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The Rediff Election Special / Amberish K Diwanji in Godhra
In Godhra, Muslims don't matter
April 20, 2004
In Godhra, the marginalisation of the Muslim is complete.
The BJP does not care for them. "They are not going to vote for us, so why bother?" asks Dr Chandrakant Pandya, who sat in the party's city office while its candidate Bharat Solanki was out campaigning in the villages.
Pandya was the first, and last, person to allow me to use his real name. All the others that I met in the city over the next four hours insisted that I not mention their names. And the photographer who accompanied me to Godhra remained unemployed: no one -- Hindu or Muslim -- wanted his photograph taken, while we did not want to shoot political workers!
Back to the Muslims. The BJP does not give a damn and says so openly.
But the Congress is also unwilling to touch the Muslims with a barge pole, and says so too. In fact, a Congress leader in the city, manning the party's electoral office, proudly said there were no Muslims either in his office or involved in the campaign. "They have no choice but to vote for us, so why do we need to bother with them?"
The Congressman did give me his name, but then requested that I not mention it. I suspect that even the name he gave me was a false one.
The Congress and its candidate Rajendrasinh Patel are busy wooing the Hindus. They have deliberately kept all Muslims out of the campaign, or even any official position in the party. The aim is clearly to appear to be a party of the Hindus, for the Hindus and, most important, by the Hindus. Even mild interaction with Muslims could spoil this cultivated image.
A Hindu (in this city the only identity that matters is the community) who owns a handcart selling plastic toys at an important road crossing insisted the city is peaceful now. "It is all the politicians who come from outside and create trouble," he said.
The vendor said the campaigning has been low key, a sentiment others shared. "Everyone is tired," he said, "because during every election, communal tensions rise."
After the Sabarmati Express compartment was burnt on February 27, 2002, just outside Godhra station, the city itself remained peaceful even as communal frenzy and carnage tore through central and eastern Gujarat. But Godhra's peace was deceptive: there were riots last year during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival.
A Muslim sitting in a small restaurant along with his friends near the notorious Signal Falia area (the men who torched the train carriage allegedly hailed from this quarter) insisted that no Muslim had pelted stones on the Ganesh processions as alleged by the police. "Are we mad to do such things?" he asked.
"The politicians do it to create trouble. Hindus and Muslims live in peace. We trade with them. In fact, one of the partners of this shop that you are standing in is a Hindu. If Hindus were enemies, would I work with them?"
But it proves a case of the man protesting too much. Muslims and Hindus do trade, but beyond this token dealing there is no interaction at all between the communities.
In Godhra, Mohammed Ali Jinnah's words seem so prophetic today: Hindus and Muslims are separate peoples forced to share a common space. And they do so by living in different localities, which are referred to, rather unimaginatively, as 'Hindustan' and 'Pakistan.'
The Muslim shopkeeper admitted that perhaps this is not the best way to live, but then pointed out that it is because the Muslims are not in the Hindu areas that perhaps no one was killed, a sentiment Hindus agree with. But living separately means the two communities are just that: two different communities.
The Muslims are also extremely resentful of the daily humiliations they suffer. "Our boys are just picked up at random by the police and accused of being one of the hundreds who participated in torching the train. When a lawyer went to defend some of them, he too was booked and jailed," said the Muslim shopkeeper who outwardly appeared calm.
This is the biggest grouse of the Muslim community in Godhra today: that young men are just picked up at random whenever the police feel like it. The police station in this area, just outside Godhra railway station and running parallel to the tracks, is buzzing with policemen.
Those arrested for their alleged involvement in torching the train are booked under the Prevention of Terrorism Act; this means they can be locked up for up to a year without trial or being brought before a magistrate. And with local Muslim leaders out of action, it is difficult to get them out of jail.
Years ago, a social scientist studying communal riots had made a wry observation: Muslim areas have police stations; Hindu areas have schools.
In Godhra, this was how it happened. The government-run school in the Muslim area was shut down. The reason given was that there are not enough students. But as the Muslim shopkeeper said, "Keep the school open and students will come." Now students have to trudge far to private schools. Given the grinding poverty so very evident, many will drop out before they matriculate; few, if any, will go beyond that.
Muslims see no scope of getting government jobs; and the factories in and around Godhra, which lies in the industrial belt of Gujarat, are slowly shutting down. They run petty businesses, where margins are paltry. Others work as truck drivers and cleaners, or operate garages.
Many young Muslims in this area are involved in the transport business, but no one actually owns a truck; they just can't afford to buy one. So they rent trucks from the owners, which only reduces their earnings.
I met a Hindu shopkeeper who runs a shop adjoining the Muslim locality. He declared in front of a small crowd that had gathered that many of his customers are Muslims, and then loudly proclaimed that Hindu-Muslim relations are fine and that it is only the media that keeps seeing divisions in the city. He said people vote on the basis of performance and the Congress might have a chance.
After 30 minutes of discussing sundry issues of little relevance, most of the others in the shop had left. That was when he visibly relaxed and let his guard down.
"I will only vote for the BJP," he told me conspiratorially. "I can't risk the Congress returning to power because then the Muslims will get the upper hand and make life hell for us."
The shopkeeper admitted he had never had any problems with Muslims. "In fact, whenever things get difficult, it is the Muslims who come and tell me to shut my shop; they don't let it be damaged as they know me."
He even admitted he quite dislikes the BJP, especially local MLA Haresh Bhatt. "That man is terrible," he said. "I was in difficulty last year and he just won't help any of us. But even then I will vote for the BJP."
His explanation revealed sharp business logic. "Look, the BJP will form the government at the Centre. So it is better to vote for Solanki than Patel, who will end up in the Opposition."
Asked if he faced any trouble, he laughed and seconded what the Muslims had said earlier. "Today, no Muslim dare do anything. The police now simply pick up anyone even thinking of creating trouble and lock him up on the charge that he was a conspirator in the Godhra massacre."
Two years on, the Godhra incident continues to cast a long shadow over the city and its people. The election is of little importance to the people here. It will make no difference to their lives.
The Gujarat Riots: Complete Coverage