December 2, 2002



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The Election Special / Syed Firdaus Ashraf
JK Election:w

Little enthusiasm in Signal Falia

No banners, no posters, no campaign trails. This is the scene at Signal Falia in Godhra where there is little enthusiasm for the Gujarat assembly elections.

The residents, almost all Muslims, are busy fasting in observance of Ramzan and preparing for their evening iftar. Ask anyone why there is so little interest in the elections and the answer is prompt: the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Haren Bhatt knows that no one from Signal Falia will vote for him, and the Congress candidate, Rajendra Patel, is too embarrassed to face the residents as he did nothing to help those who have been thrown behind bars in the aftermath of February 28, 2002.

Signal Falia lies opposite the Godhra railway station and till February 28 last it was unknown to the rest of the world. Now it is world famous! A mob of Muslims from Signal Falia and its adjoining localities -- provoked after a minor altercation between some train passengers and vendors at Godhra station who reside at Signal Falia -- set fire to coach number S6 of the Sabarmati Express on February 28, killing 59 men, women, and children, all Hindus. In retaliation, Hindu mobs attacked Muslims across central Gujarat over the next two months. The final death toll: over 1,000, around 700 of them Muslims.

Signal Falia is a dusty, congested locality where it would seem the public dustbins have not been cleaned for months. The lanes and by-lanes are extremely narrow, making it difficult for a car to drive through. Wires hang loosely from the electric poles and power cuts are all too common. Women, either in burqa or purdah, peep out to look at the rare visitor to their locality.

The anxiety in the air is palpable as residents fear another round of trouble now that election campaigning is under way and elections are just over a week away. They are also bitter, feeling that everyone has betrayed them after the Sabarmati Express burning. They complain that they are being made the scapegoats for the burning and are so fearful of being arrested that save a few, none of them were willing to give their names.

"The police have caught all innocent people for no reason and we don't know who among us will go to jail next," said a relative of person who has been jailed for his alleged role in the coach burning.

Asked who was responsible for the burning of the S6 coach and across the locality the reply is common: "The VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an affiliate of the BJP] and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi," said the relative of a person accused of participating in the S6 burning, "Had they [the BJP] not planned the Godhra attack, they were sure to lose in Gujarat after losing all over India."

When I pointed out that reports say the resident of the area attacked the kar sevaks [religious volunteers] who were returning from Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, tempers soar and the residents refuse to accept the accusation. "We never attacked," insisted another relative of the aforementioned accused, "In fact, we went to extinguish the fire. And the police has arrested Nana Haji, a water tanker owner who had gone to extinguish the fire."

The Signal Falia residents complain bitterly that they have gone through hell since the coach burning incident and that no one has bothered to hear their side of their story. Hence, why should they care about the elections?

They point out that there were frequent power cuts after the Sabarmati Express attack and when some residents complained to officials concerned, they were told, "You deserve it for your deeds."

"Is this the way the government authorities respond to anyone? Is this not our country? Why do they always tell us to go to Pakistan? I think I will get peace in India only in my graveyard and that too if they don't exhume my body," shouted out a person who refused to give his name.

So why don't they complain in writing and take an acknowledgement of their complaint? "Why should I? I am not telling you my name because if you write it I will be arrested. And if I try to challenge the government authorities, they will arrest me for sure," said an angry, bearded man in his 40s.

The Signal Falia residents say that since virtually all of them have a relative or two staying in Pakistan, they have always been seen as troublemakers by the local Hindus. "A lot of people went to Pakistan from here. So? Is that our fault? If they are our relatives, how can we tell them not to come here? And they only come to see us and leave. Is it a crime to do so?" questioned the bearded man.

There is no municipal water connection and the residents depend on water that is supplied by a local Muslim tanker owner who privately installed water pipes. "After all, we have to find solutions if the government is not helping us," said another resident.

What has disturbed the Muslims of Godhra is that the police have arrested nearly 70 people for the attack on the Sabarmati Express, including some who don't live in Signal Falia. For instance, the police are holding Haji Bilal, a local leader, and Mohammad Hussain Kalota, a Godhra Municipality councillor

For the Signal Falia residents, the arrests smack of politics. "The BJP is jealous of these two men as they ensured that the BJP could never win in Godhra," said Mohammad Rafiq, a truck dealer and a rare individual who gave his name.

He added, "These two leaders were not even present when this incident happened. Bilal is from Rehmat Nagar and Kalota is from Mohammadi Mohallah, both of which are quite a distance from Signal Falia. Everyone in Godhra knows this but no one is bothered to question their arrest."

What about Rizzak Kurkur, now believed to be the key mastermind and instigator of the Sabarmati Express burning. "He too was not there when the incident happened," claimed a 25- year-old man who was standing next to Kurkur's guesthouse.

Amin Patel, a shopkeeper near Kurkur's guesthouse, lamented, "The tragedy of the Godhra Muslims is that they don't have any leader to protect them. And even if a leader emerges now, he will be thrown behind bars on some false pretext considering the charged atmosphere in the state."

The only ray of hope is that Hindus do visit the locality and interact with the Muslim community, besides doing petty business with them.

Navratsinh Solanki, who resides in a Hindu locality of Godhra, said, "I have been coming here regularly and did so even during riots. I don't feel there is any problem here."

But cases like Solanki might well be the exception. When I decided to stay overnight in one of the guesthouses in or near Signal Falia, my taxi driver, a Hindu who hails from Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh, and is now settled in Ahmedabad, refused to stay in Signal Falia. My assurances that nothing would happen to him were in vain. He said he didn't trust the residents of Signal Falia and would rather return to Ahmedabad and come back the following morning, running cost be damned.

After seeing him so fearful, I relented and asked him to find me a lodging of his choice. He took me to a guesthouse in a Hindu locality in Godhra, a town with a population of over 100,000.

"I have stayed in Ahmedabad for the last 20 years and I have never been so scared as I was these last five hours that we were in Signal Falia," he later told me, adding, "Had we stayed there, these people would have butchered us in the night!"

Why was he so scared, I asked him?

"You saw their beards, their aggressive attitude. I am not saying I am anti-Muslim. I know many good Muslims in Ahmedabad. But these people were really dangerous," he said.

Incidentally, Reddy, till then, did not know my religious faith.

Meanwhile, Hasinaben Kalota, wife of Mohammad Kalota, weeps at her husband's imprisonment. "No one was bothered to visit us. My husband is innocent and the police have arrested him on false charges. He was at home when the incident happened but nobody believes us," she said bitterly.

Will she vote in the elections?

"How can I go and vote? No politician has come to our help till this date. Why should I vote? My family has only one agenda and that is to see my husband released from prison," said Hasinaben.

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