“THE problem is not EVMs [electronic voting machines]. The problem is that the mindset has been tampered with. In 17 years, they have been able to completely change the way people think. This victory is a result of that,” says Sharif Malek, a survivor of the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 in Gujarat, on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) sweep in the parliamentary election. “Obviously, we are shocked at the results from Gujarat as we were hoping the Congress would win a few seats here. We are resigned to our situation. We have to find a way to move forward in this new India,” says Malek, who is part of the team fighting for justice in the Naroda Gam case, one of nine riot cases the Special Investigation Team probed. Judgment in the case is pending.
As the country celebrates the anointment of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister once again, Gujarat’s beleaguered Muslim community, which forms 10 per cent of the population in the State, sends out a cautionary message. Ever since the riots of 2002, the community members not only have faced constant attacks but have been part of a polarisation plan that is virtually complete.
They believe Gujarat is an example of the Hindutva project’s success. Modi is making the right noises on inclusiveness, but Gujarat’s Muslims are not buying his claim that there will be no discrimination on the basis of caste, sect or religion under his “trust for all” slogan. “What’s happening to us can happen to the entire country,” says Malek.
Modi and the newly sworn-in Union Home Minister Amit Shah have been charged with complicity in the 2002 violence. It was under their watch that 1,043 people died in targeted attacks on Muslims across Gujarat. Thousands lost their homes, hundreds of women were raped and many people still remain missing. Thanks to a sustained political campaign over 17 years, the duo today holds the most powerful positions in the country. It is not just that the Modi-Shah combine is a cruel reminder of the carnage, but that its agenda has played out and Gujarat’s saffronisation is complete. Moreover, they seem to have ensured that the pogrom is seen as a small blot on the State’s history and that with time even that will disappear.
“Would this plan not unfold in the rest of the country? Are people not scared?” asks Imtiaz Qureshi, a survivor of the Naroda Gam riot. “Has the country forgotten what happened in 2002? That it could happen anywhere to further a political process? It is already happening in Bengal. Mark my words, Gujarat is a sample of how a Hindu Rashtra is created. The danger is still around. It is just that they have found different ways to persecute us,” he says.
No Muslim representative
In the aftermath of the parliamentary election results in which the BJP won all 26 seats in the State, Frontline spoke to a few riot survivors and activists who bravely keep up the fight for justice. “We must understand that as much as the BJP has made us irrelevant, the Congress put up a very weak fight which let down not just Muslims but all minorities. We have no political representation and this will oppress Muslims even more,” says Qureshi. In this general election, the Congress in Gujarat gave the party ticket to just one Muslim. Qureshi says this is perhaps an indication that its commitment to the community is waning.
Historically, Gujarat has been a two-party State. The BJP and the Congress fight it out in every election between themselves. The Congress lost its footing in both State and national politics in the early 2000s and has never recovered from the defeat. In recent times, lack of strong leaders, infighting, suppression of minority leadership and defections to the BJP have led to the grand old party’s deterioration. A sliver of hope was seen when the Congress won 77 seats out of 182 in the 2017 Assembly election. However, the rout in the Lok Sabha election proved the Modi effect once again and that State and national issues were relegated to the background.
Interestingly, 42 Muslims contested the Lok Sabha election in Gujarat. The BJP did not give the party ticket to any Muslim. Smaller political parties fielded eight Muslims and as many as 34 contested as independents. The Modi wave was so strong that Sherkhan Pathan, the only Muslim from the Congress and a strong contender, lost by a huge margin in Bharuch, which has a 22 per cent Muslim population and is the largest minority voter base in the State. The last Muslim from Gujarat to have been a Member of Parliament was Ahmed Patel, a senior Congress leader who was elected from Bharuch in 1984.
“They squashed us like ants while climbing the first step. Now that they have reached the top, they may not need us. I am hoping they will not inflict more violence. We can manage the other issues,” says Qureshi.
Gujarat will probably not see overt violence against a minority community the way it did in 2002. Yet there is evidence of constant attacks against Muslims. Data collected by the Alp Sankhya Adhikar Manch, a human rights organisation in Gujarat, and put together by Buniyaad, a non-profit oranisation working for minority empowerment, reveal disturbing details on the communally polarised nature of the State.
The report says the game plan appears to be to conduct smaller attacks that fall under the national media’s radar. It says that segregation and discrimination have become so much a part of the socio-economic fabric in the State that it is almost unnoticeable. According to the report, the impact of small-scale riots is intense in achieving polarisation of society along religious lines and increasing intolerance while outwardly creating an image that communal riots are not taking place in Gujarat.
