By Mohammed Wajihuddin
Nov 24, 2013
Bright prayer mats are the only thing that lend colour to Zafar Sareshwala's otherwise spartan Mumbai home. Five times a day, Sareshwala — who is a member of the Tablighi Jamaat, a puritanical strand of Islam — lays these mats down for Namaaz, and says prayer inspires the "important mission" he is called upon to perform — a spirited defence of Narendra Modi.
The 50-year-old bearded businessman has become a familiar face on TV news debates and is the go-to person for journalists looking for a byte from a rare breed — a Muslim supporter of the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.
Considered one of Modi's trusted backroom boys, he is said to have the Gujarat chief minister on speed dial, predictably earning brickbats for "backstabbing" community members who oppose Modi's Hindutva ideology. But Sareshwala, whose family hails from Ahmedabad, maintains that engagement with Modi and the BJP is the only way forward for the Muslims of Gujarat. "Muslims cannot remain isolated from a party which has been in power in Gujarat for so long, and Modi should not remain untouchable forever. Permanent animosity against a political party and its prime ministerial candidate will not help improve the community's condition," he explains.
Sareshwala's own leap of faith has been a long one — back in 2002, he was among Modi's fiercest critics though the only losses he suffered during the 2002 Gujarat riots were financial. A mechanical engineering graduate and expert in Islamic finance and banking, he was working in England at the time, but Parsoli Corp, an Islamic investment company he had set up in Ahmedabad with his two younger brothers, incurred losses of Rs 3.8 crore. Their industrial valve manufacturing factory was also burnt down, and the wealthy Sareshwalas, once among the largest Zakat (charitable tax) donors in the community, found themselves in dire straits.
Back in the UK, Sareshwala joined a group of activists planning a suit against Modi in the UN-affiliated International Court of Justice. He even contemplated moving his family to England. Ironically, it was Modi who made him rethink his plan. "Kya Wahan Angrezon Ki Ghulami Karte Rahoge. (How long will you serve the British?) You are needed in India," Modi had said to him during a phone conversation in 2005.
Earlier, in 2003, Sareshwala and London-based Islamic scholar Maulana Isha Mansoori had a long meeting with Modi to thrash out differences. He claims the Koran and the Prophet's traditions, his two main guides, did not stop him from engaging with enemies. "The Prophet signed Sulah Hudaibiyah, a seemingly humiliating treaty, with the then pagan Meccans who had oppressed him and his followers. This is the example that I follow and want my fellow Muslims to follow too," says the businessman, who returned to Ahmedabad with a two-pronged task — strengthening his family financially and providing help to his community.
A BMW dealership that his brother acquired while rebuilding the family's finances has led Sareshwala's critics to label his proximity to Modi "sheer opportunism". "I have no problem if Sareshwala has made peace with Modi only because of his business. But after capitulating to a tyrant, he is now collaborating with him to make India a Hindu Rashtra where minorities, especially Muslims, will be second-class citizens," says Javed Anand, secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy (MSD) and co-editor of Communalism Combat. Human rights activist Shabnam Hashmi says Sareshwala has sided with Modi to "serve his own interests", but director Mahesh Bhatt, a supporter of Sareshwala and other riot victims, is more dispassionate. "Zafar is my frenemy. I am friends with him despite my fundamental dislike of his politics," he says. Does Bhatt believe his frenemy's claim of befriending Modi to ensure Muslim grievances are addressed? "I will believe that the day he (Sareshwala) stands with me in the house of Ishrat Jahan's mother," says the director.
Sareshwala, who receives loads of hate mail and is frequently referred to as 'Mir Sadiq' and 'Mir Jaffer', historical figures who betrayed their community to help the British, is unfazed by criticism. His grouse is against "publicity-hungry" activists who pretend to side with the community. "Funds were being collected to fight court cases but the Muslims in Gujarat were completely isolated. There was no one who would talk to Modi on their behalf," he claims. His family, including his three children, supports his stance and Sareshwala says his father, who died last month, advised him to stand his ground.