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The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt

Why Suhas Patel almost became a rioter

February 27, 2004

Vejalpur-Juhapura (www.vejalpurnagarpalika.com), an area spread over 12.5 square kilometres, has been a hotbed of communal trouble since the 1980s.

Vejalpur has a population of around 85,000, mostly Hindu. Adjoining Juhapura is a densely populated area with around 32,000 mainly Muslim residents.

Here, Hindus and Muslims become suspicious of each other and get ready to fight as soon as communal tension grips any part of Gujarat.

It is not hatred for the other that makes them do this. It is fear.

Rumours spread like a disease in these parts, where the two communities have practically been forced into ghettos. Local Hindus, for instance, rarely cross into Juhapura, and even term the line dividing the area comprising 1,700 housing colonies 'the India-Pakistan border.'

Suhas Patel (first name changed on request), aged 30, a resident of Vejalpur, was part of a mob that wanted to attack Muslims to pre-empt an attack on their properties on February 28, 2002, a day after the Godhra carnage. Since that day, the simple villager is a changed man.

Patel, in his own words, recounts the churning that went on within his mind, which lead him to first join the mob and then to leave it. The second of a series marking the second anniversary of the Godhra incident and its aftermath:

Part I: 'How can I forgive them?'

I have done my master's in communication from Gujarat Vidyapeeth, which was founded by Gandhiji. I graduated in agro-economy from the Gram Bharti Institute, which is run admirably by the Gandhians of Gujarat.

Being a farmer's son, I did not have much money or opportunity in life. So in 1998, I migrated to Ahmedabad from my village in north Gujarat. After living with a few relatives, I rented a home in Vejalpur in 2000. I paid a modest rent of Rs 1,200 a month. I did not have a cell phone, telephone, cable television or a vehicle. I was earning less than Rs 4,000 at that time. I had a refrigerator, but I would switch it off at night to save on electricity.

On February 27, 2002, when Godhra happened, I was in my office. I heard the news of the burning of the train at Godhra very late in the evening. It was shocking, but it did not make me angry. I don't have any ill feelings towards Muslims. My views have been neutral on the issue of casteism or communalism. I thought some hardened criminals must be behind Godhra.

I went home late that evening and even slept well. On my way home, I did see burnt vehicles and properties, but in Ahmedabad that is not something new when communal tension prevails.

Since I did not have a television set I was unaware of the profound impact of the event on the society around me. To save money I was not even subscribing to a newspaper, so I was unaware that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had called a bandh on February 28.

It was only on the 28th, when I heard threats and noises and slogan-shouting by VHP workers to close the shops of my area, that I understood the seriousness of the Godhra incident. Since I was a newcomer in Vejalpur I did not know that a large number of Muslims lived in the vicinity of my society. Believe it or not, I had no clue at all of the presence of Muslims in my neighbourhood.

That day my neighbours told me how 'horrible' the adjoining Juhapura area is. The Muslims are a threat to us, they said. I did not go to office that day. Rather, I had an afternoon nap.

I was woken up by some neighbours who informed me that the situation was very, very tense. They said the Muslims of Juhapura had gathered "with gleaming swords" in the vicinity of the "talab [lake]".

I and my wife along with the neighbours went to the terrace on the fourth floor. My son was staying with my parents in those days.

Everybody on the terrace was tense. Women were crying. Frightened children were watching the scenario with interest.

What we saw from the terrace is unforgettable. I was jolted. On one side, some 2,000 Muslims were provoking us with their swords. Imagine! Some 1,000 swords in the air! They were slowly coming forward. On the other side an almost equal number of Hindus were equipped with lathis [staves] and iron rods and were abusing the Muslims.

The swords of Juhapura were glinting in the sun. It reminded me of the scene from the Mahabharat at Kurukshetra. I saw hundreds of Muslim children with swords in their hands. How could I not get affected?

Both sides were moving closer every 20 or 30 minutes. It was scary. All of us on the terrace were watching. We were sure that it was now a matter of time before some 300 people would be killed.

We too could have been attacked if the Muslims were allowed to cross the lake area. My building was just 100 metres away from the battlefield. In those two hours, both sides were ready to strike. We did not know who would strike first. Only one police van was parked there.

