By J S Bandukwala
August 18, 2012
Despite the continued ghettoisation of Muslims in a polarised Gujarat, the Muslim community in the state has through sheer hard work shown some advances in education and wealth generation. The denial of justice to the victims of the 2002 Gujarat pogroms, despite strenuous efforts by civil society activists and interventions by the higher judiciary, remains a major issue for the community
The Gujarat Muslim population is around 5.5 million, constituting about 10% of the state’s population. The figures are lower than that of states like Assam (31%), West Bengal and Kerala (25%), Uttar Pradesh (18.5%) and Bihar (17%). Yet the spread of Jamaats is most unusual. This is one state where Shia communities, though small in number, have played a vital part in the country. Ithna Ishri Shias are mostly concentrated around Bhavnagar. Though small in number, it was from this community that someone as tall a leader as Mohammad Ali Jinnah emerged. The numbers of the Aga Khan Khojas are equally small, but Azim Premji, the richest Indian Muslim belongs to this community. Similarly, the Dawoodi Bohras number around 0.5 million in Gujarat, but they are highly educated and belong to the upper middle and rich classes. Among the Sunnis, the Memons were the wealthy elite in Saurashtra a hundred years ago. One of them – Dada Abdullah – sponsored the South Africa trip of a young lawyer, who later came to be known as the Mahatma. Similarly another Memon, Abdul Habib Marfani, who had business connections in Rangoon, financed the Indian National Army of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who later, out of gratitude, termed him “Sevak-e-Hind”.
But following Partition these rich and highly educated Muslims migrated from Gujarat, mostly to Pakistan or to western countries. Those who remained were poor and mostly illiterate. The leadership of these communities passed easily into the hands of the ulema, which only compounded the problems of the community. To add to their plight, being a border state, so close to Karachi in Pakistan, a reverse migration also occurred, sharply increasing the communal consciousness of all people in Gujarat. Other than those close to Gandhi and his politics, the political leadership within the state was not sympathetic to Gujarati Muslims. The conditions were ripe for the growth of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the state. It cleverly used this communal polarisation to unite a large section of the Hindus against Muslims. Oddly, when the country was celebrating Gandhi’s birth centenary, and Badshah Khan (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan) was in Gujarat, there were communal riots in the state. Muslims paid a heavy price, as the police, the media, intellectuals and top businessmen collaborated with the government in the whitewashing of or giving a spin on the rapes, killings and destruction in Muslim localities.
This process of polarisation and communalisation continued over the next 33 years, with brief interludes of peace and stability. Gujarat became a fortress of the saffron forces. No wonder top leaders of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) including Atal Behari Vajpayee and L K Advani preferred to contest parliamentary elections from Gujarat, as the urban seats were very safe for them. Even the Gandhian movement, with a few honourable exceptions, began to tilt towards the RSS.
The year 2002 was a structural break for the Muslims in the state. We, the orphans of Partition, suffered severe brutalities during the pogroms in that year. The brutality on our women, particularly the use of Trishuls on their private parts, for rapes and killings will forever remain embedded in our consciousness. Note that these Trishuls were blessed by the Sants of the Swaminarayan sect in public, before distribution to activists and goons belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal.
It was easy for everyone to see that the BJP government under the leadership of Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the RSS were complicit in the pogroms. The VHP president Ashok Singhal praised the killings as “the will of lord Ram”. The Gujarat VHP president, K K Shastri remorselessly admitted, “our boys did it”. The irony was that this person also occupied the post of president of the Gujarat Sahitya Parishad, the highest literary body in the state, a post once presided over by none other than Mahatma Gandhi. This just shows how far Gujarat has fallen as a state. No wonder there is no remorse, no sorrow for the inhuman behaviour that the state experienced during the 2002 pogroms. Rather, every effort has been directed to cover up these gory incidents and prevent justice from being done in Gujarat.
Focus for Muslims
For Gujarat Muslims, the past decade has been difficult, yet extremely fruitful. The Muslim focus has been essentially on four targets: justice for the victims of the 2002 pogroms, quality education for all Muslims, the growth of business and industry to generate wealth, and a constructive political intervention to ensure that Muslims are part of society in Gujarat.
The first purpose has been substantially achieved. For the first time so many non-Muslims have been sentenced to life imprisonment for the killings in 2002. Note that this has not happened in India earlier. Most of the guilty are landed Patels, who have an inexplicable hatred for Muslims. Hopefully these judgments will temper their hatred towards Muslims. The Muslims of Gujarat are deeply grateful to social activists like Teesta Setalvad, who have done yeoman service in trying to secure justice for our community. More important is the role of the Supreme Court, without whose keen concerns, justice would have been impossible in the state, as Chief Minister Narendra Modi was very successful in blunting the power of the lower judiciary and even the high court.
