set up in 1966 to strengthen Hindu society, was involved in the campaign.

WARNING: The boycott call coincides with a warning to Muslims by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a social and cultural organisation and parent of both the BJP and the VHP, that they should realise “their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority”.

The federal BJP is facing a storm over the activities of its affiliate groups. On Thursday, one of its key allies threatened to pull out of the BJP-led coalition if it did not stop Hindu groups, including the VHP, from inflaming religious passions.

Despite the VHP’s denials, Muslim leaders said they believed it was behind the leaflets. “It’s the handiwork of the VHP...a clever strategy to deepen the religious divide,” said Mufti Shabbir Ahmed Siddiqui, chief cleric at the biggest mosque in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s main city.

Muslims, who form about 10 percent of Gujarat’s 50 million population, say they have yet to feel the pinch of the boycott call as most Muslim businesses are still closed after the riots.

“It’s wrong to perceive it as a loss to Muslims. It will be a national loss and the state’s economy will suffer,” said Mehbub Topiwala, a hosiery shopowner in Ahmedabad.

Others also disagreed with the boycott. “I don’t see a shopkeeper’s religion before buying. This talk is pushed by people who want to whip up religious animosity,” said Deepak Shah, a Hindu who works in a private firm.

Ahmedabad, which bore the brunt of the violence, and many parts of Gujarat remain tense with sporadic rioting and arson. On Thursday, at least six people were stabbed in Ahmedabad.

The Chamber of Commerce said it could not estimate the size of the Muslim contribution to the state economy but said they had a substantial presence in the transport and hotel industries.

The BJP state government, accused of looking the other way when the violence was at its height — allegations it has denied — said it was moving to deal with the problem.

“We have directed local peace committees to take steps to rebuild the trust and comradeship that existed between the communities,” Ashok Narayan, a home ministry official, said.—Reuters

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