August 1, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Bhupendrasinh Chudasama

Part One: When a town in Gujarat refused to burn

Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, 52, a former agriculture minister, is currently chairman of the Sardar Sarovar Nigam Corporation, a post on a par with a Gujarat cabinet minister. The Sardar Sarovar Nigam Corporation is building the Narmada dam at the cost of more than Rs 200 billion.

Though this member of the Bharatiya Janata Party -- the ruling party in Gujarat and the largest party in the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre -- lost in the last assembly elections from Dholka, today he has won the hearts of the people in his native town. This is the story of how he ensured that while Gujarat burned, Dholka remained an oasis of calm. In his own words:

Dholka is the oldest municipality in Gujarat. The local body elections of 1999 changed everything in my city, including my own thinking.

I have changed my image from a rabid religious fundamentalist to someone pushing for the development of my city. Of course, my critics tell me that I am doing all this for votes but I know the reasons are different.

I did it because in our town, till recently, we did not even have even a kilometre long concrete road. We did not have water or medical facilities. We did not have security. So what do we do?

I wanted to take advantage of my party's rule in Delhi and Gandhinagar to help the 50,000 people of Dholka who voted for me twice in 1990 and 1995 and strengthened my career graph. And I am convinced that riots are not the solution the Hindus' complaints against the Muslims.

When the local elections were about to take place in 1999, I went to the Muslims and told them: 'We have seen deaths, riots, and curfews. We have fought till the highest court in the land. We have suffered economic losses. We don't have water, roads or any other basic facility. During the riots, we have seen the daily bread earner sleep hungry at night. At the end of the three riots of 1981, 1985, and 1992, we know that no one is the winner. In that case why fight?'

The Muslims could see the sense in my talk. To convince them further, I gave a BJP nomination to Farida Momin from the Muslim area and she got elected [to the municipality council].

In the last 30 months, we have built cement-concrete roads in the whole of Dholka. I was known as a rabid fundamentalist, but when I proposed the city development plan, even conservative Muslim women heard me. I would start my speech with the greeting 'Salam Walekum'. Muslim women who would abuse me few years ago every time I passed through their area, today smile when I remind them of it. I told them, 'These hands have thrown stones at you in the riots, now I am forwarding the same hand to get votes. Give votes to the BJP, I'll give you development.' To cement the relation, I went to their homes on Id and they reciprocated on Diwali.

On February 27, when Godhra happened, I was alert. I called the deputy collector Dhansukh Mehta and requested him to arrange the meeting of Hindu and Muslim leaders. My first strategy was to convince Muslims to join the bandh (general strike) declared by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to protest the killings of 58 Hindus in Godhra by a Muslim mob.

In the past, Muslims never cooperated with any bandh called the Hindus or by our party. They would defy the bandh and keep their shops open, but this time the Muslims co-operated and Dholka shut down completely.

My hard work of the last three years came to our rescue. I had helped the Muslims get tickets for the Haj. The residents of Dholka had to travel a long way to get their vaccination, so I set up vaccination camp set in Dholka and even inaugurated it! I saved the Muslims' their money and time. In my inaugural speech, I said that I am doing all this as a citizen of Dholka and not as a party man.

When Ahmedabad burnt, I was terrified. I knew it could have similar repercussions in Dholka, a city that is so communally charged that it can burn in less than an hour.

I planned a peace march. On the third day after Godhra, we organized a rally that started from a Hindu temple along with more than 50 Muslim leaders. The rally crossed the heart of the city and ended at a dargah (Muslim mausoleum). More than 1,000 people joined in. We organized peace marches every 10 days for the next few weeks. And the people craved for peace!

I asked the citizens of Dholka to consider a few points. In Gujarat, summer is the marriage season. Traders get business from the surrounding villages. I asked the traders of Dholka to imagine their plight if curfew was imposed in the city. They would lose their business and some other town would gain it. Small vendors who sell vegetables and sundry items were jubilant. They found the restriction on Hindu emotions very practical.

After Godhra, a Hindu wave was sweeping over Gujarat. Moharram was observed on March 25 and not a single BJP leader of Gujarat entered Muslim areas or a mosque on that day except me. My party men criticized me and warned me not to do so.

I know what irritates Hindus and makes them angry, but I believe peace is above Hindutva. Hindus cannot progress unless the country is peaceful. Whatever happened in Ahmedabad has directly affected the businesses of Hindu society. I told Hindus and Muslims that both are losing out in the riot game.

My fundamentalist friends don't like my approach. But in Dholka, the believers of peace are in the majority. Now they are the force and are supported by the government officers and the local police.

Dholka is my experiment. In the 1980s, I won the hearts of Harijans [Dalits] and with their support I won two elections. Since the last 22 years, I greet them every April 14 on Ambedkar Jayanti. I visit their colonies and wish them well. The Dalits who used to call me a hypocrite are now my fans.

Of course, I don't do anything that will harm the interest of Hindus. I will not appease Muslims and I will not tolerate the exploitation of Hindus. But to maintain peace, I try hard to communicate.

I told the excited crowd of Hindus that if we had reacted right there and then in Godhra, where a Muslim mob burnt our children and women, our retaliation would have been justified. But we cannot retaliate in Dholka. While killing innocent Muslims here, innocents Hindus may get killed in some other town too.

I agree that in previous riots, I too participated and threw stones. But you know, in this life, a spilt second exists between yes and no! Ten years have passed after Babri Masjid. Why can't I change?

Look, to get funds from the state kitty, I need the majority and to get the majority I need the support of Muslims who are 30 per cent of the town. And that wish became the turning point.

Let me add that I must not take full credit for the peace in Dholka. Here, we know each other. We don't allow outsiders to create any mischief. The fundamentalists of both sides live here, but we don't allow them to have the upper hand.

I have a hunch that I am not going to get the vote of fanatic Hindus because I have diluted my Hindutva image. But I am successful and a popular citizen of Dholka, and that satisfies me immensely.

As told to Sheela Bhatt

Design: Lynette Menezes

Also see: The situation in Gujarat

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