The report says: “To substantiate the point made about communal riots in post-2002 Gujarat, it would be relevant to analyse some figures which explain the magnitude of communal riots in Gujarat. Shams Tabrez, an RTI [right to information] activist from Ghazipur (UP), asked the Union Home Ministry for information about the communal riots of Gujarat. The Home Ministry replies revealed that the year 2008 alone witnessed 79 communal riots, killing five persons and injuring 228 people. In the year 2011, 47 communal riots took place, claiming [the] lives of three persons, and 144 people [were] injured. In 2014, 74 communal incidents took place in the State, killing seven persons and injuring 215 people. In 2015, 55 communal riots took place, killing eight persons and injuring 163 people.”
Additionally, the report provides data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and Fact Checker, an independent research initiative that reveals even more damning statistics. The NCRB/Fact Checker data say Gujarat reported 35,568 riots from 1998 to 2016. There were 164 communal riots and 305 victims of violence in the State between 2014 and 2016.
An excerpt from the Alp Sankhya Adhikar Manch/Buniyaad report: “It is important to note that most of places attacked had not witnessed communal violence during the 2002 carnage. The use of social media like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, have been tools to spread the hatred along religious lines widely. A pattern which emerged from the causal analysis of communal incidences revealed that religious festivals, processions, rallies, inter-religious relationships, derogatory/controversial songs, eve-teasing and hate speeches have been trigger-points for communal riots. Conflicts due to inter-religious relationship are also rapidly growing.”
For instance, in April 2017, a mob looted and torched the Muslim quarter of Vadavali village in Patan district. Hundreds of families were left homeless. The State was unwilling to record the attack and did not provide refuge to the victims. In spite of activists such as Malek and Advocate Shamshad Pathan trying to help the victims, nothing came of it. Even a first information report (FIR) was hard to file.
Pattern of polarisation
Ahmedabad is a study in the success of the polarisation tactic. Muslims, once spread across the city, now live segregated in specific localities. Fashionable neighbourhoods are not accessible even to the wealthy among Muslims, forcing them to live in ghettos such as Juhapura on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.
Here are some instances on how the Modi government found insidious methods to discriminate against minorities. Gujarat is the only State in India where District Collectors’ permission is required for a house owner to sell his or her property to a person from another community. In 2012, when Modi was Chief Minister, the Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provisions for Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act, 1991, was amended ostensibly to protect Muslims and deter ghettos. However, the end result is that one community cannot sell property to another.
Since the law applies to riot-affected areas, not many from other communities are willing to purchase property in those localities. “We have given up trying to find buyers as no one wants to come here. After the riots, most families prefer to live in safety in areas such as Jamalpur or Juhapura,” says Shaheen Hussein, whose house in Naroda Patiya was looted and burnt on February 28, 2002.
Housing, education and employment are areas where the discrimination is glaring. In a move during 2012-13, the State government decided not to spend funds released by the Centre for minority students. The argument was that it would cause further discrimination and “heartburning” among others who were not eligible. These insidious ways to target Muslims began when Modi realised spewing venom was not getting him far in his goal to reach the national stage.
In 2010, this correspondent visited Citizens Nagar, which is located on the periphery of the Old City and near Ahmedabad’s enormous landfill. The colony was set up hastily to provide permanent refuge to riot victims who had been living in relief camps. Pathetic and miserable, the camps housed single-room shanties that shared a boundary wall with the city’s garbage dump. Open gutters, mud roads, poor lighting, and lack of water made one wonder if any human being could live there.
Khatoonappa, a riot survivor from the worst-affected area of Naroda Patiya, lives in a house by the corner in Citizens Nagar. The small garbage hills that existed nine years ago today resemble mountains. The stench, she says, has seeped into their skins. Water is contaminated and most residents suffer from lung ailments. Little has changed in the 14 years since they were rehabilitated.
“Put me in front of them [Modi/Shah] and I will tell them exactly what I think of their elections. Publish my photograph and address. I am not scared of the bullet,” she says in visible anger.
“They have made us live in conditions that even animals cannot live in. But at least we are not being killed. I cannot understand such hatred and anger. What have we done?” she asks.
“They talk about the Mughals ravaging our country and destroying temples, and that is one reason why they hate us. Let them [the saffron brigade] remember that even their history will one day be written and it will not be unlike the way historians write about the Mughals,” says Qureshi.