VADODARA: Dr JS Bandukwala, a former Physics professor at MS University in India, has always been the face of dignity in the face of immense personal suffering, reports Times of India. He lost his home when it was attacked by mobs during the 2002 post Godhra riots, his long time neighbors slammed doors in his face, he was shunned by his university colleagues and made a victim of a witch-hunt. Yet Bandukwala is marked by a singular lack of bitterness and today runs a charitable educational trust for Muslim youth. While the 2002 riots were once a volatile issue in Gujarat polls, in this election the riots are a non-issue and Gujarat’s 10% Muslim community as a whole is invisible in the polls. “Muslims are isolated and have been made politically redundant,” says Bandukwala. “But our irrelevance is not a bad thing. We are being left alone even though Modi fights elections best when he makes Muslims the target. Modi needs a Muslim target, but this time the Gujarati Muslims are lying low.”
So have Gujarat’s Muslims grown numbed by the attacks on them and do they not raise their voices anymore? “Muslims are keeping their cards close to their chest and keeping quiet,” says businessman Zubair Gopalani. “We are teaching our community to turn away from hate, to love Hindus as our brothers and work for development.”
After 2002, the community has turned inwards, focusing on education and trying to rebuild businesses. “We are keeping quiet, doing our work and being happy in our irrelevance,” says businessman TA Siddiqi. “Neglect is good, all we ask is humko chain se jeene de [Let us live in peace].”
Feroze Ansari and Pervez Misarwalla are IT professionals who have started a group called Rising Indians to bring Muslims into the mainstream and train them in leadership skills. However, they’re hurt by government discrimination. “When we do public spirited works like providing water to traffic police in summer, the government does not send us certificates the way they do with Hindu bodies.”
In the Muslim locality of Tandalja, many complain about lack of infrastructure, schools and playgrounds. Recently, 1,800 hutments were demolished here. “The police still comes and picks up innocent Muslim youth on flimsy charges,” says Imran Patel.
Gujarat’s Muslims are completely ghettoized across riot-hit cities such as Vadodara and Ahmedabad. Rich and poor cluster together in designated localities, the Disturbed Areas Act preventing Hindus or Muslims from buying property in each others’ areas without the permission of the administration.
Pointing to the fact that many private schools reuse to take “M class” students, Pervez Misarwalla of Rising Indians believes Muslims need to create their own schools and colleges. “Across UP and Maharashtra, there are many Muslim institutions but almost none in Gujarat.” He adds that there are many Muslim IAS and IPS officers in Gujarat but they are sidelined and marginalized.
In Tandalja, posh bungalows adjoin slum colonies, multi-storied buildings are neighbors with low cost housing. “My daughters get upset when they hear the bad language being spoken in slums next to us, but we have no place to move to,” says Siddiqi. Yet many say things have changed for the better. “2002 was a blessing for Muslims in a way,” says entrepreneur and educationist Saira Khan. “Muslims gave up on liquor trade and other such activities and turned squarely to education. Today, for Gujarati Muslims, it’s education, education, education that’s our focus.”
How do Muslims feel when BJP leaders continue to target them in speeches? “We feel hurt,” says Bandukwala. “But we are so used to it by now. In this election, Muslims are keeping quiet and refusing to be provoked.” He says the only way forward is refusing to react even when threatened. “We counsel our community not to act in rage, not to hit back, because this only inflames the situation,” says Gopalani.
Counters Imran, “But if they misbehave with my Muslim sister should I just sit back and take it?” Counsels Siddiqi. “Let’s use the courts, use the police. Ek chup, sau bala tali: [One moment of silence can solve a lot of problems].”
Interestingly, the Congress too has chosen to stay silent on any issue that might flare up a Hindu-Muslim tangle. “The Congress talks of looking after our interests but in reality they are much too scared to raise their voice. It’s now all about who gets the Hindu vote,” says engineering student Pervaiz Sadiq.
Only two Muslim MLAs were elected in the last assembly elections of 2012 and for decades a Gujarati Muslim has not gone to Parliament. But Muslims here say they prefer a peaceful irrelevance than a potentially conflictual struggle for political space. Gujarat’s post-2002 ghettoisation is complete.
Story first published: 6th December 2017