//Muslims negotiate cost of peace in Gujarat villages

Muslims negotiate cost of peace in Gujarat villages

Neelesh Misra

Sunderna, Gujarat, November 3, 2006Hindustan Times

In a few months, it will be five years since Shakil Bhai last heard the call of the muezzin from the mosque by his village pond.

In a few months, it will be five years since the life of the gentle grocer and his community changed.

On March 1, 2002, as religious fury raged through Gujarat and hundreds fell to daggers and bullets, his family fled, barefoot, from their home in Sunderna, 75 km southeast of Ahmedabad.

Rioters vandalised his grocery shop and home, and burnt down his lucrative kerosene depot. The four minarets of the village mosque were smashed and the dargah, or mausoleum, of a locally revered priest was severely damaged. The dargaah has since been repaired with donations, but the mosque remains without a head.

"Yes, there were massacres and there was looting, but one has to move on,” said Shakil Bhai, 26. Seated on a bag of flour in his renovated shop, he added, “We have returned. But the village elders said ‘if you don’t compromise, you cannot stay here’. Now there is no azaan,” he said.

The grocer’s tale resounds with thousands of Gujarati Muslim families, especially in many of the 16 districts worst-hit by the 2002 riots.

Business-like Gujarat knows its deal-making and give-and-take. For thousands, the business of India’s deadliest religious riots in six decades has been settled. Muslims who returned to many Hindu-majority villages after the 2002 riots are rebuilding their lives. But they must learn to live often on harsh terms.

Muslims in many villages have given up azaan, or the call to prayers from mosques. In others, they cannot openly sell meat, and must observe festivals with a low profile. Most significantly, a large number of Muslims have had to withdraw criminal cases they had brought against fellow villagers, a necessary condition for their return.

Across Sunderna, where bare-chested children play with cackling roosters, the sharp edges of the divide are somewhat rounded off. “They mind their business, we mind ours. No fighting. But we don't often go towards their houses. It is not like the old times,” said Manibhai Patel, 45, as he drove past the village's damaged mosque.

Gujarat has a history of religious riots, but the 2002 massacre was the most brutal, spilling over to many of the state’s 18,000 villages.

Even four years on, “The whole system is wrapped up in this compromise business,” said Preeta Jha, state coordinator of voluntary group Nyayagraha.

As HT discovered, deals are still underway, brokered by village heads and sometimes local officials.

‘Cross-cases’ are a recent dimension: Complainants in riot cases are being prosecuted for minor offences. Both sides agree to drop charges simultaneously in ‘compromises’.

In Sunderna, Shakil’s family discovered that his father, Mohammed Bhai, had been charged with stealing a Krishna statue from a nearby temple. The family denies the charge.

Nonetheless, both sides withdrew charges and an official compromise in Gujarati was signed: “We shall live together in peace. We shall not create any trouble for each other.”

That last sentence could have a thousand interpretations, so the family has taken precautions and kept a low profile. They do not talk to most people in the village, they do not slaughter animals on their festivals, and they don’t harangue Hindu customers for long-pending grocery payments.

“There is a grudging acceptance that Muslims have to keep their heads down and keep a low profile,” said activist Gagan Sethi, member of a monitoring committee formed by the National Human Rights Commission.

The government says things are close to normal in the villages. "There are no signals that there is any fear, though minor tensions continue,” said the state’s junior Home Minister Amit Shah.

“I am not claiming that there is no communal tension, but it is not of a nature that will prevent the two communities from living with each other."

Human rights activists say more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in the riots; the government says the number was about 1,300. Human rights groups say more than two lakh Muslims were affected.

The mesh of litigation and the social divide still runs deep. Sayeed Miyan Qazi, a grocer and the head priest of Napa village, says he fled his home leaving behind his property after the men who were trying to protect him – from the state’s Special Reserve Police Force (SRP) – were themselves assaulted and wounded by mobs. Before leaving, he filed a First Information Report in the local police station about the arson.

Soon after reaching a relief camp in Vasad village where he now lives, Qazi was told that local police had charged him with firing from the mosque roof at the crowds below. But SRP personnel testified in court that he was not at the site when the firing allegedly occurred. A verdict is expected shortly.

In the meantime, "There are severe lifestyle changes – and livelihood has been affected. Their economic spine has been broken,” said Jha of Nyayagraha.

In the centre of Sunderna, by an old temple, one man said what is rarely heard in Gujarat's villages. “Whatever happened was very wrong. It should not have happened,” said Mambhai Melabhai Solanki, 41, the village headman. “If I was the sarpanch then, I would definitely not have let it happen.”

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