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Sadbhavna adrift: Wither healing touch?

It was an informal chat perhaps in his office, if I remember correctly, with a group of local scribes. Chief minister Narendra Modi had firmly established himself in saddle after taking over reins of power in October 2001. Unusually informal, Modi would then talk straight, without mincing words. Gujarat riots hadn’t yet taken place. A short discussion ensued on Hindu-Muslim relations. I ask him what he had to say of communal segregation in Ahmedabad. Wasn’t it dangerous that Hindus and Muslims had no interaction, especially after post-Babri 1993 riots? They didn’t know each other at all. Wouldn’t it breed an atmosphere of suspicion? Modi was unimpressed. “What’s so unusual about it?”, he wondered. “Don’t Catholics and Protestants live separately in Northern Ireland? They have separate life styles and values. Community living is an international phenomenon, and one should recognize it as such.”
A decade has passed, and segregation has further solidified. After the 2002 riots, it has geographically spread to rural Gujarat. The North Gujarat village of Sardarpura, where 33 persons were killed in 2002, is in news following conviction of the riots accused. But the deep scars that the riots have left haven’t yet been healed. A social activist tells me, all Muslims living in the village were forced to move out, and while one smaller section, the relatively better off, returned after a while, another, mainly consisting the poor and obviously the majority, still lives in a separate ghetto of riot victims which has emerged post-riots, tens of kilometers away. Things are no different with many other parts of rural Gujarat, where the riots had broken out. Sadbhavna, a new “mission” which Modi has floated, doesn’t seem to touch this scar. May be, he thinks such “community living” in normal and justified.
Not that segregation isn’t there in other cities, whether Delhi or Mumbai. One of my very close friends in Mumbai, who has been a filmmaker and happens to be a Muslim, would ruefully complain to me how he was not allowed to buy up a flat in Lokhandwala area because of his name. Finally, he bought one – but only in the name of his wife, who happens to be a Hindu. In Delhi, the huge Muslim ghettos of Batla House, Zakir Nagar and Nuru Nagar in the Jamia Millia Islamia area, where I spent all of my childhood, sprang up because Muslims living in the rural areas of UP migrated here in search of better living. Segregation, I’m told, has now caught up in the posh areas of the national Capital, too. Hindu house owners in Sukhdev Vihar, where I spent my youth, used to freely rent houses to Muslims. Things have changed now. While Hindus do not allow Muslims in a rented house, Muslims prefer a ghetto as the safe haven.
If experts are to be believed, there is a difference between segregation in Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere in India, and how it took shape in Gujarat. Achyut Yagnik, a keen social scientist, who has studied Ahmedabad’s demography as perhaps no one else, tells me, “Unlike most other towns, Ahmedabad’s segregation is the creation of riots. Juhapura, where between 2.5 and 3 lakh people live, is the biggest Muslim ghetto of its kind in India where the minority community shifted not because of migratory pressure, but frequent riots in the walled city of Ahmedabad.” Ahmedabad’s textile mills had brought three groups of workers together – Dalits, OBCs and Muslims. They lived in their separate chawls, yet interacted amicably. The 1969 riots saw boundaries being demarcated by constructing high walls as a mark of protection. The walls, which were both symbolic and real, kept rising as years passed by. Frequent riots coupled with collapse of textile mills forced Hindus to flee Muslim majority areas, and vice versa. They all moved to separate localities outside Ahmedabad’s walled city. Things reached a peak in 1993 and 2002.
In fact, today, it is difficult to identify a Muslim family living in the entire western Ahmedabad, supposed to be effluent and posh. The Muslims who lived in this region left the area after the post-Babri riots in 1993, just as the Hindus left posh Muslim-majority areas. A Gujarat law, supposedly enacted to stop such movement, prohibits sale of property to the other community. Yet, both find it “safer” to live away from each other. In 1994, I met a top architect, who had a swimming pool in his house. He was forced to leave after his house was attacked and property gutted. He moved to a Muslim ghetto with his Hindu wife, daughter of a textile mill owner. He told me then, “I have enough money to buy the best of house in Ahmedabad. But I can’t. My children are bothered by Tablighi Jamaat preachers. It’s a pain.” More recently, a friend from Delhi saw a plot he wanted to buy up for constructing a house off Ahmedabad. I took him to the office of a builder. Everything appeared settled, till I got a phone call from the builder’s office: “Please tell your friend discreetly, we do not sell plots to Muslims.”


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