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Has Gujarat been able to bury the ghost of Godhra?


Rajdeep Sardesai,CNN-IBN
Feb 26, 2012 at 12:21am IST

Ten years can be a lifetime in today's here-and-now world. Ten years after the Gujarat violence, the state claims to have moved on. Relative peace and the engine of enterprise have taken the state into another orbit. Its Chief Minister Narendra Modi is being seen in some quarters as a potential Prime Minister, a role model of good governance. But what of those who were caught in the vortex of violence? Have they been able to move on? Have they achieved any sense of closure? Have the scars of a divided society healed?

Let’s begin our journey to find some answers in the town where it all began: Godhra. For the residents of Signal Falia, a Muslim ghetto near Godhra railway junction, February 27th 2002 is a morning they will never forget. A majority of the 94 accused of burning the S6 coach of the Sabarmati Express, leading to the death of 59 Kar Sevaks, were from the dusty by-lanes of Signal Falia. Inayat Jujhara was an elderly government clerk who spent nine years in jail under POTA till he was acquitted last year. The nine years were like an eternity for him and his family who now run a small provision store in the area.

Sixty three of the Godhra accused were acquitted last year. But for many it was a case of too little, too late. Siddiq Bakkar pushed a trolley on Godhra railway station when he was picked up and jailed. He was acquitted of all charges six years later, but by then, his life had changed. His 18-year-old son gave up his computer studies to do manual labour in the area.

Siddiq has got his freedom. 31 others, however, were convicted by the lower court, awaiting appeal in higher courts under stringent non-bailable anti-terror laws. Naseem Medha's husband Siraj is facing the death sentence. Raising four children, she insists her husband is innocent, but doesn't have the resources to fight a long, legal battle. Her ten-year-old son Amir was born in 2002, months after the train burning.

Most accounts of that day have maintained that the train burning was preceded by stone-pelting and scuffles between the Kar Sevaks and the local mobs from Signal Falia. Whether the fire was a pre-planned conspiracy or an accident has never been fully established and remains the subject of some dispute. Whatever caused the fire in the S6 coach, Signal Falia and its residents have been tarred with the brush of terror for life.

In the gritty by-lanes of Signal Falia, the signs of an uncared neighbourhood abound. Overflowing gutters and litters everywhere. A number of the young here are unemployed. No one, they say, will give you a job if Signal Falia is your address. The anger and discontent at being edged out of Gujarat's growth story is palpable.

The only time the young of Signal Falia break out into a smile is when they talk cricket.

Signal Falia's alienation can be contrasted with the hustle and bustle in the rest of Godhra. A communally sensitive town, Godhra has always had an unofficial border that separates Hindu areas from Muslim mohallas. But after a decade of peace, most traders we meet insist that business is breaking religious boundaries. Godhra too wants to be on the growth engine with a new Ram-Rahim model of business seen as the way forward.

But is it really possible for Godhra to bury its past when one part of the town still feels targeted and neglected after 2002? It's a question I pose to the BJP's Rajesh Chauhan, the president of the Godhra municipal council. "People want to forget," he says, "including the Muslims."

But forgetting February 27 is easier said than done for those who really suffered. I am now in Ahmedabad, the city of my birth, where I have many happy memories. My adult memories though were shaped by what I saw on Feb 28th and the days that followed. Ten years later, I am back to revisit the very places that were torn apart by communal violence.

In Ahmedabad, I meet up with the families of those who died in the train burning. In the Vastral suburb, we meet Prafulla Behn Soni who lost her husband Mansukh Bhai and son Jassal in the S6 fire. Aged and alone, the tears flow easily.

At Ahmedabad's Rabari colony, we meet Janak Panchal, who lost his cousin Shailesh and Vilas Jadhav, who lost his father Sadashiv. They are more direct: they can neither forgive nor forget.

In the narrow streets of Shahpur's Nagorichowk in the walled city of Ahmedabad, neighbours turned against neighbours. Small incidents of rioting were not unknown in this congested area where Hindus and Muslims live cheek by jowl. But Feb 28th was very different in its scale and intensity.

Ten years later, there is calm on the surface. But the urban buzz here can be deceptive. The police presence is a constant reminder of the area being a tinderbox. The home of Abdul Hamid, who has a small neon sign business, was destroyed by his neighbours. Today he's rebuilt his home, but the fear factor hasn't left him.

So why doesn't he leave Nagorichowk? "Where else can we go? We don't have money to go anywhere else," he says.

On the other side of the road, where the Hindu wagri community lives, the response is equally sharp. Bharat Bhai Dantani still says it's the others who start the violence.

A home rebuilt on one side of the road barely a few metres away from their Hindu neighbours. Divided by religion but still sharing the same physical space. The one thing that unites Hindu and Muslim in Shahpur is the desperate lack of basic facilities.

