When Black turned Red

[Warning: Long Post]

Ahmedabad - Panorama from West side. (Picture courtesy wikipedia)
Ahmedabad – Panorama from West side. (Picture courtesy wikipedia)

Ahmedabad.

Pronounced locally as “Amdavad” (similar to “Calcutta” being pronounced “Kolkata”. ), Ahmedabad is a city which is to Gujarat what Mumbai is to India, a city previously known as “Manchester of the East” due to its once booming textile industry, a city which represents both business and busy-ness of Gujarat; a city which was established by a Muslim sultan, but currently inhabited by a Hindu majority. The river Sabarmati divides the city into two distinct parts: Eastern Ahmedabad or old Ahmedabad, with its congested localities and roads-with a concentration of most of Ahmedabad’s Muslim population, along with Hindu locals. It is also the centre of traditional business and the location of the city’s biggest markets. Western Ahmedabad is the opposite, with its malls, restaurants, gardens, coffee shops, call centers and posh localities. Dominated by Hindu population, the only areas in the west which have significant Muslim populations are Sarkhej, Paldi and Juhapura, both on the outskirts of the city.

It is the city where I was born and spent 22 years of my life-till my job forced me to move to Bangalore.

Riots and Ahmedabad do have a history. When I was a kid, I heard frequent news reports of riots breaking out in the eastern city, historically the epicenter of Hindu-Muslim enmity in Ahmedabad since the 1960’s. Areas like Kalupur, Jamaalpur, Daryapur, Shah-I-Baugh, Naroda, and Maninagar were quite infamous-especially amongst Hindus, and I do remember my father discussing among my other relatives to avoid these places during all major Hindu festivals. The famous Kankaria Lake was to be avoided during Fridays, for obvious reasons. Outbreaks of stone-pelting and curfew were routine those days and yet, quite ironically, business between Hindus and Muslims continued unabated after those temporary irritants had passed. It was a part of life in Ahmedabad as much as nine days of Navratri.

I do remember that there was a little precursor to the horror. Just a week before the Godhra carnage, this had happened, which I watched with some curiousness on Doordarshan in the evening news that night. And when the actual brutality in Godhra took place, there was a strong suspicion in my mind that it, quite possibly, had its inspirations in Egypt. Anyhow, when it did happen, the first reaction, obviously, was of shock and anger. VHP and BJP called for a bandh the next day, and all the shops were forcibly closed in early morning itself. The atmosphere was unusually charged across the entire city, different from those days of routine unrest in eastern Ahmedabad.

I was preparing for my SSC (10th standard) exams late afternoon that day, having a leisurely stroll on the terrace. Faint shouts from a group of people were heard somewhere from the east, and turning around I saw a trace of thick, dark smoke erupting in a slum (known amongst my community for having a dense, uneducated Muslim population). I remember a gentleman coming home for a daily evening tea, and casually saying-“Have bahu thayu. A wakhate aa loko ne saaf kari naakhva joyiye. (Enough is enough. These people should be cleansed out this time around. )”. It had started.

And start it did even though the declared bandh did not last long. As for me and others of my generation the most important news was that the exams had been postponed. And yes, the eastern Ahmedabad was to be avoided at all costs, according to my parents. Local news papers too played their part, not shying away from reporting gory details and even some inflammatory news-for example mentioning that Godhra actually had a ‘Karachi colony’, a subtle message open for interpretation. I remember a picture of a burnt body of a child on the front page of a prominent news paper one morning, with the following humanitarian caption-“Is this what we want?”. Direct references to the communities were avoided, replaced by subtle ones; a Hindu was referred to as-“vyakti” (person in Gujarati) while a Muslim as-“Isam”(person in Urdu). Right on cue, a lot of rumors had started doing rounds, most notable of them was one that was about a group of women from that ill fated train in Godhra jumping off and getting abducted by a bunch of rioters. Masjids with loud speakers, Temples and Slums were the first to be targeted.

As was the case all these years, people who both did and face the maximum damage were from the lower sections of the society. The gentleman who visited our house one evening for a cup of tea, said-“Aapni maate ladai to lower caste naa loko e kari chhe sheher maa. (It is the lower caste that has fought for us in the city. )”.

