Neelesh Misra, Hindustan Times ,
Ahmedabad, November 5, 2006
At a huge public rally in Surat last year, where Muslims had assembled to denounce Chief Minister Narendra Modi, filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt read out from an Islamic text, exhorting them to reach out to, and even reconcile with, perpetrators of violence.
Within days, Bhatt said, Modi called him and offered to hold conciliatory discussions with the Muslim leadership. Bhatt conveyed this to the leaders of the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind, the well known Islamic organisation which had organised the Surat rally.
After long discussions, they rejected the offer.
"It is something that still troubles me. Are we interested in harnessing suffering and using it as fuel for political goals, or are we interested in resolving problems?" Bhatt told the Hindustan Times. He called the attitude "a ghetto of the mind".
The Jamiat's general secretary Mehmood Madani was travelling and could not be contacted for comment.
The Gujarat government and Hindu nationalists have been the target of civil rights' groups since the 2002 Gujarat riots.
But now some people are speaking out on what Muslims too, could have done differently to heal the state's great social divide.
More than 200,000 Muslims were displaced from their homes after the riots, according to reports by voluntary groups. Most of them have returned home, although they live subdued lives in villages where Hindus are in the majority.
But 26,000 Muslims have refused to return. They stay in squalid clusters of two-room concrete houses built for them by NGOs in many districts.
They said they feared they would be attacked again. But some wonder whether that fear is real or imagined — because things have changed in Gujarat on the law-and-order front.
"We see a difference in the functioning of police. They do not let minor conflicts flare up. If you call them, they arrive quickly and sort out troubles," said social activist Rais Khan Pathan of the NGO, Citizens for Justice and Peace.
Still, the past few years have witnessed the climax of decades of geographical segregation along religious lines in Ahmedabad, the state's largest city. So Muslims mostly live in a few large neighbourhoods like Juhapura. Local residents said there were thousands who had not ventured out of these neighbourhoods for years.
Their markets, religious schools and relatives were all in the same enclosed areas.
"Going back to your own people is a very dangerous trend. It will give a free hand to anti-social elements," said Pathan in an interview at his office, surrounded by files relating to some 13,000 cases of property destruction during the riots.
Gujarat's 45 lakh Muslims form just over 9 per cent of the state's population, according to the 2001 Census.
On most counts, including sex ratio, literacy, female literacy and work participation, they fare better than the national average for all religions. Still, the community is getting far more inclusive now.
"They are clinging to their identity. More children wear skullcaps than ever before," said Gagan Sethi, a local activist.
The self-imposed social exclusion could have a far-reaching impact. Many Muslim children in Juhapura — home to an estimated 3 lakh Muslims — might have never met a Hindu child.
"This mentality is creating a deeply negative impact, especially on the youth," said Khalid Rashid, member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. "We have to reach out to each other. We cannot go on blaming governments."