But even Shahpur's overflowing toilets appear tolerable when compared with what we witness in the resettlement colonies on the outskirts of the city. These colonies came up to house the poorer Muslim families who had run away from the riot hit areas. One such colony, Citizen Nagar, has been created bang next to Ahmedabad's largest garbage dump. Large families crowded into small tenements, the living conditions are sub-human.

Nadeem Saiyad, a carpenter, talks of the lack of facilities. "We survived being killed during the riots; now we are subject to the slow poison (of the garbage dump)," he says.

The womenfolk of Citizen Nagar are even more forthright in telling us how they feel like second class citizens, erased from the imagery of a Vibrant Gujarat.

Citizen Nagar has almost fallen off the map. Not so Naroda Patiya, an Ahmedabad suburb and scene of the worst massacre of 2002. 95 people lost their lives in the violence here, many of them killed by locals who they knew well. The killers still live in the immediate vicinity, but that has not stopped the likes of Shakila Bano from returning to their homes. Shakila, a seamstress, lost eight members of her family in the violence, including her mother and brother. Today, she is a key witness in the Naroda Patiya case, determined to bring the killers to justice.

The biggest impediment to getting justice for riot victims like Shakila, says Abdul Shamshad, a young activist lawyer, is the lack of faith in the police. Post-2002, Gujarat's police force stands totally discredited in the eyes of the minorities. "All those arrested in POTA were Muslims, be it encounter killings or other cases. There is no faith in the police," says Shamshad.

Many of the accused in cases like Naroda Patiya are Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists. Today, the VHP office in central Ahmedabad wears a deserted look, its leadership marginalized by its own BJP government. But the VHP's office bearers still espouse the action-reaction theory to justify the 2002 violence.

Ashwin Patel, general secretary of the VHP in north Gujarat, says, "The violence (of 2002) was the reaction of the Hindus, not just the VHP."

But beyond the trauma and antagonisms of riot-scarred areas like Naroda Patiya, there is another Gujarat - a new Ahmedabad, geographically divided with very few mixed neighbourhoods, but economically upwardly mobile. For the new generation of Amdavadis, the scent of economic opportunities has meant that they don't want to look back at the past with anger but fast forward to the future with hope.

I meet up with the young professionals of a knowledge process outsourcing company. Their upbeat mood symbolizes the mindset of a state in economic overdrive. They don't want to think of the past, they just want to move ahead. They see Modi as a role model. One of them says even Hitler was targeted. They also admit there are two Ahmedabads, but that they only want rapid growth.

In Vadodara too, one finds unmistakable signs of ambition, this time on the cricket field. The Baroda Sports Club has thrown up the Pathan brothers, Irfan and Yusuf, sons of the muezzin at the local mosque, who've become household names in the last decade. Their coach Mehendi Sheikh is still working overtime to create the next generation of the Pathans.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the man who has dominated Gujarat's skyline over the last decade. The Modi government's latest buzzword is sadbhavana or harmony. But is sadbhavana anything more than just a clever slogan or simply an attempt at an image makeover by a clever chief minister in an election year?

Meet Zakir Sacha, a former government employee, who shared a platform with the chief minister during Modi's high profile sadbhavana yatra. He was one of the few Muslims to publicly endorse Modi. What made him do it?

To understand what Modi needs to really do to win Muslim hearts and minds I meet Dr J S Bandukwala, a retired professor from Vadodra's MS University. Dr Bandukwala's house was destroyed in the riots. Today, he has a message for the Chief Minister.

Conflicting views, contrasting emotions - how does one reconcile them? What would Gandhi have done is a question I have often asked in the last ten years. It's a question I pose to Chunibhai Vaidya - at 95, possibly the oldest living Gandhian at the famous Sabarmati Ashram.

Question: what would Gandhi have done about 2002?

Vaidya: If he were to come, there would have been no 2002.

Question: How would he have brought reconciliation?

Vaidya: He would have looked beyond religious identity and spoken of universalism.

In quest of an answer to what sadbhavana would really involve, I also invited Dara and Rupa Mody, a Parsi couple, to the Sabarmati Ashram. The Modys lost their teenage son Azhar in the Gulberg Society massacre. His body has not been found and their tragedy was even the subject of a Hindi film, ‘Parzania’. Over the last decade, I have kept going back to them, if only to share their grief.

Ask them about sadbhavana and they speak of how Modi has never ever met them, and how sadbhavana has no meaning for those who lost it all.

In the tears of the Modys, I feel I have found an answer to my quest for reconciliation in post-2002 Gujarat. Wiping the tear from every eye, be they the tears of a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Parsi. Where a human being reaches out to fellow human beings – surely, that is the true meaning of sadhbhavna. Surely, that is the true message of Gandhi and of God. It's a message of compassion which a new Gujarat and its leadership need to imbibe.

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