As the hours passed, the crowds swelled. By 4 pm the mob on each side had 5,000 people. Both sides were shouting slogans, throwing challenges, and inciting their own people. Outside our building, Kshatriya men and women who live in the interiors of Vejalpur and not on the 'border' like me were out on the roads. They were challenging our masculinity and provoking us to come down and join the mob in the lake area. They argued that if the Muslims went on the rampage, we would be the first victims because we were living near the entry points of the Hindu area.

I was hesitant.

Around that time a constable died when some Muslims fired on him. We watched as he was taken away in a police van. That was most frightening. A man in khaki getting killed in firing by the Muslims had a devastating impact on all of us on the terrace. Now we knew the police would not come to help us.

All the male members of my society and neighbouring societies jumped to the next lane where construction work was going on. We took out some 800 iron rods from the site and joined the crowd.

We had to fight for our safety. We did not think it wrong.

When I joined the mob I saw many darbars [Kshatriyas] whose homes had been looted in the previous riots. They were most vocal this time.

But as I stood there with an iron rod in my hand, Suhel, a computer engineer and a friend of mine, passed by. He saw me and screamed, "Arre Suhasbhai tame pann? [Suhas, you too?]"

His remark shook me. He knew I had been an ace charkha spinner in college. Till I was 21 I had never spoken to a single woman besides my mother. I was so shy that I never came out of my hostel room on weekdays. The first girl I spoke to was Radha, who came to learn how to spin yarn on the charkha. It was compulsory in the Vidyapeeth.

Suhel had studied with me. His surprise at seeing me in the mob with an iron rod shamed me. Oh God! What was I doing? Why did I take up arms? Why am I on the street?

I quietly slipped away to a corner and hid the rod under some garbage. I then went back home. I could not get over the feeling of shame. I am too shy to hit anyone. That is just not possible. I was feeling choked.

My wife was still shivering. She feared an attack on our home by the Muslims.

Much later, more policemen arrived and dispersed the mobs without any casualties. But I could not sleep that night.

The next day I took my wife back to my village. For a full two months we did not stay in the Vejalpur home.

Even in my village Rahimbhai's house was burnt down. He was the lone Muslim in my village. Without any protest he walked out and stood along with the Hindus watching his house burning. His life was saved by those very miscreants.

Such a cool and cruel act!

Since the last two years I have been thinking about the Muslims. I am afraid. I have seen them and even their children with those gleaming swords. Who knows where those swords are now?

I am also afraid because my wife fears the people of Juhapura. I don't hate them. I can't, because I know well that there are good and bad people in all communities.

I feel good Gujaratis are suffering from anxieties and fears because of ghettos. No ghettos should be allowed to form in the cities and villages. I am sure that is the root cause of the rift between us. In my area, Hindus and Muslims never interact, never meet. Who can be a bridge between us? Who will take the lead?

I also think my future is insecure because the Bharatiya Janata Party has made us conscious about Muslims. They have alerted us: 'You are a Hindu. He is a Muslim.' They have sown poison in our minds, now you can't expect a harvest of compassion and love.

My only worry is what will happen to our young generation?

Suhas Patel spoke to Contributing Editor Sheela Bhatt


The Rediff Specials


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Number of User Comments: 10




Sub: View Point

Are Deshvasiyon, I am not here to take sides of who's right and who's wrong. I just want to everyone to realise at the end ...


Posted by Sarat Challa





Sub: Why Suhas Patel is cockeyed

May I ask the writer where was he when millions of Kashmiri hindus were driven from their home of generatations. The author may have convineintly ...


Posted by Ajay Wazir





Sub: Sheela Shields the Truth

This article is anti-BJP propaganda disguised as a balanced article. Such journalists with a personal agenda should not be allowed.


Posted by Umesh





Sub: Re:Suhas Patel almost became a rioter

Hi, Godhra was a dreadful dream, which no sensible human being would want to see again. But the separation of Hindus and Muslims was not ...


Posted by Virendra Singh





Sub: Who provoked Muslims?

First time in two years after Godhra carnage, I am reading an experience of a Hindu. Sure it was a disasterous moment in the life ...


Posted by Satish Kumar




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