I mention here the manner in which the Nanavati Commission was totally compromised. This retired Supreme Court justice was asked to investigate the riots. Simultaneously, his two sons were appointed as special government prosecutors. This raises the question as to whether Nanavati has done everything possible to protect Modi.
The chances are his final report will never see the light of day, and the commission will last as long as Nanavati lives, and then just fold up. Incidentally the other worthy judge Akshay Mehta won his position by granting bail to the notorious Babu Bajrangi, so that he did not have to spend a single day in jail. This butcher of Naroda Patiya allegedly slashed the pregnant Kausar Banu to death. He was said to then have used a sword to kill and lift the unborn child, proclaiming that he felt like Maharana Pratap. It is to the shame of Narendra Modi and Akshay Mehta that they are viewed as godfathers of Bajrangi.
Progress in the second issue of improvement in the quality of education is remarkable. Until 2002, secular education, particularly for girls, was a low priority for Muslims. Darul Ulooms, the equivalent of a university, were everywhere. South Gujarat had 23 Darul Ulooms, as against just three colleges (that too teaching arts and commerce). Following the incidents of 2002, the community mindset changed totally. Muslims realised that they can never cope with the rise of Hindutva, except with the highest level of education for their children. This decade saw a sharp rise of Muslim schools from 250 to about 700. Zidni Ilma Charitable Trust, a Vadodara-based-body focused on quality education, is currently sponsoring 60 medical and 150 degree engineering students from poor and lower middle class families. These are students who in the pre-2002 period would have never gone to a professional college, due to high costs and also the views of the community. A greater satisfaction is the large increase in girls with excellent academic performance. The community is poised to have a good future. But it pains that the level of education among boys has not risen to the same extent. One needs to question as to why is that the case.
The community has focused on wealth generation. The bias against Muslims is so deep that it is difficult for them to get a government job in Gujarat. At a recent selection of about 980 mamlatdars and equivalent posts, only 24 Muslims were selected. Fortunately, this has led Muslims to seek self-employment. The pressure of competition has forced them to be the best in their fields. No wonder the best car or refrigerator mechanics, electricians or plumbers, fabrication or sofa cover specialists are Muslims. Even in high-skill jobs, Muslims are making a mark. Few know that a defence specialist in radioactive components is a Gujarati Muslim. Nationalised banks have started to open up branches in Muslim areas. Yet the bias persists. While Muslim contribution to bank deposits is about 12% of the total (higher than their proportion in the population), loan disbursals to them are only to the tune of 2.6% of the overall loans. There are no top Gujarati Muslim-led Corporates or big companies. Those who have succeeded in industry like Azim Premji or Habil Khorakiwala of Wockhardt have migrated to other states.
But none can deny the wealth being generated within the community. This is reflected in larger and posher housing societies that were unknown just 10 years ago. Well-structured mosques have also been constructed by the community in many places.
The flip side is the ghettoisation that plagues all Muslim localities in Gujarat. The fear of riots as well as the refusal of non-Muslims to sell real estate to Muslims, has forced the latter into limited areas in every city. There is a sharp rise in population, but with no place for expansion of living spaces. To make matters ugly, the Modi government has deliberately divided Muslim areas into different municipal constituencies, so that a city like Vadodara does not have the possibility of a corporator being elected from the Muslim community. This has resulted in the absence of a voice in the civic bodies that can articulate necessities in the supply of water, road maintenance, garbage removal or street lighting in Muslim-dominated areas. It is sad that once we drive from a Hindu area to a Muslim area, suddenly even the air appears to stink, the roads are bad, and lighting is poor. Water supply per capita has gone down sharply in these areas. No wonder all Muslim areas are ghettos. Yet I am confident that with the increasing wealth distribution, Muslims will convert these ghettos into liveable places.
Finally we cannot ignore political factors. I have believed that Muslims should avoid contesting in elections, as communal polarisation makes it difficult for their respective parties or outfits to win. But Muslims must vote. They must join political parties and express their views as honestly and fearlessly as possible. At the same time let there be no illusions. The sight of mullahs offering their caps to Narendra Modi, or in one case even touching his feet, were plainly disgusting. I wish I could persuade the Bohra Jamaat leaders to move away from such close identification with Modi. After all, the Bohra Syedna claims spiritual descent from Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Husain. Both gave their lives fighting the forces of evil. They never compromised with the truth.
J S Bandukwala had taught physics at MS University, Baroda