Roads in Kalupur-a place of City’s biggest cloth market during happy days-now bore a strange sight, riddled with blood and stones. A day later, out of curiosity, I had lied to my parents and wandered off on my bicycle to tankshal road from Lal Darvaja (entrance to Kalupur) I was unfortunate enough to stumble upon a corpse of a boy (presumably Muslim) crowded by a group of Muslims, but fortunate enough not to have been recognized by them as I drove off quickly. When I remember it today, I remember that feeling of fear, of being recognized as a Hindu, of my heart-beat quickening.

A week later, that gentlemen, while having an evening tea said-“e aa loko ne seedha kari nakhshe. (‘He’ will straighten these Muslims out. )”. To be frank, there was no him or his representative out there on the roads nor any shred of evidence of him being involved, baying for blood, but when madness reigns, burden of proof goes for a toss; and it was supposedly comforting for some to assume that power of the administration was with them. It did change though, when few days later army was called and the city slipped into an uneasy calm; at least for a while, waiting for aftershocks.

My uncle worked in LIC, and one day, was told by a female Muslim colleague-“Tame amaaru kalu karyu, ame tamaaru laal karishu. (You painted ours in black; we will paint yours in red. )”.

If round one of the horror was about burnings, round two started with stabbings-which according to my relatives was the specialty of the ‘other side’; mostly carried out by mobs on unsuspecting business men and college students. I was too scared to wander off this time around, but did hear about two elderly Hindu gentlemen getting hacked to death near Idgah. One afternoon, I and my parents had to go and console one of my neighbors. In a completely disheveled and shocked state, he and his wife told us what had happened with him when he went on to meet his factory manager-a Muslim-in Jamaalpur. Halfway across a stone-ridden, deserted street, he was apparently spotted by a teenage Muslim boy, who asked his name and shouted it loud-inviting maniacs carrying swords and knives. The poor guy received some token bruises, but managed to run off barefoot-zigzagging across a few congested localities for some 20-minutes, hiding temporarily inside a closed bank building. Just a day ago, my grandfather had a worried phone call with my uncle in Paldi (another area with significant populations from both sides), who said that they had decided to stay awake for the whole night after hearing shouts of-“Islam khatre mein hai! (Islam is in Danger! )”. Residents of most of the localities across Ahmedabad had made a routine of taking turns to keep night time watch on their respective gates with lathis, knives and metal rods.

My Ahmedabad had become a city of enemies.

The madness continued sporadically for a few months, quite horrifically, even after the dates of board exams were finally announced. Perhaps it was emblematic of the tragedy that the last victim of the blood bath-one that was triggered far away in Godhra-was actually a class 12 Muslim student going to attend his Physics examination in Surat. Hearing this, the gentleman, who accompanied my grandfather daily for an evening tea, who had earlier talked about teaching lessons to Muslims, surprised us by saying-“A kharaab chhe. Ek waar chamatkar dekhadi didho etle bahu thayu. (This is bad. Whatever had happened the first time around was enough. )”. The popular mood for now was stopping and realizing what had happened … and what was left after it did.

What summed up the venom coursing through veins, ironically, was what I saw in a local newspaper much later after the riots had ended, on the day of elections in Gujarat in 2002-a huge advertisement by a prominent right wing organization (not BJP), featuring a photocopy of a press release by a local Masjid, asking Muslims to vote for a certain party. The advertisement had a question, presumably for Hindus-“Now you decide who you will vote for. ”

Years have gone by, and being in a rapidly progressing state means you have a number of things to be happy about. It also helps that there have been no riots since the horror of 2002. There is still a fear that if a certain political party comes to power, Ahmedabad will again experience those routine riots it did for some many years preceding 2002. Whenever there is a news report on the riots in 2002, there is certain anger-“Why do they never show atrocities committed by the ‘other side’? Why do they not talk about Assam?”. My parents still have a few Muslim friends and co-workers, although what happened in 2002 is never mentioned. The ghost of 2002 is still present at the back of our minds, but we do not let it run riot on the streets. In a way, a lot has changed for us, no more routine riots in the east, no more routine curfews, something we did not grow up with.

Some say it was necessary, to ‘pay back’ for other atrocities, some say it exposed Ahmedabad’s dark underbelly, some say it was just another riot amongst countless others. Almost all avoid discussing it.

Not exactly our moment of glory, you see.

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