By Saeed Khan, Godhra (Gujarat):
This town, infamous for communal clashes before and after India’s independence, would have had a traffic intersection named after Chief Minister Narendra Modi — posterboy of hardline Hindutva according to many — if authorities had their way.
Ironically, the suggestion to do so came from the 18 Muslim councillors of the polarised city that shot into global notoriety for the burning of a train at the station on Feb 27, 2002, and triggered the two-month-long sectarian violence.
However, people in this town, headquarters of the Panchamahals district in the tribal belt on the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border, about 140 km from Ahmedabad, resisted the proposal and the roundabout was finally named Kesri Chowk.
"There was a proposal from all 18 Muslim councillors of the city to name the intersection after Modi," said District Collector D.V. Brahmabhatt.
That way, according to the official, the local Muslims — about 40 percent of the population of about 200,000 — wanted to contribute their bit for communal harmony.
But the residents are weary of having to prove their secularist credentials after the town earned notoriety for the gruesome tragedy at the railway station here exactly four years ago.
A coach of the Ahmedabad-bound Sabarmati Express caught fire, charring to death 59 passengers, many of them activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The incident, according to the state police, was the result of a pre-planned conspiracy of a group of local Muslims. An interim report of an inquiry committee of the railway ministry has, however, called it a technical accident.
The incident sparked state-wide communal violence that claimed 1,169 lives, rendered thousands homeless, with the minority Muslim community bearing the brunt of mob fury, though Hindus too were targeted in many places.
Investigating the train carnage, Gujarat police have detained 105 people – all from this town — under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Clearly, the minority community here then does not want to take chances.
Thus when they condemn the controversial caricatures of Prophet Mohammed, they are also careful to condemn painter M.F. Husain’s controversial "Bharat Mata" (Mother India) paintings.
They offer namaz or prayers for the Indian cricket team when it plays against Pakistan. And a tricolour is unfurled everyday at a busy intersection.
"During the India-Pakistan cricket series (during January-February), more than 300 Muslims offered a special prayer wishing India’s victory.
"The Muslims here have decided to unfurl the national flag daily in Polan Bazar. They even peacefully submitted a memorandum condemning the Prophet’s caricature along with M.F. Husain’s paintings that have hurt Hindu sentiments," Brahmabhatt, the top district administrator, told IANS.
He said the administration, too, was taking fresh initiatives for the welfare of the minority community.
"We have begun (free) tuition classes for standard 10 students in which more than 60 percent beneficiaries are from the Muslim community. Major health awareness drives were carried out in the town for the Muslim women and government officials try their best to bring the communities closer," Brahmbhatt said.
The residents, however, see things very differently from the administration and accuse him of "thrusting the saffron agenda" on them.
Farooq Kesri, a motor vehicle dealer in Polan Bazar who has been entrusted with the responsibility of unfurling the tricolour every day, said: "The collector proposed to rename this chowk (Polan Bazar) after the chief minister, and I was supposed to collect signatures of around 300 people in support of the proposal. But people here didn’t agree."
Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was widely criticised for his handling of the communal violence, with the Supreme Court comparing him with a "modern Nero".
Hussain Sheikh, an old man, quipped: "We don’t agree with the idea of renaming the place. How can one expect the Muslims here to agree to name it after Modi?"
"The collector tried to thrust the saffron agenda," said Iliyas Giteli, the resident of Mithekhan Mohalla near Polan Bazaar.