By Jyoti Punwani
October 9, 2014
In Gujarat, as always, Muslims were present at Garbas as organisers, entertainers and participants.
The three Rakhis round his wrist have faded, but Aijaz Shaikh has had no time to remove them. Navratri is over, and the Garba singer has been busy, as have his friends: Shahnawaz Saifi, denim manufacturer-cum-photographer, much in demand among his Sindhi clients for Garba photo shoots; Mohsin Shaikh, DJ and singer, for whom this was an especially exciting Navratri since he and his Hindu partner organised Garbas under their own banner for the first time; and Sufi Garba singer Irfan Diwan, who kept his annual tryst with his hosts in Saurashtra. Only Tabla player Imran Shaikh was free — he had to turn down an invitation from Indore because his mother passed away recently.
It’s difficult to separate a Gujarati from his Garba, it would seem. Kutchi Memons perform it during their weddings; Christians have a special Christmas Garba. The popular “Ambe Maa Ni Aarti” sung at every Garba venue was written and composed by a Muslim, Abhram Bhagat. In a popular Ahmedabad mall, a Muslim hones the Garba skills of Hindus; in Godhra, a Muslim housewife gets her Hindu trainer to come home. A Christian-Hindu couple out for Navratri shopping — which includes a pair of Dandiya sticks for their daughter — discloses that in their railway colony, the Garba used to be organised by a Muslim. Last month, the staff of a well-known Muslim school performed the Garba at their annual day function. Indeed, in Garba competitions held every year in schools and colleges, Muslims are always among the winners. From builder Shafi Memon, who hosted a grand Garba event with his two Hindu partners, to girls in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura, who dance at home to Garba songs on TV, no one can get enough of this festive dance.
So did the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) pick the wrong battle? The organisation issued a diktat to Garba organisers in Gujarat to keep Muslims out. “They object when we play music in front of mosques; they do not believe in idol worship. Then why are they attending our Garba?’’ asked VHP spokesman Ranchhodbhai Bharwad. Bharwad refused to see any distinction between puritanical Muslims and the ordinary Gujarati Muslim for whom Navratri is part of her culture.
Ironically, it is hard-line Muslims who have been strengthened by the VHP diktat. Muslim Garba singers freely admit they perform the Aarti, partake of the Prasad and are considered family by their Hindu gurus, co-artistes and those who invite them. “Those Maulana types who’ve always disapproved of us are now gloating,’’ they say despondently. “They would never dance the Garba anyway; it is people like us, who are proud of our cultural roots, that the VHP wants to push away,’’ they say.
The Sangh Parivar has always accused Muslims of not being part of the mainstream, but it also tries to drive them out of it. This time, though, the mainstream — that too the Gujarati mainstream — has proved resilient. The one place in Ahmedabad where entry to a Garba venue has been free and open to all (elsewhere, you need passes), is the huge GMDC ground, where the Garba is sponsored by the government and inaugurated by the chief minister. It was Narendra Modi who started this practice in 2003 as part of his “Vibrant Gujarat” campaign. DJ Mohsin Shaikh remembers compering the show there one night, flanked by Modi and Amit Shah. It was election season; the leaders had come to ask for votes.
After the 2002 violence, for the decade that he was chief minister, Modi kept the VHP at bay. Its politics didn’t quite fit into his “Vibrant-Gujarat-a-haven-for-investors’’ campaign. With him out of the way, the VHP sees a golden opportunity for a comeback in the
only way it knows. But Gujarat’s Hindus did not buy the VHP’s arguments. “This year too, like every year, all of us office colleagues went for garba together,’’ said Aditi, who works for a radio station. “I’ve often been dropped home afterwards by my Muslim friends. My parents have no objections; in fact, they feel reassured about my safety. Right from my college days, I’ve danced the Garba with Muslim friends; we don’t see this as a Hindu-Muslim issue. We see it as a celebration with friends,’’ she adds.
Yet, the VHP claims their campaign worked. “The fact that you are interviewing me about it is proof of our success — the message has gone to everyone,’’ said Bharwad gleefully. Indeed, the media publicity given to the VHP’s diktat succeeded not just in strengthening hardliners, but also in scaring away quite a few Garba-loving Muslims, despite the government’s announcement that profiling at Garba venues would not be allowed. Only two of Aditi’s Muslim colleagues went with their office group this year.
Former AIR executive S.N. Pathan recounts sadly how he decided not to go for the garba, despite the insistence of his Hindu friend. He was afraid someone in the gathering would object. This is a man who has chosen to send his children to a school known for its emphasis on cultural activities so they would be familiar with their roots. “They may invite us with a smile, but in their hearts, they must be uneasy,’’ sighed an elderly auto-driver. “Why go where you are not welcome?’’
These Muslims might not have stayed away from a festival they consider their own had there been a strong counter-campaign. “Was society paralysed?’’ asks Pathan. “Wasn’t it the responsibility of Gujarati intellectuals to counter the VHP?’’ A few Vadodara groups did issue a statement condemning the VHP call, but no one outside Vadodara got to see it. The media didn’t think it fit for publication.
Jyoti Punwani is a freelance journalist