Riders on the storm
Muslims are seeking a new narrative in Gujarat beyond victimhood
The land of historic Gandhian satyagrahas like Kheda, Bardoli and the Dandi March, Gujarat today is curiously apolitical. No rival ideologies or competing political visions jostle for space in the public discourse. Stop by a roadside market or at a local restaurant and you are unlikely to find fierce political arguments like you would in Bengal. Leaders of all three main parties Narendra Modi of the BJP, Shankersinh Vaghela of the Congress and Keshubhai Patel of the Gujarat Parivartan Party are or were all rooted in the RSS and the Hindu consensus in Gujarat is overwhelming. Mercantile,entrepreneurial and aspirational Gujaratis have created India's first perpetually red republican state where the majority sentiment is culturally conservative and economically right wing, no matter what the exact party complexion of the ruling regime.
But within this largely Hindu state with a Hindu consensus, there is a silent invisible transformation. At 9 per cent of the population, Muslims remain politically irrelevant. The BJP hasn't given a single ticket to Muslims in this election yet again. There has been no cabinet minister from the Muslim community since 1995. Even the Congress has given just 7 tickets to Muslims this time. Yet irrelevance in politics has not prevented a unique dynamism from emerging in the community. Post 2002 a robust sense of self-reliance has been born. Today, young Hindus and Muslims swear that they will never let riots happen again, not perhaps out of any newfound love for each other but because an aspirational society, seeking to take its place in a globalized world, does not want any taints on its brand.
The post Godhra riots of 2002 remain the unforgettable determinant of the Muslim's predicament in Gujarat. In Gujarat riots are euphemistically termed "toofan" or storm. Indeed a toofan free environment for the last decade has created the beginnings of a new identity for the Muslim. After the riots, democratic India has stood by the Muslims of Gujarat. Unprecedented in India's riot cases, as many as 130 have been convicted and 100 have been given life sentences. Non-Muslim rights activists like Teesta Setalvad and Mukul Sinha have battled long and hard for victims. Time and again the apex court has moved to shift cases, set up an SIT, and reach out to the riot affected.
This civic and judicial activism has not only prevented any large scale Muslim alienation from the system after the riots but also created a renewed sense of engagement. There are many young Muslim lawyers fighting riot cases, confident that the courts will be fair. The Modi government loves to pour scorn on "biased" NGOs and media for continually harping on riots, but the fact is, it is precisely because of the outreach by civil society, that to a large extent, communal tensions have been lowered.
Many Gujarati Muslims are still bedeviled by poverty and neglect. In Bombay Hotel area of Ahmedabad, Muslim families live next to a mountain range of the city's garbage. Yet in spite of the poverty of some, there is an overall determination to get empowered and get educated. Like the Gujarati Hindu, the Gujarati Muslim too is moved by the quintessentially Gujarati spirit of dhanda or doing business. The spirit of dhanda has meant that Hindus and Muslims have always enjoyed close business ties. Hanif Lakdawala, longtime activist believes that Muslims have responded to the 2002 riots, paradoxically, in a very positive way.
According to a CNN-IBN CSDS pre-poll survey of Gujarat's voters, 65 per cent Muslims said they want to forget the riots of 2002. Many are calling 2012 Modi's most "normal" election, an election without a communal issue to polarize voters. In 2002, the riots brought a majority of 127 seats; in 2007 Modi invoked the Sohrabuddin case to consolidate his image as protector of Hindus and won 117 seats. Today he may have made references to "Miyan" Ahmed Patel to try and neutralize hard line Hindu outrage at his Sadbhavna mission or outreach to minorities and reassure his core Hindu voters. But this time Modi's slogan is Gujarat for all, this time he's a wannabe Barry Goldwater, trying to shift his position as poster boy of the economic right not just the cultural right.
None of this is to suggest that the Muslims are ready to vote for the BJP. The reality of near-total physical segregation between Hindus and Muslims is starkly obvious in most localities. Juhapura, the Muslim ghetto in the heart of Ahmedabad is changing dramatically. There are new building societies, hospitals, the beginnings of a new prosperity. However Juhapura also resembles a Gujarati Gaza Strip, a designated area for Muslims, a place where they can build and flourish, but not venture beyond. Modi has not visited Juhapura even once as chief minister.
Yet Muslims say they want the narrative of eternal suffering, victimhood and persecution to change. A development oriented state that supplies 24X7 electricity to all is also a state which does not hand out sops or special privileges. This paradoxically lessens the dependency trap and lessens the vested interests of victimhood. In 2002 there were 260 Muslim educational trusts; today there are more than 800 all running schools in a single minded focus on acquiring quality education. The Gujarat example shows, ironically, how dynamic a community can become when the state hands out "benign neglect" and forces independence and enterprise.
Many Muslims spoke to me about the need to change personal laws, about the drawbacks of identity politics and the underworld bhai leaders of the past. There is the recognition that they may be second class citizens in Gujarat, but still do not fear to assert their identity in public. The Muslim story in Gujarat is a poignant example of how good sometimes results from the terrible, how the apocalypse sometimes brings a rebirth.